National Service or Involuntary Servitude?

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Ever since the end of World War II, the idea of introducing a system of national service has been put forward as a potential solution to a wide range of national ills. It is seen variously as a way of assuring greater national security, ending draft inequities, meeting social and environmental problems, easing high unemployment among youths, and providing opportunity for personal growth. A recent spokesman in support of the cause is Franklin A. Thomas, president of the Ford Foundation. In his commentary, "In Support of National-Service System for Youths," (Education Week, June 8, 1983), Mr. Thomas reported that his foundation has funded a major study to assess various models of national service.

From my perspective, those who advocate this approach to national problems are living with illusions, and worse, are ignoring fundamental philosophical objections that a free society ought to face. My opposition to a national-service system rests on both theoretical and practical foundations. I spent four years in just such a compulsory program during World War II as a conscientious objector, and that experience fully persuaded me that a national-service system is--in ascending order of importance--impractical, unworkable, and un-American.

It is impractical because the number of young men and women who would be involved is too large to make possible their effective employment, let alone their effective supervision. Two million Americans reach age 18 each year, and placing such an untrained and unskilled army in useful work is a formidable proposition, especially since others obviously cannot be displaced in the process.

Mr. Thomas himself recognizes that the views of organized labor "must be taken into account," and he excludes the public-works sector as a source of employment--which is probably just as well, since it seems unlikely that hard-pressed municipalities and rural communities could productively administer the work of inexperienced young people.

This leaves the private sector, where hospitals and social-service agencies have many unmet needs. But are their administrators any better able to cope with hordes of conscripted teenagers than their public-sector cousins? Nor do these questions even touch on the enormous cost of such an operation. If money of the scale needed is indeed available, it would seem far better to spend it on attacking directly the nation's social ills.

National service is inherently unworkable because of the harsh reality that service cannot be compelled. One can force men into an army with reasonably satisfactory results because the powerful incentives of fear and self-preservation in a kill-or-be-killed environment produce the diligence and commitment necessary to get results. But no such dynamic exists in a program of service to the community, where desire to help is the indispensable ingredient for effective performance. Without it, the effort to force service produces resentment and foot-dragging. And because desire can't be compelled, compulsory service programs will always fail. They failed in World War II because even those who were highly motivated often came to resent made work and miserable supervision. If this problem arose in a program involving only thousands, it is worth pausing to reflect on its scope in a program involving millions.

It always astonishes me that this crucial distinction between volunteerism and compulsion in the performance of work seems to escape the attention of proponents of national service. Does Mr. Thomas see no significance in the fact that all the enterprises he lists as offering evidence of the potential acceptability of national service are voluntary programs that people joined because they wanted to, not because they were compelled to? Is incentive unrelated to performance? The problem here is that the words "compulsory service" are in reality a contradiction in terms. We would do better to recognize them for what they really mean: involuntary servitude. This would help us to better judge the quality of performance we could anticipate.

But more important than either practicality or workability is a more basic question that is raised by the proposal for national service. By any other name it is still conscription, and I find conscripting free men and women to do the will of the state inimical to the principles on which our country was founded.

Many thousands of our forefathers came to America precisely to escape the barren conscription systems of Europe, and while we have tolerated the imposition of a military draft in times of great national emergencies, any suggestion that we should accept a peacetime version, or any other form of compulsory service, would have been unthinkable prior to World War II. We would have been deeply concerned that a national-service program would undermine the strength and vigor of a free society by a process of socializing (i.e., indoctrinating) whole generations of young Americans. This would certainly happen if the program came under Defense Department supervision, as it likely would, since compulsory-service proposals have always been closely related to the need for a labor pool for military service. That we should now be once again discussing this option seems to me to be a measure of how far we have come in transforming ourselves into the image of what we oppose--or at least opposed when we were a new nation pointing a new direction for humanity.

None of this is intended to denigrate the value of giving service to the nation. I agree with Mr. Thomas that contributed service is an important part of good citizenship and can "help bind us together, ... accomplish needed tasks, and provide for individual growth." I want to do everything I can to encourage our young people to offer themselves to help the nation and the larger world community. But it must be service freely given. The effort to compel it will fail, and should fail.

I urge Mr. Thomas and his foundation to focus on searching for cures for the underlying problems of American youth--inadequate skills, inadequate education, and high unemployment--rather than chasing after the imagined benefits of a system that would force young people into a program of involuntary servitude.

Vol. 02, Issue 41, Page 19

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories