Just Say No To “National Service” Schemes

The return of a really bad idea.

uncle-sam-we-want-you1

Earlier this week in a piece in The Washington Post, Michael Gerson trotted out a canard that has been floating around seemingly for decades now, the idea that all Americans should engage in some sort of “national service” upon turning 18:

It is not an auspicious time to begin a dialogue on national service. Which demonstrates why it is needed.

The impetus for this discussion has come from the military. During an event at the Aspen Institute’s Ideas Festival last year, Gen. Stanley McChrystal offhandedly endorsed universal national service for young people graduating from high school or college, fulfilled in either a military or civilian setting. His particular concern was the growing disconnect between the less than 1 percent of Americans who serve in the armed forces and the rest of the country. The result is not only an unequal distribution of burdens but also the unequal development of citizens. “Once you have contributed to something,” McChrystal said, “you have a slightly different view of it.”

This mention has matured into a proposal, endorsed by a list of luminaries including former secretaries of state Condi Rice and Madeleine Albright and former defense secretary Robert Gates. Instead of giving 18-year-old males a meaningless (to them) Selective Service number, why not also give all 18-year-old men and women information on the five branches of the armed forces, along with the option of serving a year or more in a civilian service program? National service, while not legally mandatory, would be socially expected.

(…)

How then does a democracy cultivate civic responsibility and shared identity? Taxation allows us to fund common purposes, but it does not provide common experiences. A rite of passage in which young people — rich and poor, liberal and conservative, of every racial background — work side by side to address public problems would create, at least, a vivid, lifelong memory of shared national purpose.

Gerson says that he doesn’t favor universal national service, which would require every American man and woman to “donate” some amount of time, usually defined as two years or so, to the state in the name of national service. However, that has been the common way in which the idea has been expressed over the years. Indeed, if all that these “national service” ideas were about were trying to persuade young people to volunteer to do things, it would be rather pointless to talk about them given all the opportunities that already exist for such volunteerism. Instead, the true essence of the “national service” crowd can be found in things like this May Wall Street Journal piece by retired General Stanley McChrystal:

It is right that we send off the young Americans graduating this month from high school, college and professional schools with speeches. They should be congratulated for completing the many exams now behind them. But we must remember another test—Lincoln’s test of citizenship—and begin to mark these important junctures in life not just with words, but with real-world commitment.

Universal national service should become a new American rite of passage. Here is a specific, realistic proposal that would create one million full-time civilian national-service positions for Americans ages 18-28 that would complement the active-duty military—and would change the current cultural expectation that service is only the duty of those in uniform.

At age 18, every young man and woman would receive information on various options for national service. Along with the five branches of the military, graduates would learn about new civilian service branches organized around urgent issues like education, health care and poverty. The positions within these branches would be offered through AmeriCorps as well as through certified nonprofits. Service would last at least a year.

Returning military veterans would be treated as the civic assets they are and permitted to use a portion of their GI Bill benefits to support a period of civilian national service, since such service helps them transition to life back home.

The new service opportunities would be created in accordance with the smart rules that have guided AmeriCorps since its founding in 1994, which allow that program to field tens of thousands of service members without displacing workers and who fill vital niches their paid colleagues do not.

(…)

Instead of making national service legally mandatory, corporations and universities, among other institutions, could be enlisted to make national service socially obligatory. Schools can adjust their acceptance policies and employers their hiring practices to benefit those who have served—and effectively penalize those who do not.

Writing from the Aspen Institute’s annual conference, Arianna Huffington joins the movement too. To be honest, I’m not all that impressed with the new movement for “national service,” mostly because I’ve lived through all the other movements for “national service” that have popped up over the years only to die off. Every time, the arguments are pretty much the same. Americans must “give something back” to the nation, we’re told, or they “owe something” to the community. Somewhere along the way that non-objectionable idea gets changed into the idea that everyone ought to be compelled, and have no doubt that compulsion is at the heart of these arguments, to “be part of the community” whether they want to or not. More often than not, these proposals end up being not just talk about reinstating the military draft, but of expanding it so that young people end up getting drafted into something other than just holding a gun and saluting for a couple years. Because, of course, there’s nothing that will inspire your love of country more than digging ditches and building things for the next two years.

