September 9, 2021 Reading Time: 6 minutes

America’s political class is worried. The people are divided and angry. They must be saved from themselves. The answer: universal national service! 

What could possibly go wrong? After all, North Korea is leading the way.

Reported Colin Zwirko late last month: “North Korean teenagers and twenty-somethings are following the government’s call to leave home for coal mines and construction sites, and the country’s leader Kim Jong Un reportedly thanked them for their sacrifices in a new letter released in state media on Sunday.”

Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, known for living the good life, wrote the assembled young people: “In the stirring period, when a dynamic struggle is being waged for the rejuvenation of our great state, our excellent young men and women volunteered to work in the difficult and challenging sectors of socialist construction, instilling a firmer confidence and greater fighting spirit in all other people and demonstrating far and wide the revolutionary character and fighting mettle of the Korean youth, who go through fire and water in response to the call of the Workers’ Party of Korea.”

Kim’s verbose missive compared these devoted and high-minded socialist youth with the captives of capitalism in the West: “Young people around the world are flowing into their capital and other cities in pursuance of their avarice and personal pleasure. Only the Korean young people who have grown up under the embrace of the socialist motherland unhesitatingly volunteer to exchange their cards of capital citizenship with notes of dispatch to coal mines, cooperative farms, grand construction sites and islands far from cities.”

All grandly selfless, as one would expect from a totalitarian hellhole where much of the population suffers in immiserating poverty and hundreds of thousands of people languish in labor camps. And also eerily reminiscent of a century and a half of national service rhetoric in America. 

A military draft is typically seen as a right-wing phenomenon, while progressives more often back civilian conscription, or “national service.” During the 2020 presidential campaign two Democratic candidates, South Bend Mayor (now Transportation Secretary) Pete Buttigieg and former congressman John Delaney offered their proposals, but to little attention. 

Moreover, Susan Rice, Barack Obama’s national security adviser now back at the White House handling domestic policy, once pushed the idea: “I wish we could have mandatory national civilian service in this country, so that every kid between the age of 18 and 21 spent six or 12 months in national service, whether it’s laying broadband or building infrastructure, or rehabilitating inner-city schools and libraries.” 

Other proposals also circulated. Eric Liu of Citizen University sounded a bit like Kim in denouncing Western youth: “We are a self-absorbed, self-centered, self-seeking society whose civic muscles are atrophying rapidly and whose sense of common purpose is disappearing.” Thus, “there’s a single fix that can reverse this atrophy and generate an inclusive sense of shared destiny: mandatory national service.” Lilliana Mason of the University of Maryland pushed something similar: “We need to be reintroduced to each other in a place where we are all on the same team. And we need to do so at an age when political identities are most powerfully shaped.”

Slightly more practical was retired Army Col. Lawrence Wilkerson’s proposal for a conscript “climate change corps.” He explained: “Millions of young, healthy, dedicated, well- and socially-trained men and women will be required to manage both the domestic and the international threats created by this crisis.” Charli Carpenter at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, advocated for what amounted to a Covid-19 corps: “In a military crisis of this magnitude, young men have in the past been called up and trained virtually overnight to perform numerous skilled jobs in the armed forces or in the civil service.”

Early Americans would have been shocked by such ideas. Although they had mandatory local militia service, those requirements eased over time. National conscription emerged during the Civil War but was highly controversial and engendered violent resistance. Even military conscription is a bad idea, but at least it is limited to claimed security emergencies. Since the end of the draft in 1973 there has been no serious effort to return to mandatory service.

In contrast, civilian service always was viewed as voluntary and intrinsic to being an American. Alexis de Tocqueville described the early nation in Democracy in America: “I have seen Americans making great and sincere sacrifices for the key common good, and a hundred times I have noticed that, when needs be, they almost always gave each other faithful support.”

As the 19th century came to an end, however, Progressives attacked the constitutional basis of the American republic and sought to create an authoritarian system. From this movement emerged the beginnings of the national service movement—in terms that sounded strangely like Kim’s latest commentary. For instance, in 1888 Edward Bellamy created a dystopia of near lifetime mandatory service to the state in his novel Looking Backward. Even stranger, people organized Bellamy clubs to advocate their own de facto enslavement. 

Even more famous, and eerily similar to Kim’s program, was philosopher William James’ 1906 speech entitled “The Moral Equivalent of War.” There was none of the progressive pretense reflected in the proposals of Rice, Wilkerson, Carpenter, and others. Rather, James contended that “the martial virtues, although originally gained by the race through war, are absolute and permanent human goods,” and should be promoted by government in peacetime. 

How to do this? North Korea style “service.” Detailed James: “To coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December, to dishwashing, clothes-washing, and window-washing, to road-building and tunnel-making, to foundries and stoke-holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers would our gilded youths be drafted off, according to their choice, to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas.”

This willingness to sacrifice individual liberty carried forward in the 20th century, with mandatory universal service advocates ranging from sociologist Margaret Mead (p429-443) to former defense secretary Robert McNamara. The willingness to look beyond America’s borders for authoritarian examples was exhibited in striking fashion by a 1979 report from the Committee for the Study of National Service. The panel was co-chaired by Harris Wofford, who later ran AmeriCorps and served in the U.S. Senate. The report declared:

International comparisons also fire some American imaginations. Millions of young people serve social needs in China as a routine part of growing up, many [are] commanded to leave the crowded cities and to assist in the countryside. Castro fought illiteracy and mosquitoes in Cuba with units of youth. Interesting combinations of education, work, and service to society are a part of the experience of youth in Israel, Jamaica, Nigeria, Tanzania, and other nations. The civic spirit being imbued in youth elsewhere in the world leaves some Americans wondering and worrying about Saturday-night-fever, unemployment, the new narcissism, and other afflictions of American youth.

To this dubious list of foreign examples could be added North Korea. 

Today’s advocates of national service are well-intentioned. They imagine a benevolent Uncle Sam, at the direction of Washington’s selfless if geriatric political leadership, conscripting four million or so selfish 18-year-olds every year and turning them into humane, progressive, gentle human beings motivated to do good for all for the rest of their lives. The system would send otherwise dissolute youth forth to mature while addressing innumerable unmet social needs. It is a quaint vision, but completely at variance with human nature and experience, let alone the practical operation of governments with authoritarian powers over their citizens. The principle applies no less to America than North Korea.

There also is the matter of the Constitution. The 13th Amendment prohibits “involuntary servitude.” The national government used military conscription shortly before approving that provision and the Supreme Court sustained the practice during World War I. However, neither before nor after did the U.S. draft anyone for civilian “service.” No one can seriously argue that there is a vital national interest to conscript people to manage parks or empty bedpans.

However, there may be one appropriate role for mandatory selective national service. Edward Bellamy imagined the state putting everyone to work well beyond their youth. Instead of drafting young people, why not conscript the old fogeys who are proposing universal national service for others? The advocates should go to the front of the line. Let them lead from the front, not behind. Let them model the expected character development for everyone else. Let them live what they claim to believe.

For more than two centuries Americans have not waited for government to serve their neighbors. Instead, they have acted. They recognized that compassion cannot be coerced. To have moral meaning, service must be voluntary. It is vital that Americans keep the “mandatory” and “national” out of service.

Doug Bandow

Doug Bandow

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, specializing in foreign policy and civil liberties.

He worked as special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and editor of the political magazine Inquiry.

He writes regularly for leading publications such as Fortune magazine, National Interest, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Times.

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