In a column earlier this month in TownHall by Ross Mackenzie, Mackenzie issues a call for mandatory universal service for America’s youth. “Compulsory universal service–one year with an eight-week military component, men and women, no exceptions except for physical or mental incapacity–would work miracles for this beleaguered nation’s heart and soul.” Mackenzie quotes Ted Sorensen, John Kennedy’s former speechwriter, addressing young people: “For at least part of your life, part of the time, give something back to this country. Put service ahead of self. Try it. You’ll like it.”

Oh, really? Put service ahead of self? Rather than save the nation’s heart and soul, I think compulsory universal service would destroy it.

I say America is about the individual’s right to his “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.” That more or less means the birthright of every American is the right to live one’s life for one’s own sake–freedom comes first. Yet you can’t live your life for your own sake and simultaneously put “service ahead of self.” There is no such thing as part-time slavery.

So why then do many conservatives support something that is tantamount to part-time slavery? Why do they believe the pursuit of one’s happiness somehow erodes the national soul? They believe this because at root, they believe in altruism; that is, the sacrifice of one’s life for the sake of others. By that standard, when a young person pursues his one interest, he fails to pursue the national interest.

So it’s not individual freedom that a conservative seeks to defend, but some kind of American nationalism with freedom only as a veneer. This explains why conservatives do such a miserable job defending capitalism–they ultimately reject its moral foundation.

In his column, Mackenzie points out that enlistment rates in the armed forces are in decline. He attributes that to a defect in the American character, much like Jimmy Carter attributed the so-called “malaise” of the 1970’s to a similar defect. America is too self-interested and unwilling to sacrifice enough.

Yet there is a point that causes a conservative’s head to explode–defending freedom is in one’s selfish interest. How can one fail to defend their freedom if they value it? How can a person go though their life and say, “I value my right to live by my own judgment and for my own sake, but when that right is threatened, I will do nothing to defend it?” One can’t, and the history of America speaks to this truth.

Worse, it never dawns on Mackenzie that perhaps the reduction of enlistments in the armed forces has more to do with the lack of leadership in the war against militant Islam than any weakness in the national fiber. The White House doesn’t even have the honesty to admit who America’s enemies really are, and yet somehow America’s youth is supposed to line up to fight a cause its leaders don’t even understand.

Give me a break. The problems in America are not due to its youth falling to volunteer to change the bedpans of the terminally ill or not wanting to be drafted into the military. The problems in America are due to its leaders not having a clue what freedom is, or what an objectively defined individual right is, or what the proper mission of government is. This is an intellectual leadership problem. Conservatives are no help in this fight, and as Mackenzie evidences, they do nothing but threaten our freedoms and retard the proper understanding of America.

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Nicholas Provenzo

Nicholas Provenzo is founder and Chairman of the Center for the Advancement of Capitalism.

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