Daniel Larison takes on Gerson’s assertion that national service is something that conservatives should support:

As he tends to do, Gerson takes admirable ideals and makes a mockery of them. Conservatives should feel gratitude for our inherited traditions and institutions, and conservatives should want to contribute to the common good, but that doesn’t mean that they should want or support national service organized by the federal government. A person forced by law or social convention to do such service isn’t going to feel gratitude or affection. It is more likely that he will be made to resent the authority or the convention that so compels him. National service isn’t a “devolution of responsibilities.” It is an unwelcome redefinition of what a “responsible” citizen is expected to do.

This seems spot-on, whether the compulsion behind “national service” comes from the law, from employers and schools make it a requirement, or from society in general, it is still a form of compulsion and it’s not hard to see most people becoming resentful of being forced to do things they’d rather not to at the literal start of their adult lives. How, exactly that’s supposed to engender a “sense of community” is beyond me. If people are volunteering for these projects, and by all accounts there are plenty of people out there willing to volunteer if there are spots available for them, that’s one thing, but forcing them to “volunteer,” by whatever means pretty much turns the intent of volunteerism on its head. Moreover, with all due apologies to the author of President Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, there’s simply something wrong with the idea that the people belong to the state or owe anything to it other than obey just laws and paying taxes when they’re due. It’s state that belongs to the people, not the other way around.

Conor Friedersdorf makes an excellent point about how a one-size-fits-all “national service” program could never be implemented fairly:

1) The educational and career demands of modern society are already causing people to delay marriage and child-bearing. I wouldn’t want to coerce anyone to wed and procreate early. But building another one or two year lag into “coming-of-age” could have unintended consequences.

2) A one-size-fits-all mandate inevitably does serious harm to some people in a society as diverse as ours. Working for Uncle Sam might not cost the average person much at age 18 or 22. But think of how important that precious year of youth is to some people — for example, the thousands of Americans who make their careers in professional athletics, whether the NBA or Olympic badminton. They’ve got a limited number of years to pursue their passion. If you’re LeBron James, a year of service when you’re age 40 makes a lot more sense! If you’re a young Mormon couple with religious obligations to your community and a desire to have a really big family, an extra volunteering burden in your early 20s matters a lot. Maybe it means you have to have one less kid. The Washington, D.C., wonks who write the laws won’t think of these minorities.

3) Lots of people fulfill obligations beyond themselves that aren’t “public service” as we generally understand it: helping to support their single mother and younger siblings; taking care of a sick parent or grandparent; working so a significant other can afford law or medical school; babysitting for a neighbor while she finishes her master’s degree on Wednesday nights; helping a talented but disorganized friend complete her application for art school. Is it proper to compel those people to reallocate their time, so that they’re serving “the public” rather than their family, friends or neighbors? Of course, any opt-out clause for people in the circumstances I’ve described would make national service so easy to avoid that it wouldn’t be universal. People “give” in lots of different ways. Why should one of them be elevated and made compulsory?

Friedersdorf goes on to list a number of other well-taken points that I recommend to your attention, but these three seem to me to strike me as the core of the argument against making “national service” mandatory, whether that mandate comes from the law or from social pressure. Everyone’s life is different and everyone finds ways to give back to their community in different ways. Shoving every 18-20 year old into the same government-run program and assigning them based on what some bureaucrat thinks is best strikes me as just another example of the inherent failures of central planning which one would think we would’ve learned long ago. Instead of forcing people to contribute, wouldn’t it be better to leave the decision to them, and let them contribute in their own way not just when they are 18-20, but throughout their adult lives? There’s nothing wrong with volunteerism, but the idea of forced volunteerism is the kind of Orwellian concept that only a bureaucrat, or one of the elitists that hangs out at the Aspen conference, could love.

