Indeed, America’s volunteer military is much better motivated than its conscript predecessor because all those serving want to be there. Having a force dedicated to staying in rather than getting out affects individual motivation, unit cohesion, education and training, reenlistment rates, NCO numbers, and much more. Career officers almost uniformly prefer to lead a military of volunteers than of conscripts for this reason. All told, MUNS likely would result in a less effective military.
National service can be fairly and efficiently enforced. A program with four or eight million people, spending billions of dollars, working with scores or hundreds of agencies, NGOs, local and state governments, and more, and possessing a highly political agenda is unlikely to be nimble, efficient, streamlined, and flexible. Federal employment practices and program administration for existing social service agencies generally receive poor reviews. There is no reason to assume that a new universal national program, which would have to decide what jobs with whom counted as “service,” match millions of participants with openings, evaluate the performance of servers, and manage the inevitable conflicts and problems, as well as force angry, recalcitrant youth to participate, would be any better. In fact, far worse seems much more likely.
Just as military conscription has been presented as a mechanism to lower defense costs, some advocates of civilian programs contend that compulsory service would save money by lowering salaries for those performing essential services. However, conscription for any purpose shifts rather than reduces expenses. The military draft always operated as an arbitrary tax, abrogating free choice and cutting compensation that recruits otherwise would demand. A mandatory civilian program would do the same. One could save similar amounts by lowering salaries of postal employees, conscripting janitors for federal agencies, or instructing automakers to equip the government’s transportation fleet at cut‐rate prices.
Moreover, MUNS would generate evasion efforts similar to those under military conscription. Government officials presented the military draft as a matter of national security, even survival, but many young men were not convinced that they were morally obligated to fight and possibly die in Vietnam. An entire industry arose dedicated to enabling young men to escape their legal duty. Some faked injuries, others found jobs that exempted them from the draft. A number went underground or fled. Would‐be recruits were aided by sympathetic outsiders, such as doctors who certified nonexistent debilitating injuries.
Many men who reported for duty nevertheless resisted while “serving” — doing little work, ignoring or resisting orders, refusing educational and training opportunities, and showing disdain for their supervisors, service, and even country. The military could not discharge malcontents, since that would act as a reward; rather, the armed services were forced to accommodate the discontented to their detriment. Advocates of mandatory universal national service might dress their program in glowing rhetoric and imagine civilian conscripts sharing their enthusiasm for doing good, but a substantial number of the four million men and women turning 18 every year likely would think otherwise.
And then, what to do when “servers” refuse to report for duty? How to deal with chronic malingerers, who call in sick, show up late, and more? What if participants consciously, even ostentatiously, do their job badly? To ignore such conduct, relying only on pride and shame for enforcement, would simultaneously undermine the value of service and weaken the legal requirement. But is jail appropriate for someone who would prefer not to spend a year or two cleaning bedpans or managing parkland? Government could rely on financial incentives — say, denying college support or other government benefits for those who don’t serve — but that would be effectively reviving the Civil War practice of allowing conscripts to buy their way out of their legal duty. Those of means would effectively be exempt from service requirements, while those of limited means would feel pressure to conform.
To the extent that compulsory universal service succeeded, it almost inevitably would duplicate some jobs already performed in the private and public sectors, and likely at lower cost, assuming compensation for “volunteers” was lower than for “employees.” This prospect led the Clinton administration to promise no job displacement from its volunteer program. However, this is almost impossible in practice. A school district receiving a “free” contingent of teachers and teachers’ aides likely would reduce its independent hiring, no matter what it claimed to Washington. To prevent this from happening the government would have to treat as off‐limits for millions of MUNS participants the most worthwhile tasks, those which the public or private sectors already are providing or supporting.
Compulsory national service is fair, legal, constitutional, and achievable. However the program might be sold, in practice it would raise a host of fundamental, even debilitating practical and legal issues. How to treat religious work, for instance? Faith‐based charities pervade the independent sector. Would they be barred from participating? What of political, social, and sexual lobbies? Say Planned Parenthood? The latter, as well as the activist Gray Panthers and controversial left‐wing lobby ACORN, were early beneficiaries of AmeriCorps projects. In many cases educational or medical aid would be overshadowed by political activism.
The Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, or CETA, by which the national government funded local jobs, gained a notorious reputation as political pork for members of Congress and local officials alike. For instance, in Chicago the long‐ruling Daley political machine required CETA applicants to get referrals from ward committeemen. In Washington, D.C., almost half of city council staffers ended up on CETA rolls. The program’s failings were such that it became one of the few programs ever terminated by Congress.
An even more important question is the constitutionality of a mandatory universal program. The Thirteenth Amendment was passed to eliminate slavery, but its reach is broader: “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.” Mandatory universal national service, at least if legally required and backed by civil or criminal penalties, would fit the definition of involuntary servitude.
