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Thomas Sowell
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Freedom and the Left


Most people on the left are not opposed to freedom. They are just in favor of all sorts of things that are incompatible with freedom.

Freedom ultimately means the right of other people to do things that you do not approve of. Nazis were free to be Nazis under Hitler. It is only when you are able to do things that other people don't approve that you are free.

One of the most innocent-sounding examples of the left's many impositions of its vision on others is the widespread requirement by schools and by college admissions committees that students do "community service."

There are high schools across the country from which you cannot graduate, and colleges where your application for admission will not be accepted, unless you have engaged in activities arbitrarily defined as "community service."

The arrogance of commandeering young people's time, instead of leaving them and their parents free to decide for themselves how to use that time, is exceeded only by the arrogance of imposing your own notions as to what is or is not a service to the community.

Working in a homeless shelter is widely regarded as "community service"— as if aiding and abetting vagrancy is necessarily a service, rather than a disservice, to the community.

Is a community better off with more people not working, hanging out on the streets, aggressively panhandling people on the sidewalks, urinating in the street, leaving narcotics needles in the parks where children play?

This is just one of the ways in which handing out various kinds of benefits to people who have not worked for them breaks the connection between productivity and reward, as far as they are concerned.

But that connection remains as unbreakable as ever for society as a whole. You can make anything an "entitlement" for individuals and groups but nothing is an entitlement for society as a whole, not even food or shelter, both of which have to be produced by somebody's work or they will not exist.

What "entitlements" for some people mean is forcing other people to work for their benefit.

As a bumper sticker put it: "Work harder. Millions of people on welfare are depending on you."

The most fundamental problem, however, is not which particular activities students are required to engage in under the title of "community service."

The most fundamental question is: What in the world qualifies teachers and members of college admissions committees to define what is good for society as a whole, or even for the students on whom they impose their arbitrary notions?

What expertise do they have that justifies overriding other people's freedom? What do their arbitrary impositions show, except that fools rush in where angels fear to tread?

What lessons do students get from this, except submission to arbitrary power?

Supposedly students are to get a sense of compassion or noblesse oblige from serving others. But this all depends on who defines compassion. In practice, it means forcing students to undergo a propaganda experience to make them receptive to the left's vision of the world.

I am sure those who favor "community service" requirements would understand the principle behind the objections to this if high school military exercises were required.

Indeed, many of those who promote compulsory "community service" activities are bitterly opposed to even voluntary military training in high schools or colleges, though many other people regard military training as more of a contribution to society than feeding people who refuse to work.

In other words, people on the left want the right to impose their idea of what is good for society on others— a right that they vehemently deny to those whose idea of what is good for society differs from their own.

The essence of bigotry is refusing to others the rights that you demand for yourself. Such bigotry is inherently incompatible with freedom, even though many on the left would be shocked to be considered opposed to freedom.

To find out more about Thomas Sowell and read features by other Creators Syndicate columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305. His Web site is



7 Comments | Post Comment
The thing that really bugs me about "mandatory volunteerism" (now there's an oxymoron!), "compulsory community service", or whatever you want to call it, is that it is ultimately "involuntary servitude."
Funny, I seem to recall reading in some old document called the Constitution something called the Thirteenth Amendment which says in Section 1: "Neither Slavery, nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."
Section 2, incidentally, says: "Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation."
Has no one challenged this on Constitutional grounds?
Comment: #1
Posted by: Lacey
Tue Dec 2, 2008 5:49 AM
Professor Sowell, on what basis do you claim that beneficiaries of homeless shelters are "people who refuse to work?" That's no doubt true of some, but are none of them relatively innocent victims of bad fortune? Frankly, you often remind me of 18th and 19th Century Calvinists who equated poverty with sin and riches with virtue. Can somebody as smart as you be that obtuse? I suppose. Just look at Bill Clinton.

Youthful community service to the poor is a salutary experience, because it requires actual contact with them, thus enabling the observer to make up his own mind about the various causes of poverty and how to alleviate it. It's similar to volunteer work in a hospital, another community service option, learning and thinking about fault and innocence in how patients ended up there.

I guess you'd disapprove of my son's employer, a large corporate law firm, that encourages pro-bono work by all of its lawyers for Houston's poor, especially veterans, including alcoholics and drug addicts.

