“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” - Mahatma Gandhi
President John Kennedy inspired a nation with these words at his inauguration: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” It was a clarion call for public service and young Americans flocked to the President’s newly created Peace Corps to offer American expertise and innovation in developing parts of the world. In more recent times, young Americans volunteered for the military in droves responding to horrific attack killing thousands of Americans in NYC on 9/11.
Today, government service appears to have lost some of its’ appeal. The old joke that I’m from the government and I’m here to help you has been taken more seriously. The role of government at all levels impacting ordinary Americans has and will continue to be debated in America. For some, it’s already too intrusive and for others it is not doing enough to solve society’s problems. It’s not always perfectly implemented either. But what of the value of public service itself and the people who perform those functions dictated by law?
Let’s start with the simple truth. Why would anyone teach school, serve in the military during a time of conflict, or spend countless hours working with private sector folks to develop a vaccine to mitigate COVID-19? They want to make a difference. They want to contribute to something bigger than themselves. Service to the public enables that sense of calling. We need to thank, encourage, and applaud this service. Without effective government there is no private prosperity. We need as the Constitution outlined in 1787, a government that “provides for the common good” and people who find rich satisfaction in doing that work.
Author Scott Galloway argues that good government can be efficient. He suggests a family making $60,000 and paying $10,000 in taxes could never assemble a package for that price of fire protection, public schools, environmental protections, police, national security, etc. Add to that a vaccine. Galloway says that during WWII some 120,000 people worked successfully on the Manhattan project finding the vaccine for tyranny. America, he says, “isn’t what it is, but what we make of it.”
For years, I served as Superintendent of Schools in New Concord, Ohio, the hometown of Senator John Glenn. John Glenn visited our high school many times to talk with students often about his career of public service, first as a marine jet fighter pilot in two wars and later part of the initial astronaut corps in America. He always encouraged students to consider a life of public service and attributed his own interest to his high school government teacher in New Concord. He modeled public service par excellence.
Israel, where national service is required of 18-year-olds, attributes part of its’ robust economy, national pride, and the problem-solving ability of its’ young people to this mandate. What if America required the same of its’ 18-year-olds for a year to serve America in some fashion, not excluding or ever limiting that service to military only? Think of it as an early rent payment to live in our country of so many opportunities made possible by others who spent lifetimes of service. Assist in some way with developing our common good.
Finally, to those public servants who make sure traffic laws are enforced, our water is safe, and the list goes on and on—on behalf of 330 million of your fellow Americans —thank you for your public service.