In 1918, the Supreme Court upheld military conscription from a challenge under the Thirteenth Amendment, but that decision was almost preordained: it took place during a war in which U.S. draftees were then in combat, in a period when protection of civil liberties was at a historical low and exaltation of the executive was at a disturbing high, and when the Supreme Court took an essentially servile attitude toward the other branches of government. Moreover, in the Selective Draft Law Cases the justices declared that “the highest duty of the citizen is to bear arms at the call of the nation” and that obligation “reflects the custom of nations.” The Court unsurprising ruled that the authority to raise armies and exercise other war powers “includes the power to compel military service.”
None of these arguments apply to civilian service. First, there is no related, explicit constitutional authority. Second, by the Court’s own ruling any civilian citizenship obligations trail military duties. Third, mass civilian “service” would not be performed for “the nation,” but rather for people and institutions at the behest of the national government. The difference is subtle but critical. Military service is directed and managed by the state for the benefit of the state. Similar is mandatory jury service, another practice that goes to the essence of state sovereignty. Requiring someone to engage in any number of civilian tasks to benefit others, however worthwhile, is very different. It is difficult to imagine such a program surviving judicial scrutiny, else the Thirteenth Amendment would be a dead letter.
Mandatory universal national service would eliminate young people’s sense of entitlement. Why should middle‐class young people expect taxpayer aid to attend university, it has been asked? To eliminate this “entitlement mentality,” some MUNS advocates would tie school aid to service (and make loss of such assistance the principal consequence of refusing to join). Yet a compulsory government program of this sort would reinforce the idea that students have a right to a taxpayer‐paid education.
This would merely move the entitlement one step back. Students seeking college aid would be entitled to a not‐too‐challenging public “service” job with a salary and educational grant. For instance, among the tasks funded by the Corporation for National and Community Service: informing people about the availability of FEMA Service Centers, maintaining vehicles, surveying residents about recreational interests, cutting vegetation, and changing light bulbs in dilapidated schools. In contrast, consider the sort of tasks envisioned by William James: young laborers would be sent off “to coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December,” and much more.
The real solution to the entitlement mentality is to rethink who deserves an educational subsidy and how it should be provided. Indeed, abundant federal educational assistance, especially loans, has made it harder for students to afford college by fueling tuition hikes. The schools know they can raise their prices because students can afford to pay more, and thus are the ultimate beneficiaries of most “student” aid. Of course, America should address the entitlement mentality of those well out of university as well, who have come to expect their own “entitlements,” which presently are driving federal expenditures rapidly upward.
Genuine “service” can be compulsory and national. Service is good. But what is service? It usually is thought to involve some measure of self‐sacrifice for the benefit of others. To whom is service owed and provided? Government programs ultimately assume that citizens are responsible not to each other, but to the state. MUNS proposals suggest that as a price for being born in the United States one “owes” a year or two of one’s life to Washington. Irrespective of the rhetoric surrounding mandatory universal national service, this approach puts private lives at the disposal of government. However, while Washington can mandate that young people fill particular positions, it cannot force them to compassionately serve.
What America desperately needs is a renewed commitment to individual service. People, in community with one another, should help meet the many needs of those around them. They should be encouraged to do so — by a renewed service ethos, not a new compulsory system.
Leaders throughout society, ranging from lawmakers to clerics to philanthropists to corporate executives, should emphasize that the initial and principal responsibility to help those in need lies with individuals, families, and communities, not government. These leaders should highlight the great needs around us and promote a more traditional sense of compassion, one that emphasizes personal commitment — volunteering both money and time as well as exercising careful stewardship of resources when doing so. Compassion should be understood to reflect an act of community, not discharge of a legal duty, choosing to know, understand, and suffer with those in need.
Moreover, advocates of service should lead by example and encourage an upsurge in participation from the grassroots. People of all ages, not just the young, should be challenged and encouraged, not threatened and penalized. Increased voluntarism should be part time and full time; it should take place within families, churches, and civic and community groups. Service should occur through charitable institutions and profit‐making ventures. There should be no predetermined definition of service, pattern of appropriate involvement, assumed set of “needs” to be met or tasks to be fulfilled, and certainly no de facto monopoly for Washington. America’s strength is its combination of humanitarian impulses, private associations, and dramatic diversity. Americans need service, not national service, and certainly not mandatory universal national service.
The most obvious role for government: officials should commit themselves to a strategy of “first, do no harm.” Policymakers should confront public programs that discourage personal independence and responsibility, disrupt families and communities, inhibit employment and education, and hinder opportunities for and efforts by people and groups to respond to problems around them. When government acts, it should train personnel to meet the most serious challenges, rather than submerge such tasks in an omnibus program dragooning millions of untrained youth to paint darkened buildings, plant young trees, or do whatever else strikes an influential politician’s fancy.
Mandatory universal national service is a solution in search of a problem. People serving people benefits everyone. Aiding others ennobles the giver and enriches the recipient. However, the essential core of service is voluntariness, the fact that it is an outgrowth of human compassion, not legal compulsion. Mandatory universal national service would conflict with deeply held American values, violate the Constitution, create an administrative nightmare, and undermine its own objective of creating a more caring America. Such an approach is a bad idea whose time has not come.