The good people at Gallup perform a valuable public service by keeping track of what Americans consider the nation's most important problem. Five years ago, it was Iraq. Last summer, the economy weighed most heavily on the public mind. It still does this summer.
Or at least that is the view of the average men and women in the street. To their betters, however, the real problem facing the nation is something far different: Americans enjoy entirely too much freedom.
You can see this in the various proposals, which are legion, to take that freedom away. Late last month, there was a collective sigh of relief from the collectivist intelligentsia when the Supreme Court said Congress could force people to buy a consumer product. But within days, a writer for The Atlantic noted with a mixture of horror and dismay that the United States is "the only advanced country without a national vacation policy." He ginned up a handy infographic to illustrate the point.
Most Americans don't use all the vacation time they have now, but evidently federal mandates are needed nonetheless: The infographic quickly became a must-post item on approximately half the blogs in America. So did another infographic showing that the U.S. stands alone among advanced countries in the number of weeks of paid maternity leave it forces employers to provide (none).
We are all supposed to feel terrible about such marked contrasts, even though being unique implies nothing by itself. The U.S. also is the only nation in the world to apply an exclusionary rule. That rule says improperly obtained evidence cannot be used against a criminal defendant. In other advanced countries, a wrongful search can still nail you. America's way is better.
Apparently there is too much freedom at the state and local level, too. In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is doing his bit in the fight against obesity by limiting non-grocery soda sales to containers of 16 ounces or less. Not content to rest on any laurels, the mayor's handpicked health commission is contemplating restrictions on movie popcorn and fattening milk beverages, too.
Meanwhile, the soda proposal is catching on elsewhere: Officials in Cambridge, Mass., say they might follow Bloomberg's lead. And they have a hometown hero to argue their case: Harvard professor Daniel Lieberman. Last heard making the case for compulsory exercise, Lieberman now contends humans "did not evolve to eat healthily and go to the gym; until recently, we didn't have to make such choices." That is because, back in the good old days, humans had to eat roots and bark for breakfast and chase their dinner through the woods. Now food is abundant and cheap, darn it. Lieberman's solution? "We need government on our side, not on the side of those who wish to make money by stoking our cravings and profiting from them. We have evolved to need coercion."
Thomas Ricks, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer on defense and foreign policy, might or might not agree with the evolution part of that statement. But he certainly agrees with the coercion part. Following in the footsteps of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Time magazine and too many others to count, Ricks says we need to bring back involuntary servitude—or what he calls "the draft" or "national service."
Under Ricks' proposal, everyone would have to choose either 18 months of military service—"driving generals around, and generally doing low-skills tasks so professional soldiers don't have to"—or a longer period of civilian national service: teaching in the projects, cleaning parks, and so on.
Unlike other national-service buffs, Ricks offers a third alternative. "Libertarians who object to a draft could opt out," he says—but only if they "pledge to ask nothing" in return: "no Medicare, no subsidized college loans. … Those who want minimal government can have it." (Take that, you ingrates!) This would be a real zinger indeed, except that even libertarians still pay taxes—and taxes still rank as the single-biggest outlay for Mr. and Mrs. U.S. of A. In fact, this year Americans will pay nearly 4 percent more in taxes than they will pay for food, clothing and shelter—combined. But what have they done for their government lately?
Besides, Ricks says involuntary servitude would be grand because "the pool of cheap labor … would broadly lower (federal) personnel costs." That was pretty much the argument from Southern plantation owners, too. (Pssst: You know what else would lower federal personnel costs? A smaller federal government! But that's crazy talk, isn't it?)
The concern about excess freedom is bipartisan. Norman Ornstein at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and Thomas Mann at the liberal Brookings Institution agree that voting should be compulsory. Bill Keller, former editor of the liberal New York Times, agrees with Mitt Romney that we need a national ID card to keep track of people. The proposals go on and on.
Then there is Elizabeth Moon, a science-fiction writer. "If I were empress of the universe," she says, "I would insist on every individual having a unique ID permanently attached—a barcode if you will." Fortunately, nobody in public office has embraced that idea. Yet.
A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, where this article originally appeared.