All Commentary
Thursday, March 1, 1990

National Service: A Solution in Search of a Problem

Thomas J. DiLorenzo is the Probasco Professor of Free Enterprise, The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. This article is adapted from his forthcoming book, Paved With Good Intentions: Economic Nationalism and American Industrial Policy (Cato Institute, 1990).

In some intellectual and public policy circles, economic nationalism has struck a fever pitch in the form of proposals for so-called national service. There are now several plans floating around Congress and the White House for a national youth corps. One plan would provide a $100 weekly salary and a $10,000 yearly tuition credit voucher for people between 18 and 26 who join a “Citizens Corps” for two years or serve in the armed forces at a reduced rate of pay.

The masons given for why the nation supposedly needs a “youth corps” are that it is important to instill in youth an admiration for collectivism and a distaste for individualism. Of course, national service proponents rarely are so forthright in their use of language. But a brief survey of some of the “national service” literature reveals that this is exactly what they intend.

One Congressional sponsor of a national service bill says the bill is “based on the premise that our young people must move beyond the narcissism of the Reagan years.” Such egocentricity, says the Congressman, was socially irresponsible because it “led many to ask what their country could do for them.” Thus, it is supposedly undesirable for citizens to think of government as an institution whose main purpose is to serve the public. Rather, it is the other way around: Citizens should be compelled to serve government. Citizens are thought to have special “duties,” as defined by government, which they must fulfill through “national service.”

The National Service Coalition

Donald J. Everly, the executive director of an organization called the “Coalition for National Service,” believes that “young people have a responsibility to their heritage to contribute a period of service to our land and our people in need.” It is unclear, however, what portion of the American heritage he refers to and why individuals have “responsibilities” to it (by whose authority? to serve whose ends?).

One thing that is clear is that Everly is not referring to America’s Constitutional heritage. The American republic was founded on the belief that individuals have inalienable rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness, not some vague obligation to become indentured servants for the government. This aspect of the American heritage suggests that citizens should strongly resist any national service schemes. True voluntarism is a legitimate part of the American heritage, but that’s not what national service is about. National service under the auspices of the federal government is necessarily coercive.

Prominent members of the media also have jumped on the national service bandwagon. One Washington Post writer decries the “appeal to self-interest” and the “selfishness” that he claims was spawned by the election of Ronald Reagan. This Post writer maintains that what is needed is “a counter-appeal to altruism” in the form of a new “social contract.” Such a contract would “define not only what our country will do for citizens, but what our citizens will do for our country.”

The word “contract,” as used here, has a rather unique meaning. Millions of youths who would be subjected to a national service plan would have little or no say in the drafting of the contract, nor would they be asked to sign it. The “contract” presumably would be made out by a small group of national service advocates and their Congressional allies. When the government (or the Washington media establishment) starts talking about social contracts, it does not necessarily mean a contract that takes into account the preferences of the society in question. It means a contract constructed by a small group of social engineers who use the power of the state to impose the contract on the rest of society. And on top of all that, the rest of society, namely the taxpayers, are compelled to pay for the government programs created by the new “contract.”

Sociologist Charles Moskos might be considered the intellectual father of national service. He has written a great deal on the topic including his 1988 book, A Call to Civic Service. In this book Moskos writes that the philosophical underpinnings of national service are based on the idea that “private interests are subordinated to the public good and in which community life takes precedence over individual pursuits.” Such thinking, writes Moskos, “is laying the philosophical foundation for the popularization of national service.”

Like nearly every other supporter of national service, Moskos praises the collectivist philosophy and denounces individualism and economic liberty. He calls the latter concept “mean-spirited pri-vatism” that allegedly has “led to a widening gulf between haves and have nots.” He does not define what he means by “mean-spirited privatism” other than joining with Washington establishment figures in casting aspersions on Ronald Reagan. Nor does he attempt to demonstrate statistically that a “widening gulf” in the income distribution has occurred in recent years. In short, he does not define any particular problem, but he is absolutely convinced that national service is the “solution.”

As far as Moskos’s denunciation of “privatism” is concerned, he seems completely unaware that during the economic recovery from 1982 to 1989, more than 20 million new jobs were created in theU.S. economy, and, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, most of them were relatively high paying. The unemployment rate fell from nearly 12 percent to just over 5 percent; inflation declined from 13 percent to one-third that rate; and bracket creep was eliminated by indexing the income tax for inflation. All the economic news wasn’t good during that period, but the point is, the supporters of national service talk as though the nation were in the depths of the Great Depression as they bemoan the alleged failures of the private sector. Creating 20 million new jobs is hardly “mean spirited.”

Voluntary or Mandatory?

Although national service is touted as “voluntary,” some of its supporters’ statements raise doubts. For example, Moskos claims that the philosophical foundation of national service “is nowhere better exemplified” than in the work of Michael Walzer, who Moskos labels as “one of the country’s leading social thinkers.”

