Is forced labor on behalf of the federal government slavery? Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg obviously doesn't think so. Fretting to MSNBC's Rachel Maddow about what he sees as the country's lack of "social cohesion," he called for one year of national service as a solution. No doubt he would take offense at any comparison of his scheme to chattel slavery—a comparison such as that offered by former slave Frederick Douglass.
"What is freedom? It is the right to choose one's own employment. Certainly it means that, if it means anything," Douglass thundered in response to Union General Nathaniel P. Banks's policy as military commander of Louisiana of extracting one year of forced agricultural labor from freedmen on behalf of the federal government. "And when any individual or combination of individuals, undertakes to decide for any man when he shall work, where he shall work, at what he shall work, and for what he shall work, he or they practically reduce him to slavery."
Frederick Douglass, who had personal experience of the horrors of slavery, knew how the institution differs from temporary forced national service—and yet he directly compared them and objected to both.
Strictly speaking, the 37-year-old Buttigieg didn't explicitly call for conscription to build "social cohesion." He allowed himself a little deniability by telling Maddow, "One thing we could do that would change that would be to make it, if not legally obligatory, but certainly a social norm that anybody, after they're 18, spends a year in national service."
Does that mean Buttigieg wants a draft or not? It sounds like he wants 18 year-olds to just load themselves on the buses without the muss and fuss of an enforcement mechanism—but he'll consider some arm-twisting if focus groups voice enthusiasm for the idea.
That enthusiasm may not be forthcoming. A 2017 survey by Gallup found 49 percent of Americans favoring the idea and 45 percent opposed. Unsurprisingly, support for mandatory national service rises among older cohorts who are highly unlikely to ever receive a draft notice, winning the nod from a solid two-thirds of those over 65. By contrast, the 18- to 29-year-olds actually targeted by forced labor schemes despise the idea by 57 percent to 39 percent.
Buttigieg seems to think that allowing a choice of civilian or military tasks to fulfill the whims of politicians addresses concerns about mandatory national service. But for many people it's the "mandatory" part that poses the problem.
After General William Westmoreland objected that he did not want to command "an army of mercenaries" as he characterized paid volunteers when he and Milton Friedman famously sparred (PDF) over ending the draft during the Vietnam War, Friedman riposted, "would you rather command an army of slaves?"
Friedman's effort to end the military draft was supported by economist Walter Oi, who argued on dollars-and-cents grounds but had personal experience with the evils of compulsion. At the age of 13, he'd been scooped up by the United States government and forced into an internment camp with roughly 120,000 other Japanese-Americans. "He had some pretty strong feelings about his imprisonment," David R. Henderson, who knew Oi, wrote after the man's death in 2013.
The roughly four million former slaves freed, as Frederick Douglass had already freed himself, from forced labor by the Civil War undoubtedly had "pretty strong feelings" about their former status (even as the freedom they gained remained incomplete). Describing slavery as "robbing the laborer of the hard earned results of his patient industry," Frederick Douglass went on to tell his former master, in an 1855 letter, "In leaving you, I took nothing but what belonged to me, and in no way lessened your means for obtaining an honest living. Your faculties remained yours, and mine became useful to their rightful owner."
While their bondage was nominally limited in duration, such sentiments would have been recognized by American sailors snatched by British press gangs leading to and triggering the War of 1812. While 9,991 Americans formally protested their conscription by British ships, perhaps 20,000 Americans were forced into service overall, making the practice the first-cited grievance by President James Madison when calling for war against Britain. Impressment was no more popular with Britons—Admiral Horatio Nelson estimated that 40,000 sailors deserted the conscription-dependent Royal Navy between 1793 and 1801.
Later, the U.S. military had its own problems with unwilling conscripts (as well as regretful enlistees). Over 420,000 soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen deserted between 1966 and 1972, during the Vietnam War.
Forcibly extracting labor from the unwilling has a long history in this country, as does resistance to the same.
If forcing people to do labor that they wouldn't do of their own accord is nothing new, neither is Buttigieg's social-engineering grandiosity in pronouncing national service a boon to "social cohesion." Such force-'em-for-their-own-good sentiments echo a 1967 Selective Service document that pronounced even the mere requirement of draft registration as a goad to "more effective human beings."
But if history is any example, the only cohesion to be found will be that of shared resentment. And if the conscripts become more effective at anything, it will likely be defiance and escape.
It's odd how a country with a miserable history of forced labor and two wars fought over the issue keeps revisiting the idea as if it's a newly minted work of genius. But here we are, with Pete Buttigieg joining a long and disreputable list of pundits and public officials in polishing off this ancient policy turd and passing it off as a solution to what supposedly ails America.
Maybe Buttigieg and his ilk will decide that he never meant the idea of national service to be mandatory at all—or, at least, that it's a good idea to distance themselves from the idea of extracting forced labor from the unwilling. Younger Americans will be able to relax again, at least for a while. And the rest of us will rejoice that decency has prevailed a little longer. The spirit of Frederick Douglass would likely join the celebration.