by James Bovard
In the wake of America’s disastrous Civil War, the Thirteenth Amendment was enacted to prohibit involuntary servitude. Unfortunately, top newspapers, pundits, and think tanks are now campaigning to nullify that prohibition. Apparently, slavery was evil not because of the unjust subjugation but because plantation owners, not politicians, were the profiteers.
Politicians have long been hustling to establish their prerogative to commandeer young Americans’ lives. At a “Volunteerism Summit” in Philadelphia in 1997, President Bill Clinton announced that America needed more “citizen-servants” and that “the will to serve has never been stronger.” Clinton praised Maryland and the District of Columbia for making “service” mandatory for any student seeking a high school diploma. In a Playboy article headlined, “The Return of the Hitler Youth?” I ridiculed Clinton for “crusading for a national kiddie draft — forcing all teenagers to labor in politically approved community service” for hundreds of hours before being granted a diploma.
But the “kiddie draft” was only the opening bid. There were plenty of progressives and conservatives itching to compel all young to sacrifice a year or more in “national service” — a perpetual fantasy inside the Beltway ever since military conscription was suspended in 1973. Unfortunately, the easiest way to prove your moral superiority in Washington is to champion destroying everyone else’s freedom.
It began with AmeriCorps
AmeriCorps, a program created by Bill Clinton, is viewed as a prototype by many advocates who seek to shackle all young people to “serve” politically approved causes. AmeriCorps presumes that volunteering is such a wonderful thing that the federal government should subsidize it, paying AmeriCorps members as much or more than many of them could have earned in real jobs. Subsidizing volunteering by some people was a stepping stone to mandating “volunteering” for all young Americans.
I investigated AmeriCorps in the late 1990s and found that it generated more boondoggles per tax dollar than any other federal program. When I interviewed AmeriCorps chief Harris Wofford, I asked him how sending out AmeriCorps members to sway people to accept food stamps meshed with his statement that “national service reduces our reliance on Government.” Wofford replied, “A self-reliant citizen knows what their opportunities are and figures out how to make use of those opportunities. You don’t have much self-reliance if there is a door [for handouts] there and you have not been shown the door.” Knowing the address of the welfare office became the new, improved self-reliance.
Wofford epitomizes the moral pretensions permeating AmeriCorps. Wofford boasted that Ameri-Corps provided its recruits with the “moral equivalent of war.” Dealing with preteen hecklers during an AmeriCorps puppet show was as valiant as Marines dodging rocket-propelled grenades in a firefight. Wofford perpetually bragged about his own character-building experience in the Army Air Corps in World War II, but he never mentioned that he never saw any combat — thereby qualifying him for a D.C. Faux Courage Medal of Honor.
Despite its pratfalls, AmeriCorps remained exalted by politicians who sought to dragoon all young people into submission. In 2008, Republican presidential nominee John McCain championed conscripting all young people into at least a year of politically approved “service.” He got badly whupped by Barack Obama, who favored vastly expanding AmeriCorps. Immediately after he won, Obama’s change.gov website announced that it was “developing a plan to require 50 hours of community service in middle school and high school and 100 hours of community service in college every year.” Once that federal precedent was established, politicians could easily multiply the number of youthful hours commandeered in the name of service.
In March 2009, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed the Generations Invigorating Volunteerism and Education (GIVE) Act — the GIVE Act — which aimed to triple AmeriCorps from 75,000 to 250,000 members. One provision of the bill should have been labeled the “TAKE Act” since it paved the way to make “service” compulsory for all young Americans. The bill called for appointing a Congressional Commission on Civic Service to examine “whether a workable, fair, and reasonable mandatory service requirement for all able young people could be developed.” It would also consider whether tacitly repealing the Thirteenth Amendment prohibition on involuntary servitude “would strengthen the social fabric of the Nation and overcome civic challenges by bringing together people from diverse economic, ethnic, and educational backgrounds.” Sacrificing Americans’ freedom was Washingtonian idealism at its best.
I thumped the mandatory service specter in the American Conservative, Baltimore Sun, and elsewhere, spurring an invitation to appear on the Glenn Beck Show on Fox News. After the interview ended, Beck ran a video of himself wearing German lederhosen while reciting the AmeriCorps pledge: “I will get things done for America…. Faced with apathy, I will take action.” The Hitler Youth allusion amused viewers who failed to recognize Obama as a model of political perfection.
Despite scandals, politicians loved it
AmeriCorps spawned several scandals that did nothing to deter continuing demands for compelling all young people to submit to their political overlords. In 2013, retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who helped lose the Afghan war, proclaimed in a Wall Street Journal piece, “Universal national service should become a new American rite of passage.” Time magazine quickly followed with a cover story headlined, “How Service Can Save Us,” which approvingly quoted a retired Air Force officer: “There isn’t an 18-year-old boy who doesn’t need to get his butt kicked by someone in a position of complete authority.” Beltway elites had the same attitude toward the American people, and they were hot to volunteer their expertise and boots. I thumped that boomlet in a Wall Street Journal piece and tossed a 20th-anniversary bouquet to AmeriCorps in USA Today, which derided the program as a “political slush fund.” In a Washington Times op-ed, I wrote, “AmeriCorps puts a smiley face on Uncle Sam” and sways some gullible people to “view government as a vast engine of compassion.”
