The case for compulsory public service

It occurred to me recently that as citizens we seldom discuss the requirements of a healthy social fabric which is essential for a democracy. We somehow expect miracles from our governments while the most we expect from ourselves as citizens is to vote every four years and pay our taxes.The working assumption is that improving a democracy is either impossible or the job of politicians. Everybody else can just chill back and watch Netflix videos. I’m not sure this can continue.

Perhaps it’s unfair to use the term ‘everybody’. After all a significant fraction of the US and UK population volunteer in some form at least once month. However, this fraction is still smaller than 30% in both the UK and USA. What if less than 30% of the population paid taxes?

At this point, you might wonder what difference can volunteering make? I’ll get to that point but first allow me to share an observation I’ve made while visiting many small towns around Britain.

In each town I would talk to people of all ages including elderly British people who would invariably complain about how the internet has changed their community. A particularly pernicious consequence of the internet culture is that it has allowed society to become transactional to the detriment of important social bonds. Where in the pre-internet era there might have been lively conversations between shopkeepers and customers, today people might get whatever they need on Amazon or have their supermarket goods home-delivered.

This results in social fragmentation which makes the notion of ‘shared values’ farcical. As a result, the populations of Europe and the USA are not only socially stratified in the present, but their future expectations of society are that socioeconomic divisions will deepen. Now, I believe that community service can offer an important partial solution to this problem. In particular, I believe that weekly community service should be a precondition for citizenship.

Personally, I’ve been helping kids learn programming for free at Prewired on a weekly basis but that’s just one way of building a sense of community that isn’t socially stratified in its outlook. I think a lot more needs to be done and the only way for a sense of community to be restored within cities is if every citizen acknowledged the importance of volunteering once a week within their community.

I understand that a lot of people will try to resist this idea. Many will complain that they are too busy. People will try to find all sorts of excuses and argue that there are bigger issues. It’s my fear that people will look for excuses until Western democracies become polarised beyond repair.

Note: I have a lot of respect for the DiEM25 movement led by Yanis Varoufakis and it’s my belief that community service is a necessary complement for this ambitious agenda.

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