Moskos praises Walzer for explaining in a recent book “the merits of obligatory and unpaid, but temporary, labor to do the necessary work of society that is dangerous, grueling, or dirty.” This sounds worse than indentured servitude, which at least provides some form of payment in return for labor.

One senatorial proponent of national service would like to have mandatory national service, but doesn’t believe it would pass Congress, at least not yet. Another senator has introduced legislation that would provide “a full range of possible penalties to ensure mandatory participation.” A “full range” of penalties presumably would include prison terms for those young people opposed to forced labor.

Even if national service weren’t mandatory at the outset, it would likely evolve into a mandatory system. Economist David Henderson offers the following entirely plausible scenario: “[N]ational service attracts few kids from higher-income families. Its advocates then argue that the only way to get broad participation across all income classes is to make national service compulsory. With the voluntary service network in place, the next step is compulsory national service.”

Fundamentally, a national service program that is operated by the government cannot be voluntary. Anything financed by tax revenues is not voluntary because taxes are not voluntary. At best, so-called national service is a combination of bribery and extortion. Money is extorted from taxpayers in order to bribe young people to perform work that their governmental overseers think they should be doing.

The phrase “national service” is misleading because it implies that people pursuing their own careers, independent of governmental direction, are not providing a national service. The truth is that every private- sector business provides a service to consumers; otherwise it wouldn’t survive, at least not without government subsidies. This elementary economic confusion is nowhere more apparent than in the White House where an Assistant to the President for National Service stated in 1989 that “from now on, any definition of corporate success must include serving others.” Of course, no corporation can possibly be successful unless it serves others, namely, its consumers. What the presidential assistant apparently has in mind is somehow compelling corporations, in addition to the nation’s youth, to perform additional “national service” work.

What national service proponents are advocating is not more service, but a different kind of service. As with all forms of social engineering, they are advocating the reallocation of resources from the private to the public sector. Thus, the taxes extracted from the public will be a disservice to taxpayers, although the beneficiaries of the new government program—service recipients as well as contractors, materials suppliers, and others—will benefit.

The text of one pending bill is quite explicit in announcing that the intention of national service is to reallocate the services that are provided in the United States, but not necessarily to provide more service. For example, the bill calls for mar-sharing “our nation’s resources to meet national needs.” The implicit assumptions in this statement are: 1) Young people should be viewed as a nationalized resource; and 2) since these resources are considered communal property, they must be allocated by a group of government bureaucrats, i.e., the administrators of a national service program.

To describe the lives of young people as “our nation’s” resources quite explicitly assumes that these individuals have no inherent or inalienable rights outside of those determined for them by government. They are viewed by national service supporters as a nationalized resource that should be compelled to serve the government’s needs rather than their own.

The philosopher Ayn Rand put so-called voluntary national service proposals into perspective more than 20 years ago when she remarked that the “unnamed principle” behind all such proposals is: “Developing yourself into a productive, ambitious, independent person, is not regarded as a value to the United States; turning yourself into an abject sacrificial animal is.” Rand’s point was well taken: It is not socially costless to interrupt a young person’s education or initial working experience to force him or her to, say, empty bed pans at a government hospital. It is costly not only in terms of the infringement on that individual’s freedom, but also in terms of delaying the entrance of that young person into the working world where he or she will perform some service to society for market wages. According to national service proponents, someone “serves” the public only when engaged in an activity where no one values the output enough to pay for it.

Crowding Out Genuine Services

Proponents of national service are also misguided in their belief that an additional government program will create more of a sense of community. Charles Moskos, for example, says “the need for national service” is especially strong now “because of the relative weakness of other forms of community.” What Moskos and others fail to recognize is that massive government intervention in the area of social policy over the past decades has been largely responsible for the weakening of many community efforts. Another social program would only make things worse.

For example, Social Security has weakened the sense of individual responsibility for one’s parents and grandparents, not to mention the negative effects on incentives to save for one’s own retirement. Food stamps have led to a reduction in private efforts to feed the hungry. Government housing programs have helped create a low-income housing crisis. The centralization and bureaucratization of the public schools has stolen control over education from parents. As Charles Murray has shown in his recent book, In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government, social policy over the past several decades has had a massive crowding-out effect on communities. An unfortunate result of this displacement of community efforts is that when the government programs prove ineffective, as they often do, those in need are left without either governmental or community assistance. National service may have its strong points, but instilling a stronger sense of community is not one of them.

Moskos and other national service advocates are correct that more can be done in the area of social policy, but they are misguided in their approach. National service would likely crowd out efforts by genuine, voluntary nonprofit organizations, especially by creating manpower problems for the nonprofit sector. Genuinely voluntary service is a positive good and a valuable asset to the United States. But a government-operated nation al service program would corrupt the whole idea of service because it is not genuine.