FILED UNDER: General
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020.

Comments

  1. john personna says:

    In the past my thinking [has been] that with life expectancy in the 80’s (or 90’s for current 18 year-olds?) a year or two of national service really is no big deal.

    I still think that, but I think it’s outweighed by something else … it is contra minimum-wage, unless you are going to raise and pay a good minimum wage for it.

    Basically [we] don’t need more “interns.”

  2. Gromitt Gunn says:

    This reminds me of when I applied to AmeriCorp when it was in its infancy (and, thus, no one knew much about it), as I was graduating college.

    Not only was the pay intentionally low, but you were forbidden from doing any outside work for additionally money. When I asked about that, the response that I got was that it was designed to teach the volunteers what it was like to live in poverty conditions like the members of the communities that they were serving in. My response was pretty much, “Um, lady, I don’t *need* lessons on living in poverty. I’ve been living on my own since I was 18, without any financial help from anyone, and washing dishes and waiting tables while I put myself through college.” Of course, there was no way to restrict someone from getting additional cash from their parents – it was only the working class volunteers that got the shaft.

    AmeriCorps is basically a way for the children of the privileged who don’t get jobs right out of college to look like they are humanitarians while Daddy pays their rent. And, really, that is what any mandatory National Service program would end up being – a way to let the rich feel better while delaying the economic development of working and middle class young adults.

  3. stonetools says:

    So libertarians are against any idea of national community service. Hoocoodanode?
    Good old Robert Heinlein seemed to like this idea, but other libertarians seem to be opposed.
    Doug apparently has a thing about this, since I see other posts about this. I expect this idea to go away shortly as it usually does.
    What I would prefer is a more generalized job program, since what American youth need are jobs above all. Of course, libertarians oppose that too, because FREEDUMB!

  4. CSK says:

    @stonetools:

    Would you want that to be a mandatory jobs program, though? One in which everyone would have to participate, no matter his or her interests, talents, and abilities?

    I have nothing good to say about involuntary servitude, no matter what allegedly benevolent guise it may take.

  5. Suppose someone steadfastly refuses to do the work assigned them by the national service program. Are we gonna jail them? Beat them until they start doing it?

    How is that different than slavery? Is slavery okay as long as the slave owner is the government instead of a specific person?

    I’d also like to note the hypocrisy of all these boomers that spend the 60s protesting the draft now putting this forward when they’re retirement age. Conscripted labor is fine, apparently, as long as you’re the foreman and not the conscript.

  6. ru pedals says:

    McChrystal was right to be concerned about the 1% not being involved with the rest of society, he just got the 1% class wrong. The 1% that show up at Aspen and incidentally run the rest of the show need to learn how to play well with us poors to keep the pitchforks from coming out.

  7. john personna says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    There are quite a few difference between the other national services (including the military, and military justice) and slavery.

    And seriously, did any similar programs in the past-or-present descend to slavery? The various conservation corps?

  8. JKB says:

    Sounds like a great way to create libertarians.

    @john personna:
    Great idea, we’ll make the first couple years someone draws Social Security a time when they “volunteer” to give back to the community.

    You certainly don’t want to take that time away when they have youth and vigor to start building a life for themselves.

    Hey, how about was make 16 and 17 “volunteer” years. Them that want can take Calculus and such through Khan Academy while they “volunteer”

    Oh, at 18, you are removed from society for some mandatory “volunteering”. So later, when you apply to college, your school habits have eroded. On the upside, starting as older students with a bit of experience in the world, the students will be far less likely to tolerated the BS professors pass off as schooling and call education.

  9. @john personna:

    The conservation corps are voluntary. There’s a big distinction between providing the opputunities for service and requiring it.

