Shikha Dalmia of the Reason Foundation has an interesting Wall Street Journal column explaining some of the reasons why we should be deeply concerned about John McCain and Barack Obama's plans to promote "national service." In a recent follow-up, she argues that Obama's national service plans are ultimately more dangerous than McCain's (though she also believes that Obama is the lesser of the two evils overall). To my mind, the danger of Obama's proposals stems from the combination of their immense scope (covering all high school and middle school students, plus a large proportion of college students and working adults) and the fact that, if he becomes president, he will have a cooperative Democratic Congress willing to give him what he wants. I fear that implementation of Obama's plans would, among other things, establish federal government control over a large portion of the American labor force. Numerous private organizations will then have an incentive to lobby Congress to be declared eligible for participation in Obama's programs. The end result will be to make more firms and charities dependent on government, and to ensure that their priorities come into line with those of whoever controls Congress at any given point in time. Federal government allocation of large parts of the labor force is also likely to divert people away from more productive private sector activities. I'm also not convinced that we should require either school or college students to spend more time on "service" as opposed to studying for their classes. Time spent on the latter might ultimately benefit both the students and society more than additional time spent on government-defined "service" work.
John McCain's plans seem less ambitious and are also likely to face a more skeptical reception in a Congress controlled by the opposing party. There is, however, much to criticize about his emphasis on "public service" as well.