Feel a Draft?

What's wrong with forcing people into "national service?"


The sociologist Charles Moskos has been pushing the idea of "national service" for many years. Although his proposals generally have involved bribing young people to do volunteer work, a la Bill Clinton's AmeriCorps program, he's always had his heart set on the sort of broad participation that only force can accomplish. "If I could have a magic wand," he once admitted, "I would be for a compulsory system."

Now he may have found his magic wand: terrorism. "America needs a draft," Moskos and Washington Monthly Editor Paul Glastris declare in a recent Washington Post op-ed piece. They urge universal conscription of 18-to-25-year-olds to "meet the sudden manpower needs for military and homeland security."

Moskos and Glastris want the government to wrench this entire cohort of men and women from the lives they are leading and assign them to work as air marshals, security guards, Coast Guard personnel, and FBI, customs, immigration, and border patrol agents. Although they concede "it's possible that the country won't need every eligible person to serve," they argue that drafting everyone in this age range is the best way to make the system "equitable."

But how equitable is it to impose the entire burden of new personnel needs on one segment of the population? If fairness is the goal, it makes much more sense to offer whatever compensation will be necessary to fill the positions voluntarily and spread the cost among taxpayers, all of whom benefit from enhanced security.

Moskos and Glastris not only claim that their manifestly unfair plan is fair; they insist that "conscripts would have what all Americans now demand: choice." By their Orwellian definition, "choice" means the forced laborers will be allowed to decide whether they want to "serve in the military, in homeland security, or in a civilian national service program such as AmeriCorps."

The inclusion of "civilian national service" means that a bartender or a real estate broker could be plucked from his job and assigned to social work, tutoring, or park maintenance if the government decided it was a better use of his time. This is nothing short of central economic planning, based on the abhorrent notion that citizens are resources to be used as the state sees fit and the reckless conceit that the government knows how to maximize efficiency.

Even leaving aside these broader ambitions, a draft of the kind that Moskos and Glastris envision would inevitably lead to waste. Because the government would not be paying the going rate for the conscripts' labor, it would value their time and effort too lightly, creating make-work jobs that would sacrifice the liberty of young men and women without gaining one iota of security.

In a voluntary system, by contrast, the cost is explicit and the bill is presented to taxpayers, which brings a measure of accountability. Air travelers are willing to pay a few bucks more per trip in exchange for enhanced security, but they would surely object if the surcharge doubled the cost of a ticket.

Using forced labor would not reduce the cost of filling security positions; it would just allocate the cost differently, imposing it disproportionately on one group. As a result, the total cost would probably be higher.

Moskos and Glastris suggest that a draft is a matter of necessity, presumably because Americans can't afford to pay for their own security. But they present little evidence to back up this claim, and they resort to forced labor without even considering how the hundreds of billions already spent by the government on defense and law enforcement might be reallocated in response to the threat of terrorism.

At a time like this, for instance, should federal agents be pulling up marijuana plants grown as medicine by patients in California, as they did last month? Should U.S. military personnel be assigned to "peacekeeping" missions around the world that have little or nothing to do with our national security?

Moskos and Glastris do not bother to ask such questions, because they're convinced that conscription, far from an unfortunate necessity, would be a good thing in its own right, helping to "instill a sense of unity and moral seriousness." No doubt the young men and women who are compelled by this "equitable" program to make a "choice" among different varieties of forced labor will be consoled by the fact that indoctrination is also part of the package.