Taxes are being raised because of the federal deficit. Even social programs with broad bipartisan support, such as Head Start, cannot be funded at a fraction of their authorized spending levels, also because of the deficit. But both houses of Congress have picked just this moment to launch a program that its advocates ultimately would like to expand to one costing more than $11 billion a year. And to do what? To pay "volunteers" to perform community service.

"The National Service Act of 1990" now headed for President Bush's signature has received little public attention. Yet funded at $62 million the first year, scheduled to increase to $120 million by the third year and intended to serve as the advance guard of something far grander, it embodies exactly the kind of Utopian idea that has brought us nationally to the present condition of fiscal instability and social resentments.

Congressional debate showed that even during a budget crisis members were loath to vote against something as noble as volunteering. But, in addition to budgetary considerations, it is precisely because true voluntarism is indeed noble that they should have protected it against government institutionalization.

The American concept of service is rooted in our Judeo-Christian heritage and the frontier tradition. By definition it is characterized by selflessness and personal sacrifice. To the extent government removes the sacrifice and actually makes the service financially attractive, volunteering is transformed into another government jobs program. National service is particularly reminiscent of the notorious CETA program of the 1970s, which similarly was run through local government and private agencies and ended in profligate waste and corruption.

In most cases, "paid volunteer" is an oxymoron. President Bush initially avoided this policy contradiction when he proposed a small government and private effort to promulgate the service ethic among schoolchildren and others: his "Thousand Points of Light."

Such a program is worthwhile, but not to correct any current failure. It is simply not true that Americans have lost their volunteer spirit. Like charitable giving, the number of hours the average American devotes to volunteer activity actually has gone up during the past decade. According to the Gallup poll, it rose a remarkable 23 percent from 1987 to 1989 alone.

Where is there any hardheaded analysis to justify national service? Reason suggests it will not increase the volunteer spirit in this country, but retard it. Providing government stipends and student tuition vouchers for government-approved volunteers (the typical full-time package will amount to about $11,000, tax free, and includes such benefits as health care) will tend to demoralize real volunteers, who are not paid, and teach the government "volunteers," perversely, to expect to be paid in life for any service they perform.

Among the practical losers will be the traditional service organizations, especially religious ones, which account for nearly half of the volunteering in the country. Church or synagogue volunteer activities, such as day care or soup kitchens, would be disqualified from receiving national service funds on grounds of the constitutional separation of church and state if they incorporated any religious instruction or message -- though such is integral to their purpose. Either religious faiths will find the government outbidding them with financial inducements for volunteers, or they will find the competition for federal funds distorting church or synagogue priorities, pitting one activity against another and one denomination against another. The claim, then, that national service will be a boon to the existing volunteer sector could not be more insidious.

Unfortunately, White House staff responsible for the president's "Points of Light" initiative were so eager to get a few congressional dollars to promote genuine volunteerism, which is now in the bill in the form of educational materials for schools and communities, that they persuaded the president to abandon the principle of not paying volunteers. All Congress gave him in return was a smaller than intended first-year budget.

By signing the national service bill, the president will help create a new constituency of local government and private service providers to lobby for ever more government money and control of society's volunteer sector. He should ponder the warning Alexis Tocqueville wrote in "Democracy in America" more than 150 years ago when considering this same prospect: "Once {government} leaves the sphere of politics to launch out on this new task, it will, even without intending this, exercise an intolerable tyranny. For a government can only dictate precise rules. It imposes the sentiments and ideas which it favors, and it is never easy to tell the difference between its advice and its commands."

The writer is director of the Hudson Institute/Seattle. This article is adapted from his contribution to the newly published National Service: Pro & Con (Hoover Institution Press).