Giving Thanks

James J. Kilpatrick

November 24, 1990|By James J. Kilpatrick

CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA — Charleston, South Carolina.---HOW SHALL WE give thanks for our Constitution, our freedoms, our good land and productive economic system? We pay taxes, of course, to support public institutions. We give money to the United Way. More than 2 million men and women serve in the all-volunteer armed services. Teachers, nurses, volunteer firemen, the members of rescue squads -- all of them give more than they receive.

William F. Buckley Jr. in his new book ''Gratitude'' proposes to create new ways by which Americans, especially young Americans, may say thanks for the heritage. He makes no claim for originality: Proposals for some sort of universal community service have been around for years. The Peace Corps, in which 121,000 persons have served, provides one opportunity. The VISTA program is another.

Mr. Buckley believes that given an opportunity, millions of young people would volunteer for a year of service to their country. What they need are new ''avenues for the expression of the altruistic impulse.'' Through a combination of positive and negative inducements -- tax credits, lower interest rates, preferential status in college enrollment -- adding a note of pragmatism to altruism, a national program could be set in motion.

This was the idea of members of Congress who sponsored the Community Service Act. A Senate bill proposed $125 million a year in grants to states and localities. The measure would create a Youth Service Corps, in which volunteers could enlist for one year. They might work in nursing homes, hospitals, day-care centers and the like. They would be paid a nominal living allowance, plus $5,000 in post-service benefits. A House bill proposed as well an American Conservation Corps whose members would work in national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, wetlands and flood control.

In October the two bills were melded to create a commission on national service that will coordinate a variety of volunteer programs. President Bush objected to any financial payments whatever, and the bill was accordingly amended, but if the program is to work this will have to be changed.

Edmund Burke long ago provided a rationale for community service: ''To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed toward a love to our country, and to mankind.'' Burke was reflecting on the revolution in France, but he provided a good reflection for the Thanksgiving season.

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