The Mainstreaming of Forced Labor:

Co-blogger Jim Lindgren has done an excellent job of criticizing the "Service Nation" proposal for up to two years mandatory "national service," eventually to be imposed on all Americans.

As Jim explains in his first post, Service Nation is backed by a wide range of prominent politicians, activists, and philanthropists, including several potential 2008 vice presidential candidates. This impressive list of backers heightens my previously expressed concern that proposals for government-imposed forced labor are entering the political mainstream and may be on the road to enactment. Other prominent supporters of mandatory national service (cited in the post above) include Charles Rangel, the late Bill Buckley, Rahm Emmanuel, and Bruce Reed, President of the center-left Democratic Leadership Council. Republican Presidential candidate John McCain has endorsed mandatory national service in the past, though (as far as I know) he has not reiterated this view in recent years.

The fact that mandatory national service is attracting the support of numerous mainstream, centrist politicians and activists is a sign of its political viability. These people are unlikely to endorse any major proposal that could damage their political prospects. Another political factor in its favor is the fact that the targets of such proposals are almost exclusively young people - a group with very little political influence. The combination of powerful backers and weak victims is always a political advantage.

I don't expect mandatory national service to be enacted in the near future. But it might well be adopted through a slow process of accretion over the next few years, perhaps by the Service Nation target date of 2020. For example, one can imagine an initial proposal that merely requires mandatory service as a condition of receiving federal student loans (as many national service advocates propose). Once that law is enacted, critics will claim that it is "unfair" for relatively affluent students to escape this obligation by paying for their tuition with private funds. The law could then be amended to cover all college students. At that point, many would consider it unfair that college grads are required to serve, while other young people are not. Eventually, the law could be expanded to impose mandatory national service as a condition of getting a high school diploma. Obviously, these requirements would have to be imposed on students in private schools and colleges as well as public ones. Otherwise, they would not be truly "universal," as national service advocates insist they must be. Other slippery slope paths to mandatory national service are also possible. The scenario I outline is just one of several plausible possibilities.