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Mandatory National Service: A Bad Idea That Won’t Die

Another presidential election, another proposal for mandatory national “service.” This time, two Democratic candidates hope to turbocharge their otherwise dubious electoral prospects by proposing to draft all young people to spend a year or two working for Washington’s political elite.

That’s not how they put it, of course. But that is what the national service movement is about.

Service, real service to real people, is baked into Americans’ DNA. Alexis de Tocqueville, the great French classical liberal, cited civic activism as one of the new republic’s distinguishing characteristics in his famous Democracy in America. He wrote: “I have seen Americans making great and sincere sacrifices for the key common good, and a hundred times I have noticed that, when needs be, they almost always gave each other faithful support.” The resulting vibrant civil society was very different from the enervating monarchies and aristocracies that still dominated Europe. This commitment to service permeated the nation—transforming people, creating institutions, and strengthening America.

But some commentators and politicians view private action as inadequate. Instead, they believe, “service” should be organized, planned, and managed by the state. The fount of modern thought on national service remains Looking Backward, the 1888 publication of lawyer and journalist Edward Bellamy, which envisioned compulsory employment for men and women between the ages of 21 and 45.

A couple decades later, philosopher William James issued an essay, “The Moral Equivalent of War.” In it, he argued that “the martial virtues, although originally gained by the race through war, are absolute and permanent human goods,” and that national service provided a method for instilling those values during peacetime. He wrote: “Our gilded youths would be drafted off to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas.”

Today his essay is almost entirely forgotten, except for the title. But a host of philosophers, policy analysts, and politicians proffer their own very different proposals for “the moral equivalent of war.” These plans rarely reflect a shared consensus of the national or public interest. More often, they involve blatant social engineering for ideological ends. For instance, sociologist Margaret Mead advocated a universal program that “would replace for girls, even more than for boys, marriage as the route away from the parental home.”

Compulsion was essential to such proposals. In 1979, the Committee for the Study of National Service declared:

International comparisons also fire some American imaginations. Millions of young people serve social needs in China as a routine part of growing up, many [are] commanded to leave the crowded cities and to assist in the countryside.  Castro fought illiteracy and mosquitoes in Cuba with units of youth. Interesting combinations of education, work, and service to society are a part of the experience of youth in Israel, Jamaica, Nigeria, Tanzania, and other nations.  The civic spirit being imbued in youth elsewhere in the world leaves some Americans wondering and worrying about Saturday-night-fever, unemployment, the new narcissism, and other afflictions of American youth.

Admittedly, seeing Mao’s Red Guards as a model for America appears dated at best. But current national service advocates similarly seek to transform society. They envision their program providing job training and employment, encouraging social equality, promoting tolerance and civic-mindedness, expanding access to college, engendering patriotism, and addressing ubiquitous “unmet social needs.” The idea sounds great. But in practice it is dangerous nonsense.

First to join the ranks of national service advocates was South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who complained about America’s lack of “social cohesion.” What to do? Why, force everyone to work together, of course! Voila, “social cohesion”! In his defense, Buttigieg was just ambiguous enough to allow himself to wriggle out of a political tight spot. He explained on MSNBC: “One thing we could do that would change that [inadequate social cohesion] would be to make it, if not legally obligatory, but certainly a social norm that anybody, after they’re 18, spends a year in national service.”

The problem is that a lack of compulsion ensures that Buttigieg’s plan will fail. There will always be 18-year-olds who will resist even a purported “social norm.” Yet for national service advocates, such resisters are precisely those most in need of civilizing “service,” meaning political projects mandated by the social engineers in Washington. Those suffering from “Saturday night fever, unemployment, the new narcissism, and other afflictions of American youth” don’t realize that they are sick and therefore must be forcibly cured.

John Delaney would unashamedly drop any ambiguity. Polling at less than 1 percent makes presidential candidates say the damnedest things. He tweeted: “It’s time to bring the country together, to restore our sense of shared purpose and rebuild a common and inclusive national destiny. That’s why we need mandatory national service.” Every 18-year-old would have to work for Uncle Sam for at least a year, “no exceptions.”

It is a remarkably dumb idea. First, there’s the constitutional problem—the 13th Amendment clearly proscribes “involuntary servitude,” the foundation of Delaney’s program. Moreover, as worthy as it might be to encourage others to “begin their adult lives serving their country and working alongside people from different backgrounds,” that is a bad reason for what amounts to enslavement. National service requires punishing people—presumably by arresting and jailing them—for resisting the state’s social engineering.

Under Delaney’s plan, conscripts, conveniently excluding people his or Buttigieg’s age, would choose between serving in the military, “a new expanded Community Service program,” “a new National infrastructure Apprenticeship program,” and “a newly created Climate Corps.” Conceptually, there’s nothing particularly new in his proposal. But subjugating people to provide cheap labor for politically inspired projects is bad both in principle and practice.

First, the military doesn’t want conscripts or short-termers. The armed services learned during the Vietnam War that those who don’t want to be there tend to develop discipline problems, have little interest in training and education, refuse to take greater responsibility, and won’t re-up and populate a career NCO corps. Moreover, one year of military service is a spectacular waste: just as someone gets trained, he or she leaves.

Second, “community service”—cleaning hospital bedpans, shelving library books, and whatever else moves interest groups and legislators—is valuable but not national, and moral but only if not coerced. There is no such thing as compulsory compassion. It is hard to think of a worse abuse of government power than to arrest and jail someone for not showing up to “tutor disadvantaged children,” one of Delaney’s approved projects.

Third, “infrastructure apprenticeship,” meaning cleaning up parks and improving federal buildings, is not “service” in any meaningful sense. The government can easily hire workers for such jobs. Coercing people to perform such tasks isn’t going to morally uplift anyone.

Fourth, the “Climate Corps” is more of the same, namely assisting “in clean energy projects, including solar installation, improving building efficiency, developing community gardens, and increasing awareness about sustainable practices.” Apparently running for president has left Delaney almost completely disconnected from American life. Companies send people door-to-door to sell products that cut energy use. Firms fiercely compete to install solar panels on private homes and in commercial operations. People freely create community gardens in their neighborhoods without the assistance of federal conscripts. And there’s plenty of lobbying for “sustainable practices.” You don’t need to threaten to arrest people to force them into the PR business.

Perhaps the biggest problem with national service is that neither Delaney nor Buttigieg nor anyone else seems to understand the opportunity costs. That is, drafting people to plant gardens, pick up trash, smile at hospital patients, manage food kitchens, and improve federal facilities costs whatever else the draftees would otherwise be doing: completing their education, helping family members in need, contributing to their communities in their own way, preparing for economically and socially valuable careers, and otherwise using their skills to better meet human needs. Having politicians assign people to an arbitrary mix of tasks, virtually none of which are vital in any sense, is guaranteed to be a grand waste of money, time, and talent.

Delaney wants to “restore our sense of shared purpose and a common and inclusive national destiny.” That’s a wonderful objective with which most people would agree. But corralling millions into his pet programs and jailing recalcitrant 18-year-olds who don’t share his vision is no answer to anything. Such a program—with older men and women safely beyond its reach, free to blame young people for America’s problems—would breed cynicism and hostility, not “service and patriotism.”

America faces serious challenges. But most of them have no political solution. “We need big transformational change to stop America from dividing any further,” argues Delaney. Then let him persuade his fellow citizens to voluntarily join him in making that transformational change. Americans need more service, not national “service.”

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. He is a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and the author of several books, including The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington.

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