Youth and the State

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National Service: What Would It Mean?, by Richard Danzig and Peter Szanton, Lexington, Mass: Lexington Books, 306 pages, $30

National service "is one of the few innovations on the political horizon that, if adopted in comprehensive form, might transform the conditions of life in the United States," write Richard Danzig and Peter Szanton. And how right they are. For social engineering on such a grand scale would destroy the final vestiges of the system of limited government created by this nation's founders.

In fact, Danzig and Szanton are not wholly enthusiastic about having the federal government put millions of young people to work doing good. National Service, say the authors, is primarily an attempt "to help illuminate and focus the continuing debate." And this they do, by providing the sort of specifics that most advocates of federal servitude, like presidential hopeful Gary Hart, prefer to avoid.

The totalitarian aspects of national service have never seemed to dampen enthusiasm for the grand experiment. Perhaps the most famous proposal came from William James in 1910, who advocated conscripting the young for such tasks as coal mining and tunnel making. No mushy liberal he, James wanted "our gilded youths…to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas."

The concept persisted over the years, though in more socially acceptable form, in the Civilian Conservation Corps and National Youth Administration of the New Deal, in the Peace Corps, and in VISTA. But opinion polls still indicate yearning for a universal, compulsory program.

The general public supports national service, believe Danzig and Szanton, because the concept "seems attractive for its potential to accomplish so many ends at once." Most importantly, say the authors, a service program would help meet social needs, inculcate personal values, and strengthen the military.

Unfortunately, in evaluating these claims Danzig and Szanton let their devotion to detail obscure some fundamental issues. For instance, how many national-service participants, they ask, "might be utilized in tasks of social value?" They consider the requirements of parks, schools, and hospitals across America and estimate almost 3.5 million: "The work is there to do."

However, the concept of "unmet social needs" is meaningless. As long as human wants are infinite, "unmet social needs"—or "unmet business needs," for that matter—will also be infinite. But since the young are not a free resource, most such "needs" are not worth meeting: the "opportunity cost" of making a potential dentist, say, spend a year cleaning bedpans is quite high.

Equally superficial is Danzig and Szanton's discussion of the personal growth supposedly promoted by national service. The authors explore the usual and the unusual—"work experience," "alternative settings for self-definition," "earning adult status," and so on. And some form of "service" presumably would provide many of these benefits.

But the authors fail to explain two key points. First, why do most American youth not currently learn such values through school, work, and volunteer activities? Second, how would a compulsory federal program transmit important ideals better than an individual's overall, freely chosen life experience? The idea of compulsory compassion is an oxymoron. Moreover, what about other basic principles that may be at stake, such as individual freedom? Mandatory national service could very well reduce participants' respect for other peoples' liberty.

The third major argument for national service, write Danzig and Szanton, is to "enable the nation to meet its military personnel needs more fully and fairly." In fact, as the authors acknowledge, the all-volunteer force (AVF) is currently recruiting more than enough high-quality, well-educated soldiers. Moreover, despite the relatively high percentage of blacks in the armed services, the military, even without counting officers and NCOs, is broadly representative of society as a whole.

Danzig and Szanton do not endorse a draft, but they conclude that "from either supply or demand changes in the years ahead, pressure may grow to abandon the AVF and to move to a draft." And universal conscription, they suggest, might make military service more palatable to the public.

In fact, there is no shortage of commentators who reflexively turn to the draft as a solution to any military problem. For example, Richard Gabriel, a professor at St. Anselm College, supports conscription even though it would solve virtually none of the problems with the officer corps and army training practices that he details in his book, Military Incompetence: Why the American Military Doesn't Win (New York: Hill and Wang).

Similarly, Pentagon correspondent Arthur Hadley reviews military experiences ranging from Desert One in Iran, to Korea, to Vietnam in his book, The Straw Giant (New York: Random House). He, too, endorses a draft—to provide the armed services with "able professionals" and "able recruits," even though experience shows it would do no such thing.

A far more thoughtful conscription advocate is Philip Gold, now an editor of Insight magazine. In his book Evasions: The American Way of Military Service (New York: Paragon), Gold contends that a smaller potential enlistment pool in future years combined with a need to expand the military to meet America's far-flung global commitments makes a return to compulsory service inevitable. Notably, he dismisses such arguments as "moral obligation." Instead, writes Gold, "conscription is only necessary if it is to be America's purpose to offer this planet alternatives to either Armageddon or a communistic new Dark Age." Gold doesn't make his case, but he does deal with the issue honestly.

Nevertheless, would universal service help the military? Neither Gabriel, Hadley, nor Gold advocates such an approach. Indeed, Gold bluntly denounces national service for being "utterly pernicious, not only in its desire to insure equity by spreading hardship, but also for its attempt to use conscription for social engineering. If the military claim is to have any validity, it must remain unique, not one part of a package of involuntary servitudes." In short, it is one thing to force men to defend the country; it is quite another to jail them if they refuse to tend parks or clean hospitals.

The justifications for national service may be weak, but Danzig and Szanton go on to detail four specific models. One, they say, could be "operated by high schools and integrated with their curricula." Such a program "is not likely to show substantial achievements," they admit, but variations of it nevertheless "warrant testing." Why? Many schools have already instituted internship programs—without federal subsidies.

Then there's a draft-based system. Even Danzig and Szanton dislike this option, arguing that it would be too costly and would actually "bleed especially qualified men out of the military."

Alternative three is simply a voluntary federal program, which makes little sense given the widespread opportunities today for young people to "serve" others. Moreover, acknowledge Danzig and Szanton, "no voluntary program is ever likely to be big enough to make a substantial difference."

Finally, option four is universal mandatory service. "Is it sensible to allocate so great a proportion of the nation's labor and budget to national service?" ask the authors. They're not sure: it "might broaden the outlook and increase the cohesion of U.S. citizens," but it might not "be a positive experience for most of its very diverse participants," and any benefits "would be accompanied by substantial costs." Therefore, Danzig and Szanton conclude, this program should be "considered only after intermediate steps had been tried, and succeeded."

National service has long been the great hope of social engineers everywhere. And Danzig and Szanton want to proceed, ever so slowly, with the concept: "the evocative ideal of national service now justifies neither more nor less than deliberate experiment and clear-eyed sequential judgements about whether the promise of various proposals can be realized in practice." But nothing in National Service justifies further study of a concept so inconsistent with the basic values of this nation, an aspect of the issue the authors never consider.

Nevertheless, Danzig and Szanton have performed a great service by making concrete something that is normally presented as an ethereal vision. Observe the authors, "as an ideal…national service has relatively broad political appeal; reduced to a particular plan, it may have considerably less appeal." And National Service may provide the best evidence yet that this is the case.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. He previously served as a special assistant to President Reagan and worked with the Military Manpower Task Force.

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