Mandatory national service seems to be an alluring concept that curiously gains little traction, mired in public indifference and political inertia.
Apart from voluntary activities, like military service, Teach for America, AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps, few other organizations promote a sense of citizenship—a form of consciousness that places allegiance to a higher calling above narcissism. Having served in the military, I’ve long wondered how my fellow Americans learn to serve something other than themselves.
I well realize that families promote values and morals. Parents serve as role models in demonstrating selfless service to their communities and nation. Patriotism and altruism begin in the home and religious institutions.
But, if families are shattered, thus minimizing role-modeling and wholesome expectations, what happens to the children seeking a way to healthy citizenship?
So, mandatory national service would seem to be a capital idea. Young (and maybe older) people would escape their comfort zones to find themselves working alongside people who come from different socioeconomic groups. It all sounds marvelous: our nation would benefit from the unifying forces of compulsory national service.
Drawbacks are many. Opponents point to the 13th Amendment that prohibits involuntary servitude of, in this case, young men and women. The US military is flourishing because its members are volunteers, not draftees conscripted into the Armed Forces. Young people sent to work in hospitals or national parks may be taking jobs away from others.
Simply, skeptics of mandatory national service wave the flag of liberty, as in free choice, to thwart execution of the idea.
One of the major opponents is Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute. Referring to a plethora of proposals over the years championing national service, he wrote in The American Conservative on August 9, 2019, “More often, they involve social engineering for ideological ends.”
Okay, how does the idea gain traction? The trick, I suppose, calls for incentives to volunteerism, the bedrock of our vibrant country. This conclusion is not terribly profound. It, however, raises the specter of hefty federal funding support.
In 1990, Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski, along with Arizona Senator John McCain, recommended using the National Guard model whereby 50,000 individuals would serve for between three and six years at an annual cost of $250 million as part of the Corporation for National Service. Mikulski’s plan would have paid an annual $3,000 stipend for part-time service.
Again, Bandow wrote in March 1990 about the Mikulski plan, “Indeed paying volunteers would preclude achievement of one of the most important goals of national service, the inner transformation of individuals. If people sign up essentially to moonlight, and their employers treat their free labor like most institutions treat free labor, it’s hard to see what values will be communicated.”
Incidentally, I wouldn’t consider incentive-ridden voluntary national service as welfare, as some do. I view it as vital national interest to boost citizenship in our divided, fractious country. I believe it must be apolitical, not open to political manipulation, as in using the volunteers to serve a president’s whim.
I don’t pretend that well-funded national service, perhaps available to college students seeking a fulfilling gap year, would be an easy sell on Capitol Hill. It’s often failed.
Bandow’s arguments so far have carried the day: let worthwhile volunteer activities evolve on their own, without government intervention or interference. However, I believe that federal participation is necessary if the national service is to have wide and deep enough reach across our country.
The time has come to strengthen, if not restore a sense of national unity and common purpose. The time has come to tear down barriers to civil discourse and useful community-building behavior.
We have many concerning and stubborn problems facing our country. Funding is not finite. Consensus is complicated.
If mandatory national service is infeasible, then a robust, funded voluntary program might be an answer.
Just a thought.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.