There are perennial calls for drafting all 18 year olds to serve in either the military or some civilian alternative. Congressman Charles Rangel has repeatedly introduced bills in Congress (the “Universal National Service Act”) that would do this. The bills have never come close to passage, and are unlikely to in the future even with Democratic control of both houses of Congress. But universal national service is one of those seductive ideas that refuse to die completely.
Rep. Rangel is not the only supporter mandatory national service. Other advocates include prominent Democratic Congressman Rahm Emanuel, the center-left Democratic Leadership Council, Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain, and conservative icon Bill Buckley.
Becker and Posner do an excellent job of marshaling the consequentialist economic arguments against mandatory “national service.” I would only add that advocates of this policy implicitly assume that whatever jobs the governments assigns to program participants actually will benefit the nation as a whole. That assumption is unlikely to be true, given what we know about the power of narrow interest groups to divert government resources for their own benefit.
Be that as it may, there is a deeper moral issue here: mandatory national service is not just an inefficient policy proposal, it is forced labor. And forced labor on a massive scale. Most proposals would require millions of young people to do compelled work at the behest of the government for one to two years each. Even in the unlikely event that mandatory national service could be shown to provide benefits that outweigh its costs, it would still be morally repulsive. It would still strike at the heart of the liberal idea that each person owns his or her own body, and cannot justly be compelled to work for others merely because it might be convenient to do so. Short of outright slavery or the murder of innocent people, it is hard to think of anything that violates individual liberty more clearly than forced labor.
The rhetoric of “national service” obscures the true nature of the idea, perhaps intentionally. It suggests that forced labor at the orders of the government (“national service”) is somehow morally different from forced labor at the behest of other private individuals. But there is no intrinsic moral difference between the two. Yes, forced labor for the government might benefit the nation (though that result is by no means guaranteed). But so could forced labor for a private enterprise. Indeed, even outright slavery was regularly defended on the grounds that the labor of slaves produced valuable benefits to society as a whole.
As Posner points out, there is little chance that Congress will enact a forced labor program in the near future. In the long-term, however, I fear that constant advocacy of the idea will erode our moral resistance to it, and that some crisis may occur that will enable the proposal to go through. The fact that it continues to attract the support of savvy politicians like Emanuel, Rangel, and McCain, suggests that it has some legs. And once enacted, a forced labor program may be very difficult to repeal. Both government and (possibly) private enterprises will become dependent on these “low cost” (from their perspective) workers, and will lobby hard to avoid having to give them up. Moreover, government forced labor programs tend to target the young (usually 18-21 year olds), a group with very little political power; this factor also makes them difficult to abolish. For these reasons, among others, mandatory “national service” remains in force in France and Germany, despite the disappearance of the security threat from the Soviet Union that originally justified it.
We may not be able to completely eliminate the danger of forced labor. But we should at least recognize that forced labor is not only inefficient, but a great moral evil.