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Hudson Institute Panel on National Service:

I should have posted this earlier. But this Monday at 12 PM , I will be taking part in a panel on "national service" at the Hudson Institute (1015 15th Street, NW, Washington DC), along with Bruce Reed of the Democratic Leadership Council, consultant Shirley Sagawa, and prominent conservative political scientist Leslie Lenkowsky. I anticipate that Mr. Reed and Ms. Sagawa will be defending federal government-sponsored national service, whereas Lenkowsky and I will be criticizing it.

Back in 2007, I wrote a series of posts criticizing mandatory national service and arguing that it violates the Thirteenth Amendment's prohibition of "involuntary servitude" for any purpose other than as punishment for a crime. On the panel, I hope to discuss both current proposals for voluntary service (which I don't think are necessarily unconstitutional, but are still seriously flawed), as well as the looming danger of mandatory national service - an idea that has been endorsed by many prominent political leaders, including White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and John McCain. The issue doesn't necessarily split people along left-right lines, though that may be the case on this panel. Many conservatives defended the draft until the 1970s, and conservative icon William F. Buckley published a book advocating national service in 1989 (he claimed his proposal was for voluntary service only, but also urged that those who refuse to serve be subject to various "sanctions," including denial of a drivers license and high school diploma).

UPDATE: The original version of this post gave the wrong address for the Hudson Institute. I apologize for any confusion.

kdonovan:
Other than perhaps for military conscription in a major military emergency such as a world war, compulsory national service is a horrible idea. It is an inefficient use of labor, the increased taxes needed to pay for the laborers and the bureaucracy to supervise and support them are an unnecessary burden that will depress economic output, and it is a serious infringement of people's freedom to do as they please.
2.9.2009 12:36am
Hadur:
Much as Bush tried to create an "ownership society", Obama is seeking to create a "community organizer society". Each party tries to reshape the American people in their own image.
2.9.2009 1:15am
Thorley Winston (mail) (www):
Um the link you provide doesn't actually have McCain saying he favors compulsory "national service." Do you have a link to either a vote he cast or a statement where says something like "I favor mandatory national service" or "everyone should be required to perform national service"? If not a retraction would seem to be in order.
2.9.2009 3:46am
EricPWJohnson (mail):
Prof Somin,

Can you give examples where "servitude" is defined judicially?

Interesting in that a National Service requirement would fall under "involuntary" - but to me - the definition of what defines "servitude" is up in the air.

Many could argue that minors are involuntarily forced to attend school - some say it conflicts with other constitutional rights as to assemble peacefully and freedom of religion.
2.9.2009 7:14am
jukeboxgrad's favorite YouTube video:
Other than perhaps for military conscription in a major military emergency such as a world war, compulsory national service is a horrible idea.

I agree. However, I don't know about the 13th Amendment argument against compulsory community service. This country had military conscription during the Cold War, even in the absence of "hot" wars - Elvis being America's most famous peacetime draftee.

There is an argument to be made that even peacetime military conscription differs materially from mandatory community service, but it certainly isn't helpful that this country tolerated involuntary military servitude when there was no active crisis that required it.
2.9.2009 8:11am
PersonFromPorlock:
EPWJ: Judicial I'm not, but servitude seems to me to take over a person's life in a way that, say, paying taxes doesn't. Even if the service is only an hour a month, it wholly occupies that hour. In commanding service, the government is saying "we have more right to your life than you do," which surely runs counter to the idea of government as a servant.

Servants have a right to be paid, which nominally justifies taxes: they have no right to boss their employers around.
2.9.2009 8:17am
Tracy Johnson (www):
Heinlein's "Starship Troopers" was also a treatise to only allow those who've served to be able to vote. (Please no, don't refer to the movie, noooooo.....)
2.9.2009 8:36am
Jon Roland (mail) (www):
Don't overlook the one form of national service that is mentioned four times in the original Constitution and once in an amendment to it: Militia. It is not involuntary servitude to call up persons for response to threats to society, without paying them for doing so. Militia, as originally conceived, is a public duty of everyone, even if not everyone was subject to penalties for failing to respond to a call-up. The responses for which there can be a national militia call-up are "to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions". Disaster response was left to local or state call-ups.

However, call-ups may be made not just for responses to actual threats, but to prepare for them: Congress may "provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia" and "training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress". Today, the needs of militia include the full range of education that is supposed to be provided by the public schools (with an emphasis on civics), so the militia clauses, properly understood, can include federal direction, if not support, for public education of reading, writing, mathematics, the sciences, and strong training in history, government, and law.

