State to Young People: You Belong to Me

Under the benign headline “Turning Apathy Into Good Deeds,” former secretary of defense Melvin Laird endorses a strikingly authoritarian proposal: “a system of compulsory universal civil service for young people.” Laird recognizes that the military doesn’t need all the recruits a draft would produce and that today’s high-tech military needs longer-term training and commitment. But the drawn-out war in Iraq threatens to discourage future enlistments. So “universal service” might pressure just enough young people to join the army, while also producing a bumper crop of slave labor for schools, Head Start, Peace Corps, hospitals, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the State Department.

Laird thinks such a program would “foster a culture of responsibility for our democracy.” Not among free and responsible people, it wouldn’t. It may be no accident that Laird repeatedly mentions democracy, but the words freedom and liberty–the fundamental values of America, which our constitutional republic was created to protect–do not appear in his piece.

Laird does not address how you square compulsory service with the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Laird’s proposed “service” is clearly involuntary.

For generations and centuries, old people have complained that today’s young people just don’t appreciate the sacrifices of their elders. They talk too loud and they don’t care about the community. They need, in the words of William James, “to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas.”

And meanwhile, they can do a lot of useful things that we older taxpayers would like to have done but don’t want to pay for. After all, in a market economy, if you want more people working in hospitals or day-care centers, you can pay them to do so. And if you don’t think $2.9 trillion is enough to pay for all the useful services of the federal government, you can propose a tax increase. But how much easier it might seem just to commandeer four million free or cheap laborers.

Of course, they’re not really so cheap. You do have to pay them something. And you’ll need massive new layers of bureaucracy to manage four million people (the approximate number of Americans who turn 18 each year).

And then there are the opportunity costs.  Workers will be allocated to government make-work jobs instead of the jobs where the market demand is strongest. The economy will be less efficient and less productive. As Doug Bandow writes, “paying young people to sweep floors entails the cost of forgoing whatever else we could do with that money and the cost of forgoing whatever else those young people could do with their time. An additional dollar spent on medical research might be a better investment than one used to add an extra hospital helper; an additional young person who finished school and entered the field of biogenetics might increase social welfare more than one more kid shelving books in a library.”

What kind of message does compulsory service send to young people? It tells them that they are national resources, state property, that they do not own themselves. That’s not the message the Founders thought they were sending in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. It’s not an attitude appropriate for citizens of a free society. It’s a collectivist, authoritarian concept. It says, with much less charm than the old song, “You belong to me.”

Melvin Laird should be ashamed. So should John Edwards.