Another point that should be kept in mind is that since the 1930s, government “jobs” programs have been marred by useless “make-work” jobs that are, at best, an excuse to keep the programs running. There is every reason to believe that national service would evolve into just another make-work program.

Knowledge and Political Problems

Proponents of national service claim that there are millions of jobs in the U.S. that are left undone, and that young people should be required to perform them. But as long as resources are scarce and human wants are unlimited, there always will be certain jobs that remain undone, and for a very good reason: They are not done because the benefits of doing the jobs do not outweigh the costs. If they did, some entrepreneur would profit by performing the task. Many social services, such as the day-care industry, could use a strong dose of deregulation to make them more economically viable, but national service does not even address such alternative approaches.

A national service program also would suffer from the knowledge problem. It assumes that government can accurately assess the desires of the public and establish an appropriate plan to meet them. But this is what Nobel Laureate Friedrich Hayek calls “the fatal conceit.” It is inherently impossible for a group of governmental planners to possess and utilize such massive, dispersed knowledge. Only a free market, with the help of the price system, can adequately perform such a task. Any attempt by government to imitate the market process is mere guesswork and is inevitably counterproductive.

It is also likely that a national service program would quickly evolve into a massive political patronage system. According to various proposals, there would be a network of “national service councils” staffed by local politicians and political appointees. These people would surely want to use the program to reward their political supporters with jobs and to use the jobs as a means of garnering further political support. Consequently, there would be new possibilities for corruption by local politicians provided with free labor.

Once a “national service” network was established, the beneficiaries would soon form a strong lobby to expand the program’s expenditures, as is the history of all such programs. Thus, a national service program is bound to allocate services according to political criteria more than genuine service needs. Members of Congress would compete to funnel patronage jobs to their home districts, and the costs of the entire system would rapidly escalate.

National Service in Other Countries

In the final chapter of A Call to Civic Service, Moskos outlines national service programs in Great Britain, Canada, and the Federal Republic of Germany. He uses these examples to make the “they’re doing it, so we should be doing it” argument. But examples from other countries also can be used to make a case against national service.

For example, some years ago Germany enacted a “Law for National Labor Service” that required one year of service for every youth between the ages of 18 and 29. Like the current American proposals, the service was part military and part civilian. The plan was initially voluntary, but was made mandatory after two years.

The proponents of the German national service law promised that all work “undertaken by the Labor Service may only be supplementary, i.e., work which would not be undertaken in the ordinary way by private enterprise.” Similar promises are made by contemporary American supporters of national service.

The German plan also praised collectivism and sharply criticized individualism and the market system. It advocated that young people be made to perform “service rendered to the German nation,” and its overall purpose was “to lift men out of economic interest, out of acquisitiveness, to free them from materialism, from egoism . . . .” Moskos does not detail this particular German program because his examples of German national service are from the postwar Federal Republic of Germany, whereas the above statements were all made by supporters of the Hitler Youth during the 1930s. The Hitler Youth were institutionalized by the “Law for National Labor Service,” which operated under the premise that “the child is the mother’s contribution to the state.” This was the ultimate in national socialism: the nationalization of people.

This is not to suggest that the American supporters of national service are fascists or “national socialists,” but to underscore what a tremendous threat to individual liberty such a program entails. Current American proposals may not sound too threatening since they are supposedly voluntary. But the Nazi program also was voluntary when it began, and, as mentioned above, there already are many powerful political supporters of mandatory national service in the United States. For these reasons, national service could pose one of the greatest threats to freedom in the coming decade.

1.   Dave McCurdy, “A Quid Pro Quo for Youth.” New York Times, June 26,1989, p. 29.

2.   Ibid.

3.   David Broder, “An Idea With Force,” Chattanooga Times, January 28,1988, p. A-9.

4.   Ibid.

5.   Charles C. Moskos, A Call to Civic Service: National Service for Country and Community (New York: Macmillan, 1988).

6.   Ibid., p. 5.

7.   Ibid.

8.   Ibid., p. 8.

9.   Ibid., p. 6.

10.   Ibid.

11.   Cited in David Henderson, “Who Needs a Citizens Corps?” Barron’s, April 24,1989, p. 9.

12.   Ibid.

13.   Cited in “Freedom and Philanthropy: An Interview With Milton Friedman,” Alternatives in Philanthropy (Washington, D.C.: Capitol Re.arch Center), March 1989.

14.   S.3, “The Citizenship and National Service Act,” 1989.

15.   Ayn Rand, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (New York: Signet Books, 1967), p. 231.

16.   Moskos, p. 9.

17.   Charles Murray, In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988).

18.   Robert A, Brady, The Spirit and Structure of German Fascism (New York: Howard Fertig Publishers, 1969). p. 174.

19.   Ibid., p. 178.

20.   Ibid., p. 180.

21.   Ibid., p, 195.