    If you have no choice about whether or not to participate, I don’t see a meaningful moral difference between being required to plan trees for the Forrestry service under threat of violence and being required to plant cotton for a plantion owner under threat of violence.

  10. Ben says:

    It always warms the cockles of my heart when people want to obligate OTHER people for mandatory service. Is this conscripted service going to be paid? How well? What about people that are supporting their parents, or a young child, etc etc etc.

    Conscripted service doesn’t fill anyone with any sort of commitment or respect for the nation. It breeds contempt, resentment, and avoidance. My father retired a full bird from the air force and always told me that conscripts make the worst soldiers. Well, I bet conscripts make the worst charity workers, too.

  11. john personna says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    You threw that “slavery” stinker in there. Yeah, except for torture, rape, and legal murder … it’s all the same.

    So have fun walking that back.

  12. john personna says:

    @JKB:

    Heh, do we get national healthcare with that?

  13. john personna says:

    @Ben:

    The origin of the idea was pretty much back in the days of the draft, and the idea that it isn’t fair to just take so few, etc.

    If you have a military draft then the national service evens things out.

    If you really aren’t ever going to have a draft, then that issue goes off the table.

  14. @john personna:

    So your only problem with slavery is the excesses it brought and not the core idea itself? That’d it would have been fine for one person to own another as long as they treat them nicely?

  15. Dave D says:

    which allow that program to field tens of thousands of service members without displacing workers and who fill vital niches their paid colleagues do not.

    Do they honestly believe there are millions of these vital niches? If the participation rate was on a mandatory level this would do little besides creating an almost free of charge labor which is bound to displace paid labor. There was a planet money on the other week about charities doing free demolition in the wake of the tornado in Moore, OK which was displacing contractors. Since all of the people had home owners insurance the insurance companies were the major benefactors to the free labor. A national scheme this large is bound to depress wages and have a net reduction in jobs. No one is going to pay for an identical service they could get for free.

  16. edmondo says:

    Are those who are saying that teenagers need to “give back to their country” the same ones who fought increasing the income tax rate by 4% because it was so onerous?

  17. stonetools says:

    @CSK:

    Nope, just a jobs program, like the Civilian Conservation Corps. A voluntary jobs program.
    There are a hell of a lot of unemployed teenagers out there, and they are not all going to college.

  18. john personna says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Well, when subtract all the bad stuff from slavery you have “a job.”

  19. john personna says:

    (I don’t think anyone is insane enough to think that not showing up for national service would lead to jail time. You’d probably just lose government benefits until you start service, or successfully claim disability.)

    (It’s a straw-man to assume that any national service would be Draconian.)

  20. JKB says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Apparently, slavery is like Marxism, just because nobody’s done it right yet doesn’t mean people shouldn’t keep trying.

  21. JKB says:

    @john personna:

    No, national healthcare is just a “volunteer” program to enslave doctors and nurses.

  22. Ben Wolf says:

    Pure authoritarian thinking. What will the excuse be when numerous loopholes are included in the legislation allowing the children of the politically well-connected to avoid such service?

    Does anyone really believe our current problems are due to insufficent nationalist sentiment?

  23. john personna says:

    @JKB:

    How can I respond to you when I have perfect confidence you are beyond education?

    How would you digest “One hospital charges $8,000 — another, $38,000?” Probably with more recursions to your delusion.

    @Ben Wolf:

    Under Mao they would send trucks to pick up slackers idle on big city streets. They’d take them directly to villages and put them to work. Now THAT was authoritarian.

    Something with a payback, like a national health card, would be far milder. Far milder.

  24. Ben Wolf says:

    @john personna: Huh? Authoritarianism is the belief one should submit to authority. It is not determined by how harsh the penalities for disobedience are.

  25. Moosebreath says:

    @john personna:

    “Well, when subtract all the bad stuff from slavery you have “a job.””