Now it is true that in the early republic local militia often included everything from building bridges, fortifications, town halls, and schools, to caring for those infected with contageous diseases. All without pay, although with the burden distributed so that militiamen could also provide for their families. Taxes were payable in personal services.

There are constitutional limits to what persons may be called up to do. It does not include being conscripted into a regular military organization, or keeping everyone in a permanent called up status. The point of not paying persons for militia is that they need to be left with enough personal time to continue their normal occupations.

However, militia can and has built civic virtue. Its discipline and training can carry over to other areas of life, from job skills to supporting a family. It can even convert enemies of society into contributing members of it.

So, if it is done right, "national service" could be both constitutional and the remedy to many of our nation's problems. Imagine the effect of training and organizing everyone to detect and disarm "suitcase nukes" so that we could prevent them from destroying dozens of our cities.

Now if the Obama Administration can only bring itself to use the "m" word.
2.9.2009 10:15am
Thorley Winston (mail) (www):
Don't overlook the one form of national service that is mentioned four times in the original Constitution and once in an amendment to it: Militia. It is not involuntary servitude to call up persons for response to threats to society, without paying them for doing so.


It is most certainly involuntary servitude and the fact that the militia is mentioned in both the original Constitution and the Second Amendment is irrelevant as the Thirteenth Amendment which prohibits involuntary servitude was ratified later and in the event of a conflict between the two, the one that was ratified later would be controlling.
2.9.2009 12:39pm
pintler:
There is widespread agreement that we should compel young people to spend 12 years of their life in school. We force them to learn things that will benefit them personally - reading, writing, arithmetic, phys ed, and also things that benefit society at large if widely known, like civics and first aid.

Why is requiring another year of training a qualitatively different thing?

As an aside, I have known people from very disadvantaged backgrounds who had an epiphany in basic training: they were just as smart as the other guys. Interacting with people from all regions and walks of life has a very positive effect on society.
2.9.2009 12:41pm
Javert:
So enslaving blacks is a moral abomination but enslaving an entire country is morally enlightened?!
2.9.2009 1:00pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
pintler.
I knew folks in the army who had an epiphany. They were from privileged backgrounds and they discovered that there were a good many people who weren't, but were smarter.
The difference between military conscription and some other form of involuntary servitude is that the former is directed toward a discernible threat. Even if only maintaining a huge military for purposes of deterrence in order to keep our enemies from trying something, conscription had a purpose.
There is no discernible threat, or even issue, which involuntary servitude can deal with better than existing organizations.
Unless you want to posit new activities, such as spying on one's neighbors.
And the grit in such an endeavor would make it seriously inefficient.
Even draftees knew they faced the possibility of being in combat. Either that motivated them, or their buddies, with sufficient imagination motivated them.
It would be difficult to see a high school kid drafted to sweep gutters who would, 1, take it seriously enough that he didn't need supervision, or, 2, not take away jobs from public sector unions, or, 3, both.
And supervisory ratios of one to four, as in most combat units, is expensive.
2.9.2009 2:41pm
pintler:

The difference between military conscription and some other form of involuntary servitude is that the former is directed toward a discernible threat.


Aubrey, you make good points. To play devil's advocate, I wouldn't have people sweeping the streets. Have something like basic training - the whole 'militia being essential to a free state' thing, not to mention a little knowledge of self defense. Then have tracks for people for the last six months - wildland firefighting, disaster relief, being the 2nd officer in a patrol car, etc.

After your year was up, you'd stay in the 'reserves' for say 5 years. When the Governor wants to call up the militia in an emergency, to stack sandbags, keep the peace after Katrina, etc, there would be a pool of trained people. People might not like getting called for a week of filling sandbags, but then people don't like jury duty either, and that's not voluntary either :-)

In addition to those benefits, I have grave reservations whether it is healthy in the long term for democracies to have their military composed primarily of long serving professionals.
2.9.2009 3:03pm
Mark Jones (mail):

In addition to those benefits, I have grave reservations whether it is healthy in the long term for democracies to have their military composed primarily of long serving professionals.