Mike Milligan
El Paso, TX
Comment: #2
Posted by: Mike Milligan
Tue Dec 2, 2008 9:13 AM
Sir;... I wouldn't care if you were wearing black patent leather boots and a red suit, 'cause no one will ever confuse you with Santi Clause... I will explain the cruel facts of life for you... Everyone sacrifices for their community... Everyone sacrifices for their relationships... If you look back into history you will find that what Christians were outlawed for, was not sacrificing to the gods of Rome, and the genius of the emperor...It was just a pinch of incense, but if it was put in the hands of a Christian, they would drop it on the ground... They had no trouble sacrificing for their communites, or to their God... They simply put themselves apart... But fast forward 1700 years, and you can read accounts of poles outside of Native American villages, holding stuff of value like bolts of cloth, trade goods, and even human heads to buy peace with the great spirit... Perhaps you are married... Could anyone believe that your wife does not sacrifice something for the pleasure of your company??? Giving is what people do... Everyone takes, but the relationship you will not sacrifice for is not worth having.... So what in America is worth a sacrifice of time or taxes??? Anything you can think of off hand???? You mention freedom... What do you know of freedom??? One of my people fought for the freedom of the black man...Many men died in vain, if, after all, you understand no more about freedom than you do... First of all, where is the free man??? Where is the free man not free by the authority and protection of a free society??? Freedom is a moral concept, and I grant that it is hard to define, but like all concepts it is a form, and a form of relationship... If the only freedom allowed to people is the freedom to deny freedom to others, then no one is more free than their power to defend their own rights... Instead, what we want is a society which defends rights and freedom... And this is exactly what every community does, or why would anyone remain a member??? The gays have their rights defended by the gay community... Unions defend the rights of workers... The rich have their rights defended by the republican party...But the larger society should defend ALL rights...The question is then: what rights the society should defend... First, it should defend equality of rights... It is because equality is the first defense of freedom, since no democracy is possible without equality... Is the society obliged to defend any inequality??? No; but it may; if after consideration it finds a social benefit to the inequality, and then it should not be permanent... Let us consider your example: Community Service.. Since children and criminals cannot be considered as full citizen, that is, as honorable, it is some thing that should be demonstrated...The meaning of rehabilitated is: restored to honor... Children have to prove themselves honorable with a sacrifice of self... It is, for all practical purposes, symbolic, like the pinch of insence... The ultimate obligation and sacrifice, which few are asked to perform, is of ones life -in the defense of ones community... People make that sacrifice every single day for this country; but on the other end of society are people who will not lift a finger, or spend a dime to bear any obligation for their privilages, which all others must then carry for them...Certainly, it is obscene... Just like the youths you would have deny their obligation, you would have the rich be free, but such is not freedom, but licence, the father of tyranny... It is not within my power to make the rich pay their due... Clearly, the poor, and the homeless pay with their well being for the blessings enjoyed by the rich... To me; the rich by their behavior include themselves out as much as the early Christians did... Surely, there are limits to freedom, as the Nazis found... One was hanged for exercising freedom of the press... In fact, all free people are members of free societies, but the society that does not enforce the obligations that buy freedom cannot be free, cannot be a democracy, and cannot know equality, and will not have justice... Carry your weight in the relationship called America or get the hell out... Quit putting all your lazy weight on the poor... Thanks...Sweeney
Comment: #3
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Tue Dec 2, 2008 4:15 PM
Re: Mike Milligan;... Good Man Mike...My kid is an attorney, self employed, easily making five times my best income doing bankruptcies... That is life in the Wasteland of Michigan... Get your money up front... He does some work for free, you know, old folks, mostly.. But Sowell doesn't get it... Many of the homeless are working poor, and it is not lack of industry that put them in a shelter, but simple injustice... Our government was designed with certain defined goals... Even defense it has failed at, and mostly because the rich have refused to act in the best interest of the country, so that more and more it is the hopeless and poor defending wealth they will never share in while that wealth is protected by law, free of obligation... You hang in there....Challenge these jackesses... Best to ya...Thanks...Sweeney
Comment: #4
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Tue Dec 2, 2008 4:26 PM
To Mike Milligan: A private law firm ENCOURAGING (not requiring) its lawyers to do pro bono work is one thing. A government agency, such as the public school system, using its power to FORCE students to serve the needs of others before being permitted to graduate is something else altogether. Do you not see the difference? Good citizenship can't be coerced. You might as well try to force people to love one another.
Comment: #5
Posted by: Scot Penslar
Thu Dec 4, 2008 9:12 PM
Mr. Sweeney: At least we can agree on one thing: Thomas Sowell will never be mistaken for Santa Claus. It may also be worth pointing out that Santa Claus is a creature of myth and folklore, believed in only by small children.
Comment: #6
Posted by: Scot Penslar
Thu Dec 4, 2008 9:24 PM
Re: Scot Penslar: Like Professor Sowell and most extreme reactionaries, you are either disingenuous or naive. The distinction between encouragement and coercion is wholly artificial in a large corporate law firm where young associates, including my son, disregard the firm's "encouragement" at their peril. He's under a lot more pressure to improve his employer's pro bono stats than high school kids with a wide range of non-political public service options.
All of my children benefited from their public service in high school, more than my generation which had only Hi-Y and Tri-Hi-Y. As for Professor Sowell's question about compulsory military exercises, I had that edifying experience in elementary school and later did my stint in the Army. Like Professor Sowell, who also spent time in uniform, I never complained about the coercion of the draft.
How about you, Mr. Penslar? You were probably too young for the draft, but did you volunteer? Or maybe you're just a slacker, pretending to be a libertarian. -- Mike Milligan
Comment: #7
Posted by: Mike Milligan
Mon Dec 8, 2008 12:02 PM
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