If you’re in high school, you probably get asked a lot about what you plan to do after you graduate. Maybe the answer is obvious for you. Perhaps you’re planning on going to college or trade school, or you want to get a job right away. Or maybe you don’t know quite yet. Maybe you’re still exploring your options and trying to figure out what kind of career you really want to pursue.
No matter what you end up choosing, the first steps you take after high school can be kind of a big deal. After all, this is your entry into the real world. The options before you are vast. For the first time in your life, you get to choose your own future.
But what if you couldn’t choose? What if the government decided for you what your post-graduation plans would be, at least for a year or two? Would you be happy about that? Would you appreciate being told how and where to take your first steps as an adult?
I know I wouldn’t be. After slaving through 12 years of compulsory schooling, the prospect of spending even more of my life doing what someone else tells me to do would be, to put it mildly, disconcerting.
Sadly, this is exactly the kind of thing that some people are trying to make a reality.
A recent article in Foreign Policy, for example, argues that America needs a mandatory public service program. Authored by David Carden, a long-time friend of President Obama and former US diplomat, the piece suggests that this is the best way to address political polarization, and that it would also give young people valuable skills and experience.
“A program of mandatory national service, if designed effectively, would bring together young Americans from across the country and all socioeconomic groups,” Carden writes, “to work on public interest projects and accomplish common goals for the good of the country.”
Carden suggests a number of projects that could be part of the program, such as “tutoring and mentoring...improving environmental conservation...building public housing...and helping in the construction, rehabilitation, and maintenance of public parks and facilities.” In return, participants would be given substantial benefits, such as government-covered tuition and living expenses for college or trade school. Service would be for a fixed period of one or two years, and Americans would need to complete the requirements at some point between the ages of 18 and 24.
Addressing the Polarization Problem
In theory, one of the main benefits of this program would be less divisiveness and a greater respect for others. Americans from vastly different backgrounds and locations could come together in common causes, building comradery and being exposed to new ideas and people. In many ways, these arguments parallel those that are used in support of public schools, which are also designed to foster interaction between people from different backgrounds.
There’s just one problem. As anyone who has attended a public school can tell you, these institutions can be some of the most divisive places in the country. Why is this the case? Well, one plausible explanation is that it has to do with the very fact that people with different values are forced to participate in the same system.
For example, think about religious institutions. In the past, there was no separation of church and state, so people were regularly forced to practice religions they didn’t agree with. As a result, religion became incredibly divisive, causing lots of war and persecution.
But today, though religious disagreements still exist, they aren’t nearly as antagonistic as they used to be, largely because people who disagree can go their separate ways. With schools, on the other hand, people are still forced to follow the values of the state, so it’s no wonder that fights over what those values should be are ubiquitous (the recent conflicts over masks and critical race theory are just the latest examples of this phenomenon).
A mandatory public service program would almost certainly breed similar divisions, except instead of fighting over sex-ed and school uniforms, people would fight about which projects should be prioritiezed and what expectations should be set for the participants. So really, this is a recipe for discord and antagonism, not a cure.
“It’s For Your Own Good”
A second argument for the program is that it would help young people with their personal and professional development. This may sound unobjectionable on the surface, but note the tone with which this is presented.
“The work opportunities should be designed to help inform and facilitate participants’ career goals as much as possible,” Carden writes. “This would allow participants to develop real-life skills in their areas of interest. The objective would be balancing this with the need to push participants outside of their comfort zones: That might look like, for instance, letting a participant choose their area of focus but not their geographic location or vice versa.”
This is nothing short of paternalism. He says he’s interested in helping young people, but what he means by that is forcing them to do what he believes is in their best interest.
If you take issue with this approach, you’re not alone. There’s something singularly sinister about coercing people to do things “for their own good.” Indeed, C.S. Lewis saw this paternalistic disposition as one of the gravest dangers to liberty.
“Of all tyrannies,” he wrote, “a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”
But is a program like this really tyranny? Carden dismisses the objection.
“Some would argue Americans should have the right to decide what’s in their own self-interest without government interference—and thus should not be required to participate,” he writes. “But this line of thinking, of prioritizing the rights of citizenship over its obligations, is one of the main reasons the program is needed in the first place.”
In other words, if standing up for your rights is more important to you than humbly submitting to your government, you clearly need to be re-educated in a mandatory government program.
Carden’s comments aside, it’s important to recognize the extent to which this kind of program would violate civil liberties. If this were truly mandatory, it would essentially constitute forced labor, which is really a form of involuntary servitude. Indeed, if a private entity did this, we’d rightly call it slavery.
With that said, this line of reasoning raises an interesting question. If you should get to choose what you do after you turn 18, why not before? After all, school is also a kind of forced labor, and it’s poorly suited for many students. So what if we let people choose their own course even earlier in life, allowing them to pursue jobs, apprenticeships, or education as they see fit? What if we didn’t presume to know what’s best for others, but instead we allowed them to explore what’s best for themselves?
It almost makes you wonder whether school should be compulsory at all.
In Service of a Boondoggle by Doug Bandow
Compulsory Schooling Laws: What if We Didn't Have Them? by Kerry McDonald
Compulsory Schooling Is Incompatible with Freedom by Kerry McDonald