Policy Analysis No. 190

National Service: Utopias Revisited

Executive Summary

National service has long been a favorite utopian theme. Earlier this century, William James wrote of the need for a “moral equivalent of war,” which would require all young men to work for the community. In succeeding decades, a host of philosophers, policy analysts, and politicians offered their proposals for national service. Now President Clinton suggests allowing perhaps 150,000 or so people to work off student loans through government service.

The scheme has a certain superficial appeal, but at base it assumes that citizens are responsible, not to each other, but to the state. Moreover, advocates of national service seem to believe that “public” service, such as shelving books in a library, is inherently better than “private” service, such as shelving books in a bookstore.

Still, proponents of national service rightly point to the problem of an entitlement mentality, in this case the idea that students have a right to a taxpayer-paid education. The solution, however, is not to say that people are entitled to an education as long as they work for the government for a year or two, but to eliminate the undeserved subsidy.

Imagine the bureaucracy necessary to decide which jobs are “service,” sort through labor union objections to “unfair competition,” match thousands of participants with individual posts, and monitor the quality of people’s work. The incredible fraud, misuse, and waste endemic to other so-called public service programs hardly augur well for yet another, even larger, federal effort at social engineering.

National service, despite its persistent allure, would be no bargain. Clinton’s proposal would create a nightmarish bureaucracy and waste billions of dollars at a time when he is asking the American people to pay more in taxes. National service is an idea whose time will never come.

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Doug Bandow, a senior fellow of the Cato Institute, is the author of Human Resources and Defense Manpower, published by National Defense University.