Perhaps Mao Zedong’s Red Guards seemed a better model only three years after his death. The image is rather more dated today, after China turned to capitalism to develop and invited businessmen and women into the “communist” party. Similarly, Cuba’s youth now are more likely to flee their island in search of work and freedom than stick around as civic foot soldiers for Castro (today Raoul instead of Fidel).
Nevertheless, modern advocates of national service also want to reorder and remake society — individuals, families, institutions, and more. The ends sound beyond reproach: promote patriotism, ensure diversity, offer job training, create work, encourage tolerance, increase college access, spread civic‐mindedness, and, always, fill the ever‐expanding number of “unmet social needs.”
Yet the idea is dangerous, seeking to use the state to transform human beings, turning them into the new man and woman so often advanced by ivory tower philosophers and practical political despots at every turn. And to do so by turning over the power of the state to the sinful human beings most determined to accumulate, wield, and abuse power. To even associate the concept with the likes of Mao and Castro should be to discredit it forever.
In practice the idea is no better. There is a constitutional problem, admittedly something that does not bother Rice and other progressives for whom constitutional law is simply the process of torturing legal texts until they yield a vaguely conceivable interpretation justifying the desired result. Nevertheless, the 13th Amendment’s language seems clear, prohibiting “involuntary servitude.” What is mandatory service but that? If the law requires that you serve, especially if there is sizable penalty attached, then the Constitution bars the practice. Yet neither Rice nor most other mandatory national service advocates — former Gen. Stanley McChrystal is another one — even bother to mention the issue.
It also seems, well, a stretch to assume that today’s young people would react positively to being blamed by their elders for society’s problems in a system constructed, managed, and defended by those same elders, who seem to view themselves as immune from selfishness, greed, envy, frivolousness, ambition, callousness, and the manifold other social deficiencies to be cured by conscripting the young now that their elders have providentially reached a sufficient level of understanding. Especially when these elders are ambitious Washington insiders seeking to enhance their own ambitions for high office. Indeed, cynicism seems the most likely response. Advocates of such schemes often point to the military draft, but for every person who has endearing memories of being ordered about by the ultimate arbitrary federal bureaucracy, there are many others who report less enchanting experiences.
National service is a moronic way to provide jobs or job training. Dragooning the roughly four million people turning 18 every year and doing something with them isn’t likely be cost‐effective, efficient, or inexpensive, and isn’t likely to yield useful training or jobs. If treated like low‐cost military conscripts, the federal government, or the organizations to which it seconds the essentially free labor it has called up, will use them accordingly. The more the forced laborers are paid, the more their “service” will look and feel like normal jobs.
Short‐term service, the norm with conscription, is a particular waste. People get trained only to be given a task when they have begun counting down their days till they can escape back to civilian life. Moreover, as the military also discovered, those who resent being forced into uniform resist in myriad ways — being late, making little effort, ignoring instructions, exhibiting indiscipline, ignoring training, resisting authority, and otherwise undermining the system. You can’t even fire someone who wants out rather than in, since doing so would be a reward. But are you really willing to imprison the perennial laggard who always shows up late and does a shoddy job?
Moreover, the only real “national service” is representing the nation, most obviously being in the armed forces. Most of what is called national service is more accurately individual or community service. That is, it has nothing to do with the nation and everything to do with what traditionally has been done by the voluntary and independent sectors. Many of such tasks are simply an employment substitute for services that tend to be underfunded — there is no special virtue in shelving library books, picking up trash, cleaning bedpans, or whatever other tasks might win endorsement by the interest groups and legislators who would pass on any national service program.
However valuable such jobs might seem, they would be moral and virtuous only if voluntary. To imagine coercion instilling virtue and morality requires having a totalitarian soul. Compulsory compassion is an oxymoron, created to benefit the one doing the imposing, not the one being imposed upon. Indeed, arresting someone for refusing to live up to someone else’s vision of service would be a moral crime.
The worst practical argument for national service is the usual kitchen sink contention about addressing “unmet social needs.” Asked about the jobs that need doing, advocates come up with manifold lists of hundreds of thousands or millions of supposedly vital tasks currently not performed by hospitals, libraries, parks, schools, community centers, gardens, government bureaucracies, and more. But such numbers mean nothing when no costs are attached to the request. If labor is free, the demand is infinite. Heck, the unmet needs in properly caring for my house and yard are many — just not worth me doing or paying someone else to do.
At issue is opportunity costs. That is, the real price of conscripting people is not the pittance paid them, but their forgone activities — finishing medical school, caring for an ill family member, engaging in scientific research, creating a useful new app, working for an NGO, doing volunteer service, increasing economic opportunities for others, meeting people’s basic needs, producing useful goods and services, or simply enjoying their own lives, as they should be free to do. The theory of national service objectively and humanely discovering and solving manifold social problems sounds great when expressed in an op‐ed piece. But it bears no relationship to reality. Turning such an endeavor over to politicians, bureaucrats, lawyers, judges, interest groups, lobbyists, and an independent sector dependent on government for money and labor is likely to have unexpected consequences, to put it mildly.
The more grandiose the proposals, the greater the disconnect with reality. Consider the slightly mad idea of Charli Carpenter of the University of Massachusetts (Amherst), who would round up millions of 18- to 20‐year‐olds to do good. She imagines,