The opposition of some conservatives to national service is predictable. Buckley faced critics who dismissed his proposal as “induced gratitude.” To which he responded that all gratitude is induced, or at least taught, given the “disposition of modern man to take for granted everything he enjoys.” Conservatives, on the contrary, should be attracted to the devolution of responsibilities beyond government entirely, to citizens themselves. It was, after all, Gov. Ronald Reagan who founded the California Conservation Corps, which trained and inspired young people under the motto: “Hard work, low pay, miserable conditions.”
This is a strange moment in the conservative movement. Following a period of governmental overreach, a Jefferson-Jackson corrective is predictable and necessary. But a tone of anger and paranoia is discrediting. Future generations will struggle to explain the conservative elements that praised Edward Snowden, apparently granted on the theory that the enemy of my government is my friend.
The conservative instinct — and America’s shared republican tradition — heads in a different direction, toward gratitude for our patrimony and affection for our traditions and institutions, expressed in service to the country and to one another. We honor and cultivate such responsible citizenship because it makes our country, in Buckley’s words, “safer, lovelier, and more precious.” And because it strengthens something valuable and unavoidably national: our national character.