AMERICANS are a generous people, willing to aid those in need around them. But not everyone volunteers, which has given rise to numerous proposals for the government to induce - through either coercion or bribery - people to serve. The idea is not a new one. Earlier this century philosopher William James advocated drafting the nation's ``gilded youth'' in what he called ``the moral equivalent of war.'' Today a dozen different pieces of legislation have been introduced in Congress, and the Bush administration has come up with its own service program. The competing proposals range from cash handouts to a massive government work program. Their details vary, but all represent a solution in search of a problem.
Some 92 million Americans, more than one-third of the population, already participate in the activities of some volunteer group - without federal meddling. And many of those who serve are young people: more than one-third of college students now work in social service projects.
Such efforts should be encouraged, but by example and at the grass roots, not through a new federal program. For instance, President Bush wants to create a foundation to hand out federal cash. But at best such an effort would duplicate the efforts of existing programs such as the Student Community Service Project. More likely, dumping public money on private groups would corrupt them, changing their focus from helping people to collecting government funds.
Far more harmful would be the corporation for national service advocated by Sens. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia and Charles S. Robb (D) of Virginia, among others. They would create a citizens corps and tie federal educational benefits to one or two years spent in civilian projects or the military.