All Commentary
Tuesday, December 1, 1998

Service Muddles in Washington

Civilian Service Should Be Separated from Government

Doug Bandow, a nationally syndicated columnist, is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author and editor of several books, including Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World.

For presidents and generals, the Cold War made military policy easy. The U.S. armed forces had to contain the Soviet Union; everything else was secondary.

But no more. The world may be dangerous, but it isn’t particularly dangerous for America. With the Pentagon still at Cold War levels—adjusted for inflation, U.S. defense spending is as high as in 1980—what should the armed services do? That was the question posed at a recent West Point conference on the relationship between civilian and military service.

As if further evidence of the accuracy of public choice economics was needed, the proceedings showcased proposals for cooperation, coordination, and perhaps much more between the Pentagon and civilian “national service” programs, particularly AmeriCorps. Why not deploy the armed services to deal with all manner of other “national security” problems, such as education?

This debate is possible only because we are living in a post-Cold War world where the Pentagon doesn’t have much important work to do. The United States and its allies account for 80 percent of the globe’s military spending; Washington’s enemies are few and pathetic; America’s prosperous allies can defend themselves; the failed foreign societies around the globe pose no threat to our own.

The search for new tasks is bureaucratically awe-inspiring. NATO is viewed as a means of integrating former Warsaw Pact members into the West. U.S. troops in Okinawa are said to help stabilize South Asia. The U.S.-South Korean alliance is now touted as a check on China.

Then there’s the Selective Service System. Created to conduct a speedy mass mobilization, Selective Service has been left without a purpose by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. Even the Pentagon has said that it could do without registration.

But Selective Service is nothing if not creative in coming up with new reasons to survive. The administration says registration provides insurance—against what is not clear. Advocates declare that it deters despots from using nuclear weapons—apparently 7,000 nuclear warheads are not enough. And the program supposedly promotes civilian-military relations—as if signing a card at the Post Office generates patriotism.

Still, Selective Service realizes its vulnerable position. Last year it admitted that “with the downsizing of the Federal government, the Selective Service System can no longer dwell on its proud past or bet on the threats of tomorrow. The System must be of proven value to America today and every day.”

Thus, the agency proposed a half-million-dollar “Serve America” initiative to publicize AmeriCorps. Argued Selective Service Director Gil Coronado, the “traditional role of Selective Service offers a natural opportunity to promote voluntary service to America in AmeriCorps, as well as in our military.” Apparently we now need military registration to encourage civilian “service.” Congress refused to appropriate the money, but Selective Service still hands out the AmeriCorps phone number to young men forced to register.

Mixing military and civilian service is far more likely to promote a bureaucratic empire than meet citizen needs. The problems with the AmeriCorps approach go beyond the usual government waste. Federal funding is likely to warp even the best groups, causing them to lobby for additional assistance and to shape their programs to win government support.

Moreover, AmeriCorps further shifts decision-making from average people across the country to the political process. As Marvin Olasky has pointed out, the definition of “compassion” was once to “suffer with” by becoming actively involved in the lives of those one was attempting to assist.

In this century the definition changed, first to mean writing a check, which absolved people of the painful requirement of human interaction, then to making other people write checks. While AmeriCorps may be a better means of assisting the poor than the panoply of past welfare programs—what wouldn’t be?—it further distances people from those they are supposed to be serving. Instead, people should directly fund and oversee private organizations.

These are all good enough reasons to oppose government “national service,” no matter how well intentioned. But another reason for caution is the likely impact on the military from expanded civilian service and “cooperation” between the two.

Military service differs from civilian service in several key ways. First, it is service to the national community. It is seen as almost the definition of patriotism. Civilian service, in contrast, is service to a particular person, although there may be social benefits from, say, teaching literacy. Second, soldiers have what is essentially unlimited liability anywhere around the world. They can be sent into dangerous, even life-threatening, conditions anywhere. Third, they voluntarily accept restrictions—such as the prohibition on quitting—that apply to no other job. Finally, defense is one of government’s few mandatory functions; paying people to work in charities is not. Even if the latter seems cost-effective (and funneling funds through government certainly is not), it should not be allowed to interfere with the government’s performance of its defense function.

Joining the military has always been viewed as an act of citizenship, and not just service. Establishing an alternative form of government service dilutes the unique quality of military service. Obviously the civilian marketplace already creates significant competition for the military. AmeriCorps and its siblings would go further, offering an official alternative to young people who want the challenge of “service,” while reducing the likelihood they will enlist in the armed forces. This is especially true when military service means constant deployments away from their families in order to implement a foreign policy of social work. It is one thing to accept the cost and risk of military service to help defend America from a foreign threat. It is quite another to join, say, to maintain a unified Bosnian state against the wishes of most of its inhabitants. Even the patriotic-minded are less likely to join in those circumstances. True, the military is too big today, but even a smaller force would suffer the loss of a few thousand high-quality recruits.

Civilian service is important, but it needn’t be organized and funded by government. At the same time, military service should continue to be recognized for its unique role. The armed services should be downsized to reflect the diminishing threats to America and the Pentagon should focus on defense.

Separating civilian service from government is likely to give us more service, the kind that more effectively meets critical individual and national needs. And it will provide service in a manner that best reflects our heritage of liberty.

  • Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of a number of books on economics and politics. He writes regularly on military non-interventionism.