When did slavery become so chic? From The New York Times to the Aspen Institute to a bevy of failed generals and weaselly ex-diplomats, the caterwauling for mandatory national service is rising. After decades in which political betrayals and federal failures destroyed almost all public trust in the government, our ruling class believes that compelling all young people to sacrifice a year or two of their lives will restore faith in the system.
I have been whacking proposals for mandatory service for 25 years. In 1997, President Bill Clinton announced at a so-called “Volunteerism Summit” that America needs “citizen servants.” I responded with a Playboy piece headlined, “The Return of the Hitler Youth?,” deriding his call for a national kiddie draft. I scoffed, “The citizen-servant scare is typical of Clinton’s efforts to create as much confusion as possible between freedom and compulsion—and thus to weaken people’s will to resist the further advance of his power.”
Unfortunately, in subsequent decades, the confusion “between freedom and compulsion” has been replaced by open derision of Americans’ right to live as they please. The easiest way to prove your moral superiority in Washington is to champion destroying everyone else’s freedom. The rising popularity of mandatory national service exemplifies how public policy debates are turning into a never-ending horror show for libertarians.
In 2019, the congressionally-created National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service recommended reserving “mandatory service as a last resort” to force Americans to serve as politicians demand. Rep. John Delaney made a one-year mandatory service requirement for every 18-year-old a keystone of his 2020 Democratic presidential campaign.
In 2021 Congress created a new federal holiday, Juneteenth, spurred in part by focus on the horrors of slavery. But compulsory service advocates are rewriting the script on American history. Apparently, slavery was evil not because of the unjust subjugation but because plantation owners, not politicians, were the profiteers.
In a 1988 decision, the Supreme Court declared, “Servitude means ‘a condition in which a person lacks liberty especially to determine one’s course of action or way of life.’” Mandatory service means servitude for young people. Lauding them as “national servants” would be a poor substitute for setting them free.
Being forced to kowtow to officialdom will supposedly ennoble young people. Writing in The Hill last year, Khari Brown idolized compulsory service: “It is the willingness to give of yourself to a greater purpose…Through compulsory national service, we can build a culture of empathy, understanding, and giving that empowers individuals and strengthens communities. The good in all of us can truly be realized when we recommit to extending it to others.” Brown can afford to champion sacrifice by others: he receives a $255,000 salary, paid for in part by government grants for his nonprofit organization. The “willingness to give of yourself to a greater purpose” is typical of the tripe offered by mandatory service advocates. Politicians confiscating a year or two of young people’s life is magically converted into young people “giving.”
The Aspen Institute is in the forefront of the crusade for compulsion. It works “to build a free, just, and equitable society,” according to its mission statement. (The institute’s CEO works so damn hard for equality that he receives $664,000 a year.) According to Aspen Institute poohbah Eric Liu, “There’s a single fix that can reverse this [political] atrophy and generate an inclusive sense of shared destiny: mandatory national service…Give tens of millions of young Americans that kind of cross-pollinating, solutions-oriented, stereotype-busting, face-to-face experience year after year.” “Cross-pollinating”? Would this be a wacko eugenics experiment or what?
According to University of Maryland Professor Lilliana Mason, “Research from social psychology and political behavior supports the effectiveness of this type of [compulsory] program.” Ergo, freedom failed and all young people must be obliged to report to the re-education camps. And when forcing young people to sacrifice a swath of their lives fails to improve their attitudes, that will provide easy topics for hundreds of dissertations by low-watt sociology graduate students.
One of the most bizarre elements of the current push for compulsory service is the notion that it will end the divisiveness that politicians have fueled. “Compulsory National Service Could Unite America,” whooped a New York Times op-ed headline last year.
Former ambassador David Carden champions mandatory service because “[I]t’s become increasingly apparent that something visionary and ambitious will be required for Americans to heal their democracy.” Mandatory service would provide “the geographic and socioeconomic intermingling necessary to bridge the country’s partisan and other divides.”
Reading such twaddle, one would get the impression that the forced busing policies in the 1970s and 1980s were triumphs in healing and brotherhood. But consider how compulsory mixing went in Boston. All hell broke loose after a federal judge forced Boston to bus poor whites to an inner city black neighborhood and bus poor blacks to a poor white neighborhood. The New Republic noted in 1983 that “the early years of busing [in Boston] furnished to the student passengers an educational experience of value only to those aspiring to careers in urban guerrilla warfare.” The National Guard was called out to restore order in Boston after violent public protests and racial clashes around the schools. Even the 82nd Airborne Division was put on alert for Boston duty.
Championing mandatory service to end divisiveness would entitle our rulers to expand their power after they toxified the nation’s politics. President Biden recently denounced Republicans for “semi-fascism” and held a prime-time speech with a fiery red backdrop seemingly inspired by the movie V for Vendetta and Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. And yet, young people supposedly must forfeit their freedom because Americans believe their rulers are shameless demagogues.
Former AmeriCorps member Jay Caspian Kang, writing last month in The New York Times, lamented “the severe understaffing of New York City’s municipal services.” Conscripting three million young people would provide “a new fleet of workers, mostly between the ages of 18 and 25, [who] could be placed in cities, towns, and rural areas with civic labor shortages.” Kang rhapsodizes that conscripting all young people will assure that “there will at least be enough bodies around to run everything” to provide services to the homeless. When did “enough bodies around” suffice to nullify freedom? Government unions are notorious for minimizing the work performed by public employees. So the miserable level of services that bureaucracies deliver magically entitles politicians to commandeer everyone’s lives?
Kang calls for the “forceful normalization of joining up with AmeriCorps after high school.” “Forceful normalization”—does that include patrols to catch runaway national servants? Compelling all young Americans to sacrifice a year or two of their lives to political commands will be unpopular with many victims. How would the feds enforce the edict? What length of jail or prison terms would politicians need to inflict on those who refused to report to government work sites? Perhaps 10% of the national servants could be formed into patrols who searched the land for violators, like the slave patrols of the antebellum South. Maybe there would be SWAT raids on furtive locations where non-servants clustered. Perhaps young people could be required to get a RFID chip implant so their bureaucratic masters could confirm they are on good-deeds chain gangs.
Advocates of compulsory service ignore the opportunity cost that their schemes would inflict on millions of young Americans. Instead, they practically imply that every 18-to-20-year-old is squandering all their time playing video games and watching Pornhub, so why not round them up? But compulsory service would force young people to postpone building their own lives.
I am especially jaundiced on those opportunity costs because of my own experiences in my late teens. My final years of public high school were mind-numbing regimentation. As soon as I graduated, my love of reading returned and my intellect belatedly awakened. I turned 18 in 1974—one year after military conscription was abolished. Because I didn’t have a draft board waiting to pounce on me, I could drop out of Virginia Tech without worrying that I would get sent to some foreign hellhole. (I later re-enrolled for a few semesters after I realized that, if I was going to become a writer, I needed to learn how to write.) I hitchhiked all around Virginia and up and down the East Coast in those years. Sleeping by the side of the road was far preferable to being detained at compulsory service sites. That would have been too similar to the convict road gangs I worked alongside the summer I spent as a sixteen-year-old on the Virginia Highway Department payroll. Being forcibly immersed in any government regime would have denied me the time and oxygen necessary for my own thoughts to begin to ripen.
If politicians are hellbent on destroying the Thirteenth Amendment’s prohibition on involuntary servitude, why not make a public bonfire of the entire Constitution? If mandatory service is enacted, there would be plenty of conscripts around to stoke the fire and maybe toss a few dissidents onto the flames to make it crackle. Few things are more perilous to freedom than permitting politicians to sanctify government’s iron fist.