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This month, Eagle Scouts celebrate the 100th anniversary of their extraordinary program. Perhaps no other institution better reveals America’s exceptional way of combining self-advancement with service to others, in the world’s most vigorous civil society.

Scouting, like much of the American regime, has roots in the mother country of England, but it was American scout leaders who dreamed up the new rank of Eagle a century ago, which in turn produced “the single greatest youth service initiative in history,” in the words of Michael Malone, author of a new history of Eagle Scouts.

For the metric-minded, the Boys Scouts recently tallied it up:

all of the Eagle service projects ever done … came to the jaw-dropping total of more than 100 million hours of service. Eagle Scouts are adding more than three million more hours each year.

The Scouts provided that private service – whose millions of volunteer hours are more than entire European nations can boast of – through Scouting’s profoundly decentralized organization, which easily partners with every kind of religious and community group. The Eagle Scouts’ service has given our country a staggering amount of what wonks would call “infrastructure”:

all Eagle candidates are required … to devise, plan, execute and manage a community-service project. Most of these projects are small: a new bench at the park, painting a school building, collecting blankets for a homeless shelter. But some are hugely ambitious: restoring wetlands, building a library in Africa or a playground at a Russian orphanage, creating an artificial reef…. You cannot read a small-town newspaper in America without running across the story of an Eagle service project at least once a month.

Those Scouts, Mr. President, built those benches, supplied those homeless shelters, restored those wetlands, and created that artificial reef. Yes, they traveled on roads paid for by tax dollars, but they didn’t wait for any bureaucrat to design their project, or any pol to authorize an appropriation.

True, the Scouts didn’t do it simply by their individual selves, either. They did it in, through, and with something to which the President seems blind: the civil society that exists between the Leviathan federal state and the atomized individual.

That civil society, made up of businesses, churches, families, secular charities, and yes, troops of boy and girl scouts, has done more to build up America than all the highway appropriators and Presidents put together. But it’s not superhuman. The country’s towering civil society can be eroded. Greedy tort lawyers can burden everyone from AT&T to your local scout troop with unjust law suits; greedy politicians can tax small businesses’ capital gains and harass religious charities whose beliefs don’t harmonize with HHS Secretary Sebelius’s.

And perhaps worst of all, national leaders can simply ignore the very existence of civil society, as they work to obscure the ties that bind an American to anything besides the federal fisc. On this question, read Yuval Levin’s penetrating critique of the President’s “you didn’t built that” speech in Roanoke, Virginia (full disclosure: I was proud to serve with Yuval on the last administration’s Domestic Policy Council).

Yuval rightly observes that the least of the problems with the President’s address was his famous sneer at businessmen’s accomplishments. Far more troubling was the President’s understanding of American society as a whole:

The president simply equates doing things together with doing things through government. He sees the citizen and the state, and nothing in between — and thus sees every political question as a choice between radical individualism and a federal program.

This failure to see civil society, Yuval continues, is the key to understanding the administration’s efforts in numerous areas. Where industry is concerned, the administration pursues consolidation, which privileges “a few major players that are to be treated essentially as public utilities, while locking out competition from smaller or newer firms,” a strategy that

leaves no one pursuing ends that are not the government’s ends. This has been the essence of the administration’s policies toward automakers, health insurers, banks, hospitals, and many others.

This “intolerance of nonconformity,” Yuval observes, is even more powerful in the administration’s attitude toward private social service providers, especially religious ones, most notably revealed in the controversy over the Obamacare rule requiring religious employers to provide free abortive and contraceptive drugs to their employees. Here, too, the administration shows “an appalling contempt for the basic right of religious institutions to pursue their ends in accordance with their convictions.”

Not even the most powerful ties between citizens – the primal bonds between parent and child, husband and wife – exist in the President’s vision. Yuval points to the Obama campaign’s notorious slideshow “The Life of Julia,” describing a woman from birth through decades of life’s milestones. The slideshow revealed

a vision of society consisting entirely of the individual and the state. Julia’s life is the product of her individual choices enabled by public policies. She has an exceptional amount of direct contact with the federal government, yet we never meet her family. At the age of 31, we are told, “Julia decides to have a child” and “benefits from maternal checkups, prenatal care, and free screenings under health care reform.” She later benefits from all manner of educational, economic, and social programs, and seems to require and depend upon no one but the president.

Yuval worries, as do I, that the President’s opponents will fail to make the broader case about civil society and instead confine their response to the President’s insulting view of businessmen. That would be a disservice to other aspects of our common life.

As Yuval concludes,

To ignore what stands between the state and the citizen is to disregard the essence of American life. To clear away what stands between the state and the citizen is to extinguish the sources of American freedom. The president is right to insist that America works best when Americans work together, but government is just one of the many things we do together, and it is only rarely the most important of them.

FOOTNOTE: In a Wall Street Journal article based on his new book, Malone takes pains to point out that Eagle Scouts “are spread across the political spectrum. They include individuals across all races (scouting was officially integrated from the start) who hold beliefs as diverse as other Americans.” This fact only emphasizes the contrast between the President’s blindness to civil society and the nation’s historical championing of private initiative.

2 thoughts on “You didn’t build that, Mr. President”

  1. Bobby says:

    Way to take an out of context comment and milk it for your own gain. Yes the scouts are excellent at volunteering, but terrible at diversity and inclusion (promoting a homophobic Christian agenda) but what does that have to do with the President?

    He does not have an insulting view of business, not in the least. He’s done a ton for small business, of which I am an owner. He’s removed tons of barriers to small business growth since taking office. You’ve clearly done NO RESEARCH on his actual record.

    What’s worse about your view that Romney appears to have a very cynical view of business, relying on loopholes and leveraged buyouts in creating no new value and destroying struggling businesses and all their jobs in order extract a huge payday from them. You clearly have no idea how Romney’s business works if you think he has the high road on supporting business. He’s a CORPORATE RAIDER, not a job creator.

  2. RonF says:

    A few things make this even more remarkable:

    1) Eagle Scouts were not required to plan and run a public service project until the late 1950s or early 1960’s.
    2) Scouts in general have been running and participating in service projects that have nothing to do with the Eagle Scout rank ever since 1910. Those would not be counted in this number.

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