MORE ON NATIONAL SERVICE….A couple of days ago I wrote a riff on the idea of mandatory national service. I’m hesitant to discuss it further since I’m not even sure I’m in favor of it, but after reading some of the feedback I thought it might be worth one more post.
I find the opposition arguments compelling, but even so I’d like to break them down a bit. First, there are the philosophical and ethical objections:
It’s involuntary servitude. I don’t buy this, either legally or morally. On a legal basis, the Supreme Court has ruled that a draft is constitutional, and I don’t think this is a lot different (although perhaps some of the law professor types could chime in here if they have a contrary opinion). On a moral basis, we force kids to go to school, and I’m not sure there’s that big a difference between forcing a 17-year-old to attend school vs. forcing an 18-year-old to join a national service program.
Government shouldn’t force people to do things. Coercion is fundamental to all governments. We force people to pay taxes, we prevent them from smoking marijuana, and we insist that they obey traffic laws, all on pain of being hauled off to jail if they don’t obey. I realize libertarians don’t like this idea much, but most of us think it’s OK.
What if you don’t support the aims of the government? You have to pay taxes even if you don’t like what they’re used for. Again, there’s not much difference. And frankly, I think our political institutions and cultural values are strong enough to keep a program like this from ever becoming the cynical pawn of a partisan president.
Still, having said all that, I accept the idea that there are different levels of coercion, and mandatory national service, even if it’s non-military and aimed at teenagers, is a step beyond anything we do today.
Then there are the practical objections. Generally speaking, I find these more convincing than the philosophical ones:
What do we do with all these kids, anyway? We would have an army of untrained teenagers with not much in the way of skills. If we wanted them to do good works, like helping teach inner city kids or vaccinating third world inhabitants, could they do it? Or would it just be a giant clusterfuck?
Labor unions would object. Yes they would, and rightly so if our army of kids was building public works or doing other jobs that would otherwise be done by paid labor. I think this could be avoided, however, by concentrating on things that would normally be considered charitable activities. The Teamsters don’t object to the Salvation Army, after all.
Would it really accomplish any of the utopian aims I hope it would? Good question.
In my original post I suggested that mandatory national service might help provide “a sense of national purpose.” But I probably have it backwards. What I really wish for, I think, is that America had enough sense of national purpose that the idea of mandatory service would seem like a good idea. Of course, then we wouldn’t need it.
So it’s all dreamy idealism. But since I think of the blogosphere as a dorm room bull session writ large, I still like the idea of discussing stuff like this. It’s both fun and instructive, isn’t it?