I have grave reservations whether it is healthy in the long term for democracies to have their GOVERNMENTS composed primarily of long serving professionals. I'll support "national service" only when and if we first enact term limits on all elected federal offices...and federal employment in general.
2.9.2009 3:27pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
pintler
At this point, about two-thirds of the relevant age cohort is unqualified for military service due to mental, moral, or physical issues.
That means that only about a third of the relevant age cohort can withstand basic training, or anything like wilderness fire fighting.
So there's some serious resentment right there. Do everything right, play by the rules, and the government takes a year of your life. Eff up, you're free.
Imagine a cop with a six-month trained, unwilling conscript in his car. Ask a cop what he'd think.
We already have a Guard for domestic disasters as well as war. And they are joined by willing volunteers.
In fact, some states already have a militia to form up if the Guard is entirely gone someplace.
Jury duty is not an equivalent. You ever been in a pool?One lady claimed she got irritable bowel syndrome when faced with questions, another claimed to be mentally slow. They were excused. It's so easy to get out of jury duty that, effectively, they're volunteers. And so few show up in our city that a judge sent out cops to broom up some passersby.
I also worry about an all-pro military. Mostly, though, because in contrast to the military, civil society can't get its ass out of its own way. With every such demonstration, the respect shown the military by society increases.
Now, suppose something terrible happened and we have the county being run by a major with odds and ends of Guard and Reserve guys and some veterans. The cops decide he's the best bet for the moment.
And somebody says, we have to start with elections. We have to find dull-normal, ignorant thieves who can't think straight. They'll replace the current regime which is doing pretty well, as well as circumstances permit. Also, we need lots of places for lawyers to tell us what to do. In fact, we need such of the old bunch as aren't currently hanging from lamp posts for their part in the catastrophe. That's the American way.
My suggestion, wishes being horses, is that civil society begin showing the wisdom of the average basic trainee, as well as his integrity and competence. If that massive improvement in civil society ever happens, we have less to worry about wrt long-service pros in the military.
You want more? As bases close, the military is concentrating in various places. That means the dependents and the retirees.
If you read anything about a soldier these days, you'll probably find his family has served.
Not only is the military becoming isolated, so is the military culture. You won't find teachers in, say, Killeen, TX giving a kid a hard time because he has a picture of his soldier uncle with a gun. Nor principals trying to run off recruiters. Nor, as in Maine, teachers giving dependent kids a hard time about their soldier fathers.
Meantime, the leavening effect of having the military spread out is decreased elsewhere.
2.9.2009 4:04pm
Assistant Village Idiot (mail) (www):
It seems to matter greatly exactly what national service we are talking about. While the principles we might apply might make for fascinating discussion, I am more than a bit worried about the precedent. Even if we could agree on a brilliantly-designed national service that incorporated objectively freedom-based ideas, the next Congress would pass bills expanding that definition of service and its requirements.
2.9.2009 4:20pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
Assistant.
As the sun rises in the east.
2.9.2009 4:58pm
pintler:

You ever been in a pool?... effectively, they're volunteers


'Yes' and 'not in my case'. I make no claim about the general case.

The lack of suitable people may or may not be a problem. For one thing, it would pay better than minimum wage, so some people would be interested. Secondly, I think failure to complete it might be viewed as a black mark, like not having a high school degree - or to invert the effect, employers would view success in that year as predictive of whether you would be a good employee. I have read, for example, that in Switzerland success in the army (equivalent to out Natl Guard) is strongly correlated with success in civilian life, not as a result of policy but because people with the qualities to succeed in one generally succeed in both.

I agree there will be some cadre of the incorrigible, but you can't run a society for their benefit of those who aren'twilling (you can always find something for those who are merely light in ability).

I admit to doubts whether it is politically feasible.

Thanks for the thoughtful response. You may be right.
2.9.2009 6:15pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
Pintler.
I think Switzerland's army is mandatory. Anybody who doesn't qualify is not likely to be doing well anyway.
Even if it pays better, there is still the problem of the unqualified, presently more than half.
2.9.2009 6:35pm
Dr. T (mail) (www):
...the looming danger of mandatory national service - an idea that has been endorsed by many prominent political leaders, including White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and John McCain....

...and President Obama, before he was running for president. He wisely concluded that voters would not like someone who endorsed mandatory slavery of young adults, so he only talked about his support for voluntary service. Given the way he kept his word about no lobbyists in White House positions, I expect him to openly push for mandatory national service by the end of 2010.
2.9.2009 6:37pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
Dr. T. At the rate he's breaking his promises, I see it happening prior to 2010. He's got over ten months left in '09.
2.9.2009 6:46pm
Dr. T (mail) (www):
There are numerous references above to the military draft as an exception to the 13th amendment. But, the draft never should have been allowed. If the danger to our nation was so minimal that no one wished to join the military, then we should not have been fighting.

We do not need a military drat. We do not need mandatory national service. Both violate our rights, our freedom, and (least important) the 13th amendment.
2.9.2009 6:54pm

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