    A “job” that you did not choose whether or not to have, and you can’t choose to leave and go find another one is not a job.

  26. Andre Kenji says:

    I remind of this classic Hugh Hewitt interview with the late General Odom:

    http://web.archive.org/web/20070403051909/http://hughhewitt.townhall.com/Transcript_Page.aspx?ContentGuid=d7f52e21-cf46-4115-b397-ed1dc70fcdab

    “WO: And following…let me ask you. Are you enthusiastic enough to put on a uniform and go?

    HH: No. I’m a civilian.

    WO: Okay, but we can recruit you.

    HH: I’m 51, General.

    WO: And I don’t see all these war hawks that want to…none of them have been in a war, and they don’t want to go.”

    I think that somekind of Civil Service for people like Hugh Hewitt during wars would be a nice idea.

  27. JKB says:

    @john personna: Something with a payback, like a national health card, would be far milder. Far milder.

    If you are taken off the street or even ordered to report, that is still authoritarian and still a seizure.

    These morons bringing up “national service” are showing their lack of respect for the Constitution and penchant for the use of violence to impose their will upon others.

    And, does anyone really think the Harvard and Yale types are going to be delayed by a year or two before they take their hundred thousand dollar salaries on Wall Street? Suddenly, there will be exemptions.

    And let’s not forget that Roosevelt had to send in the troops to break up the riots that the union thugs did because they thought they should get paid more than a non-union guy doing the same work in the government make work program. Just because they had an uncle who could get them in the union.

  28. ernieyeball says:

    As I recall, during the Cold War years when the Eastern Bloc countries organized their “Youth Pioneers” we called it forced labor.

  29. superdestroyer says:

    @john personna:

    Hospitals can charge whatever they want. However, the Center for Medicare/Medicaid Services will reinburse the same amount to both hospitals for the same diagnosis codes. The real trick for providers is learning how to adjust their practice so maximize their reimbursements.

    On volunteer service everyone should be willing to admit that it will work like college:the elite and connected will get the career building jobs, the middle class will get jobs based on location and how hard their parents work to help them, and the poor will end up picking up trash along the road. The real question is not people who openly refuse but what happens when the poor sign up and then show up sporadically or open refuse to do the work assigned to them.

  30. Rafer Janders says:

    @JKB:

    And, does anyone really think the Harvard and Yale types are going to be delayed by a year or two before they take their hundred thousand dollar salaries on Wall Street?

    Hundred thousand dollar salaries? That’s peanuts. Speaking as a Harvard grad who worked on Wall Street, seriously, some guys I knew a few years out of college were making $5 million plus.

    This is one reason why we have massive income inequality — most people really have no idea how much the rich actually pocket. JKB cites a “hundred thousand dollar salary” as an example of a lot of money, when in fact that’s about poverty level on Wall Street.

  31. JKB says:

    @superdestroyer: what happens when the poor sign up and then show up sporadically or open refuse to do the work assigned to them.

    That’s when the actual use of force will come into the forced volunteer labor.

    But really these schemes are just backdoor anti-immigrant programs. The amnesty immigrants do the jobs Americans won’t do. But if we force the Americans to do those jobs for at best a very reduced “volunteer” stipend, then the jobs won’t be available for the amnesty immigrants.

    And the unions? It was a few years ago where the union filed a lawsuit against a Boy Scout who had had the temerity to take it upon his self to clean up a section of bike trail. That was the union city worker’s job which they wouldn’t do and certainly didn’t want some kid volunteering to do the work they wouldn’t do since then the union would have less work to not do.

  32. JKB says:

    @Rafer Janders: Hundred thousand dollar salaries? That’s peanuts. Speaking as a Harvard grad who worked on Wall Street, seriously, some guys I knew a few years out of college were making $5 million plus.

    My point. A couple years of “volunteer” work would cost these people 10s of millions of dollars.