In 2017, the Washington Post offered “38 ideas for repairing our badly broken civic life,” including conscripting all young people for three years in military or government civilian work such as AmeriCorps. Forcing adults to “spend time in compulsory service to our country” would be the same as going back to “kindergarten and relearn how to cooperate and share our toys,” declared author Kristin Henderson. But the Founding Fathers never intended to treat personal freedom as a political toy, as I chided in USA Today.
In 2019, the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service, a pooh-bah Frankenstein created by Congress, lavishly praised AmeriCorps and announced it was “exploring what a program that requires every American to complete a dedicated period of military, national, or public service might look like.” The commission’s members neglected to mention that such a scheme “might look like” a good-deeds chain gang.
Democrats took the forefront in promising that subjugating Americans to more commands from Washington was the surest recipe for national uplift. In the 2020 presidential race, Democratic candidate John Delaney, a former congressman, championed imposing a one-year mandatory service requirement for every 18-year-old. Pete Buttigieg, another Democratic candidate who was briefly the frontrunner, called for “a universal, national expectation of service for all four million high school graduates every year” to “repair the social fabric in our nation.” Buttigieg declared, “The goal is for ‘where did you serve?’ to be as important a question at a job interview as ‘where did you go to college?’” But how did politicians acquire the right to decree how young Americans will be judged? Buttigieg’s “call to service” was a “summons to submission” that could become a “glide path to the draft.” In an article for the Daily Caller, I warned, “The more people who enlist in Buttigieg’s salvation scheme, the easier it becomes to make the program mandatory for everyone else — in the name of fairness.” The collapse of Buttigieg’s campaign did nothing to diminish demands for government shackling of all youth.
On May 1, 2021, the New York Times editorial board endorsed compulsory service with an editorial headlined, “Should Young Americans Be Required to Give a Year of Service?” The editorial approvingly quoted a philosopher on how compulsory service could encourage “obedience to command.” The Times rhapsodized, “Many aging Vietnam-era veterans attest to the sense of community that came with … involuntary military service.” Regrettably, the editorial writers were unable to survey the 58,000 Americans who died in that war to gauge their opinions on the benefits of involuntary military service. Last June was the 50th anniversary of the Pentagon Papers, which exposed how politicians perennially betrayed young Americans by sending them to die on false pretenses. If military and political leaders didn’t hesitate to lie to the hilt about their wars, why would anyone expect them to be candid about the costs of mass subjugation?
Two months later, the New York Times published an op-ed headlined, “Compulsory National Service Could Unite America.” Professor Jonathan Holloway, the president of Rutgers University, declared, “Compulsory national service would make us more self-reliant and at the same time more interdependent…. We need to heed the call for citizenship.” There is no known remedy for professors who are unable to detect the difference between citizenship and servitude. Neither Holloway nor anyone else has explained how mass subjugation sows the seeds for a harvest of self-reliance.
The philosophy behind national service
Compulsory national service is the deranged civics version of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). MMT theory presumes that politicians can fabricate and spend unlimited amounts of fiat money without profoundly damaging the economy. Similarly, compulsory national service proponents presume politicians can destroy a vast swath of freedom without harming America. Proponents tacitly assume that the time of young people is of zero value, so their scheme costs nothing. Since every 18-to-20-year-old is squandering all their time playing video games and watching Pornhub, why not round them up and make them serve? But where did politicians acquire the right to command young people to postpone building their own lives?
Compulsory national service would provide “attitude adjustment” for an entire generation. Many proponents stress that shackling young people is the best way to encourage them to be tolerant and appreciative of people of different backgrounds. Pulitzer Prize–winning plagiarist Doris Kearns Goodwin favors national service because “you get people from the city to the country, country to the city, you begin to create a new generation that has shared values.” Indoctrination would be a huge part of any such program, but the media wouldn’t use that term because progressive values would be inculcated. The vast majority of young Americans spend 12 years in government schools, but politicians want more control over their thoughts.
One of the clearest lessons from the burgeoning crusade for compulsory service is that much of the nation’s elite media utterly disdain individual liberty. Since freedom for average Americans has zero value in itself, pundits and poohbahs have zero concern about politicians destroying it. Many of the advocates for national conscription are blinded by their own halos — they feel they are so morally superior that forcibly imposing their values on everyone else can only be a boon for humanity. Rather than becoming patriotic, conscripts would likely be embittered to realize that politicians wasted a swath of their lives in which they could have developed their minds and talents to make themselves self-sufficient citizens.
Being obliged to argue against mass conscription is symptomatic of how the intellectual battle lines have shifted in recent decades. There was a time when politicians who claimed a right to temporarily enslave young people would have been denounced as scoundrels and ridiculed off the national stage. Nowadays, champions of compulsion are hailed as moral visionaries paving the way to a Brave New World.
Few things are more perilous to freedom than permitting politicians to sanctify government’s iron fist. We should not turn young people into cannon fodder for good deeds that exist only in White House press releases. At a time when the media endlessly denounces inequality, remember that the greatest and most dangerous inequality is that between haughty government officials and citizens stripped of their constitutional rights. Peaceful co-existence between all citizens is the recipe for an American revival, not a vast increase in subjugation to indoctrinate the latest Woke Catechism of the Week.
This article was originally published in the January 2022 edition of Future of Freedom.