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A major mistake in an, otherwise, powerful State of the Union Address

March 1, 2002


I was inspired while listening to the President’s State of the Union speech. Our president has truly “arisen to the occasion,” as my late mother would say when someone stepped up and did what is right. The war on terrorism (or a war against those peoples that want to destroy America, i.e., you and me and our children) was an appropriate amount (about one half) of the address. I found myself clapping in the warmth of our den at the decisiveness and the clarity of his vision. About two thirds of the way into it, President Bush began a part of his speech that appeared to address a point I feel very strongly about – the responsibilities we citizens have to our society.

“ For too long our culture has said, ‘If it feels good, do it.’  Now America is embracing a new ethic and a new creed: ‘Let's roll.’ In the sacrifice of soldiers, the fierce brotherhood of firefighters, and the bravery and generosity of ordinary citizens, we have glimpsed what a new culture of responsibility could look like.  We want to be a nation that serves goals larger than self.  We've been offered a unique opportunity, and we must not let this moment pass.”

I am now moving to the front of my chair in anticipation of standing and clapping. (Thankfully, my wife is use to this behavior.)

“My call tonight is for every American to commit at least two years…”

I am now pushing off from the arm rests of the chair, straightening my legs.

“… -- 4,000 hours over the rest of your lifetime -- to the service of your neighbors and your nation.   Many are already serving, and I thank you.”

I am suspended in mid-rise, perplexed by the “over the rest of your lifetime” phrase.

If you aren't sure how to help, I've got a good place to start.  To sustain and extend the best that has emerged in America, I invite you to join the new USA Freedom Corps.  The Freedom Corps will focus on three areas of need:  responding in case of crisis at home; rebuilding our communities; and extending American compassion throughout the world.”

Thunk! I am back in the chair, silent. What I hoped the President was about to say I will address in a future column. What he did say I address in this one.

President Bush added two sentences later “Our country also needs citizens working to rebuild our communities.” This is the only sentence in this section of the speech with which I agree. Volunteers are the cement that makes local communities work. Much of the local news in our thrice-weekly local newspaper are stories of local citizens making the community a bit better through volunteer activities. All done because good people see a need.  Not because of any city, county, state, or federal legislation.  My concern is that USA Freedom Corps (just like Bill Clinton’s sop to the Kennedy liberals – AmeriCorps) nationalizes a key element of our society – local commitment to making communities better. To paraphrase one of my conservative icons - Robert Nisbet in his book Prejudices, A Philosophical Dictionary – the left more often than not has declared capitalism the culprit in the destruction of communities. But the truth is, the political state (i.e., government), by its incessant centralization and bureaucratization of power, has done more than capitalism to effect this destruction.  I am afraid USA Freedom Corps is an example of the latter. Let me explain why.

The federalization of solutions for key issues, e.g., race problems, poverty, workplace safety, (usually by liberals from FDR through LBJ and BJ Clinton) in our country in the past has produced disastrous results. Walter Williams recently stated “But for 50 years, the well-meaning leftist agenda (i.e. a federalized civil rights agenda – my words) has been able to do to blacks what Jim Crow and harsh discrimination could never have done: family breakdown, illegitimacy and low academic achievement…. What's worse is that too many black people either go along with it or sit in silence….” Charles Murray and Patrick Moynihan have clearly connected the growth of the welfare state/ “Great Society” with the destruction of community in the very groups of people they were designed to help! Murray can also document the steady improvement of workplace safety before OSHA and the lack of rate of change in the improvement of workplace safety after OSHA came into existence.

Human nature says that a key requirement we all have to make our lives meaningful is to belong to something and do something that makes a difference in our lives and our family’s lives. As the welfare state took over the welfare of the poor and disadvantaged, churches, historically key local providers to the less fortunate in the community, saw their attendance decline. Why? The intrinsic value of church membership – needing to do something good for those local folks that need a helping hand – was greatly reduced by giving the job to an inflexible bureaucracy. We have developed an attitude about community issues that says “leave me alone, I pay taxes so the government will take care of it.” This insidious “go along with it or sit in silence” gives us more time to be a couch potato while watching 82 TV channels, take exotic vacations, run ultra marathons, build walls around our planned communities, to live vicariously (because our lives are so empty of real involvement) through celebrities who’s lives are solely products of professional image makers, make inactivity and the resulting obesity a major healthy problem, experiment with alternative life styles, etc., thus further de-humanizing our lives.

The USA Freedom Corps idea, like the Civil Rights and the Great Society legislation of the 1960’s, is well meaning and on the surface appears to be the right thing to do. It is not. Local volunteerism is the fiber that makes local communities successful and gives those of us that live and participate in local communities a strong feeling of belonging. A federalized volunteer program will, in very subtle and covert ways over time, destroy that fiber.

NOTE: In my last column, “A new education focus: results matter, not efforts!”, I made an error in describing one of the points of the Bush education bill. There are no voucher provisions as I originally stated (and for which I am very disappointed). They were removed in conference. Another reason Ted Kennedy was all smiles, I am sure. The corrected column is now in the RightTurns.com archive. Thanks to reader Sam Lubell for catching it.


Sam T. Harper graduated cum laude from Vanderbilt University.  Following a tour in the US Navy and a stint as Operations Manager at Roadway Express, he earned his MBA from Stanford University Graduate School of Business.  He was a contributor to “In Search of Excellence,” the best selling business book of all time.  Sam was also Manager, Economic Planning & Analysis at Sohio Petroleum, Partner and Chief Financial Officer at investment-banking firm Bridgemere Capital, and Chief Operating Officer of the Institute for Contemporary Studies, a San Francisco Bay Area-based think tank and international publishing firm that specializes in self-governing and entrepreneurial public policy.  Sam was a chairman of the San Francisco Republican party and the GOP co-host of California Political Review on KALW-FM in San Francisco.  Sam is currently the co-owner of the Tennessee based Institute for Local Effectiveness Training, LLC – a management consulting, training, and coaching firm.