    So then they’d get to buy an indulgence, followed by the other famous college grad leaving the poor to “volunteer”. And why not? It’s not like they are going to college. They are missing out on a lot of indoctrination.

  33. Caj says:

    That’s a good idea. But watch those millionaires send their kids off to another country to avoid doing any! Just the same as some Republicans who love a good war but just as long as it’s not any of their kids shedding any blood!

  34. john425 says:

    I’m with Heinlein’s notion that voting rights ought to be tied to national service.

  35. Tillman says:

    You could just tax people more if they don’t do it, and make it available at any age before retirement. Anyone retiring without having served draws less in Social Security benefits.

    You have incentive (no one likes taxes) and you remove compulsion from it. All you have left is something everyone will hate.

    Hell, you could see this coming in handy during a depression like the current one, with a bunch of displaced professionals needing some scratch and something to pad the resume during deep un[der]employment.

  36. mtnrunner2 says:

    I can’t think of anything less American and more ironic than compelling service to America.

    For those that currently volunteer, it is not duty (which is mere obedience), but a desire to do good and to uphold values that convinces them to serve, and is why moral credit is due to them. Virtuous acts arise from choosing to do something that is good willingly, not being forced by law. The latter is slavery.

    What a terrible idea.

  37. Fog says:

    Wow. I never knew that all those hippies and draft dodgers that were excoriated for opposing the Vietnam War were actually bold libertarian heroes! That’s not how I remember it. It’s fairly amusing to hear the squeals at the mere mention of national service. I can only imagine what they would sound like if 60,000 of their number had been snatched off the streets to be shot to death in an asian jungle.

  38. Rob in CT says:

    Encouraging folks to volunteer: great.

    Forcing them to: not so good, to be used only in dire need (e.g., the draft to fight a war that can’t be won w/o it).

    We do indeed have lots of folks idle who could use a job & some income. I’m certainly for doing something about that! And hey, it would even indirectly involve coercion (taxing some to put others to work – the demon redistribution!), but not this. Very much not this.

  39. JohnMcC says:

    Well, anyone who bothered to follow the link to the AmConMag post by Dr Daniel Larison and then was obsessed enough to read the comments would have found me there. So after a couple of days of reading comments here, I suppose I ought to say something.

    I actually got drafted. I was in VietNam and have the Purple Heart to prove it. We who were drafted had no illusions that the ‘Selective Service’ was going to require equal sacrifice from our entire ‘cohort’. When we stood naked in those lines at the induction centers, we knew that plenty of guys standing with us would never serve; no one in our generation was surprised to learn that Vice President Cheney would find ingenious ways to avoid the military. And we knew that those like him would be busily advancing their careers while we were learning how to stay alive in a hostile jungle.

    But still we went. Our parents had survived the Great Depression and then had saved the world from Fascism. We didn’t see a good reason not to follow their example.

    Among our greying and quickly dying-off numbers, you do not hear resentment about the draft to this day. (The nature of the war, hell yes — lots of resentment. About the draft, not so much.)
    Most of us feel we gained a lot from that experience. We met people from everywhere in this country; we shared stories and aspirations and experiences with people of different races and cultures. When we go to vote or watch a parade in our towns today we feel that we earned the rights and privileges of Americans, that these things weren’t just ‘given to us’ by previous generations. Actually, we feel sort sorry for those who’ve never served for whom the vote is a ‘gift’.

    There will never be another draft. I suppose that’s a good thing because it is a restriction on a person’s freedom to do whatever they damned well choose. Which seems to be what the country is all about. And the squeals from those who would notice the inequality would be deafening. So no one wants to put up with the frigging whining that would result.

    But it is important to remember that a nation requires that work be done. And sometimes that work is fighting a war. So we are forced to chose whether to hire a big bunch of guys and pay them to do it, or to require that the citizens of the nation to do it. Obviously, we have chosen to outsource it. And there is a lot of BS about that being the better choice.

    Frankly, I disagree.