National Service

Mayor Pete's 'National Service' Plan Was a Nationalist Fantasy

Buttigieg doesn't realize that using the blunt force of government to forge national unity will forever disappoint.


Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who briefly looked like a serious contender for the Democratic presidential nomination before dropping out on March 1, loves imagining his war-veteran self on a debate stage with the Vietnam-dodging Donald Trump. He is also fond of asserting that "few—if any—single policy solutions carry the promise of democratic renewal more than national service."

What Buttigieg and other fans of the perennially elusive goal of national service fail to grasp is that the real-world anecdote always undermines the campaign-season fantasy. Using the blunt force of government to forge national unity will forever disappoint as long as individuals have the ability to wiggle out of conformity.

Nodding to the political realities of the day, Mayor Pete stresses that his plan is "strictly optional." But it's worth remembering that no U.S. resident can legally opt out of paying the taxes that feed the federal beast.

The 2009 Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act (if you wince at that title, note that the House version was called the Generations Invigorating Volunteerism and Education, or GIVE, Act) expanded the upper limit on Bill Clinton's AmeriCorps from 75,000 annual volunteers to 250,000, ostensibly paid for by jacking up the annual appropriation to just over $1 billion. Yet Buttigieg notes that current funding levels translate into acceptance for only 13 percent of AmeriCorps applicants and 25 percent of Peace Corps aspirants.

The mayor doesn't put a price tag on his "Service for All (who want it)" plan, nor does he acknowledge that—like the military, whose acceptance levels are only 20 percent, despite U.S. foreign policy's inexhaustible appetite for young bodies—many people who "want" to join fail to meet the minimum qualifications. Still, his idea seems undoable at less than $5 billion a year.

Which, to be sure, is only as much as Washington spends each morning. But when not dreaming out loud about priceless plans like this one, Buttigieg was one of the few candidates who actively campaigned on reducing the government's unconscionable trillion-dollar deficits.

And don't kid yourself—Buttigieg would love for national service to be a hell of a lot more expensive than $5 billion a year. Asked by MSNBC's Rachel Maddow in April 2019 why he chose to enlist in his mid-20s after Harvard and Oxford, the candidate waxed eloquently about seeking to bridge the country's vast class and racial divides, a gap perhaps most starkly observed in who does and does not serve in the military.

"One thing we could do that would change that," he told Maddow, "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." On his website, the candidate reiterates that aspiration: "Our intention is for this proposal to create a pathway towards a universal, national expectation of service for all 4 million high school graduates every year."

Beware politicians touting blanket expectations for 18-year-olds. That kind of generational puppeteering is why we still have such illiberal anachronisms as Selective Service, such punitive paternalisms as our brand new national vaping ban for those under 21, and such questionable national trends as the over-preference for college educations over workplace apprenticeships and vocational training.

Buttigieg's proposal is nearly identical to one coughed up by then–Sen. John McCain in the pages of the Washington Monthly after September 11, 2001. "The decline of the citizen-soldier is not healthy for a democracy," McCain wrote. "While it is not currently politically practical to revive the draft, it is important to find better incentives and opportunities for more young Americans to choose service in the military, if not for a career, then at least for a limited period of time."

Banging the social-cohesion drum, too, was McCain's 2008 vanquisher, Barack Obama, who on the campaign trail touted a national volunteer network "just as powerful, just as strong, just as well-funded" as the military.

The problem is not that some Americans choose to serve in the armed forces or AmeriCorps. The problem is that by conscripting taxpayer money toward those purposes, politicians are distorting the marketplace of 18-year-olds' choices and empowering themselves to decide what meaningful service looks like.

I am glad Mayor Pete served, and I am glad that I did not. May our children have even more choices than we did.

NEXT: Brickbat: Well, Shoot

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  1. “Now you can go where the people are one
    Now you can go where they get things done
    What you need, my son…
    What you need, my son…”

    1. Can I sail the seven seas, put my mind at ease? Can I make a stand, lend a hand, protect the motherland? Can I join my fellow man? Then I’ll do it! Or maybe I’ll just head down to the YMCA. I’ve heard it’s fun to stay at the YMCA.

    2. Great tune from a stellar album, sarcasmic

  2. Another thing worth mentioning is that four out of five eighteen year-old males would be disqualified because of inability to pass the physical or the background check. That doesn’t count the ones who wash out. How do you have national service when 80% or more fail to meet the basic standards?

    1. You lower the standards.

      1. Easier said than done.

        1. Robert McNamara did it with the stroke of a pen.

          Of course, as an officer in the Army, we were still dealing with the consequences twenty years later.

    2. How do you have national service when 80% or more fail to meet the basic standards?

      Congress manages to do it.

    3. How do you have national service when 80% or more fail to meet the basic standards?

      You don’t. You have local or community service. Funded/organized/equipped nationally – like the constitution says. A local community isn’t going to reject 80% of its own kids – and if it does then it is no longer a ‘republican form of government’. If the training has nothing to do with the needs of the local community (and yes – a local community does not need the military functions of a militia as much now as it needs the civil/emergency defense stuff – there are no more indian raids), then it is the NATIONAL standards/goals that are BS and should be rejected.

      The national functions that might recruit FROM those local militia/civilian musters can still do so – and there is nothing amiss with the notion of recruiting rejecting 80% or more

  3. It may have been a nationalist fantasy. But at least it wasn’t a white nationalist fantasy. Mayor Pete would have been better on immigration than Orange Hitler or any Republican. And for us Koch / Reason libertarians, that’s what really matters.


    1. #MayoPete

  4. We still talking about this dope?

    1. They have to find some way to ignore Biden’s problems.

  5. “few—if any—single policy solutions carry the promise of democratic renewal more than national service.”

    Fascists gotta be fascists.
    If your constitutional rights have been restored by November, remember to read the party platforms, and to vote.

  6. Mandatory national service? No.

    A national service requirement to qualify for federal education aid? Maybe.

    1. Federal education aid? No.

  7. The only thing close to “national unity” I learned in the Navy was working with people I never would have met otherwise from around the country. Some were losers, most were good, and I am glad for having met all of them.

    If that’s what these clowns want, they don’t need to bring back slavery. Just hold a voluntary lottery for high school graduates, pick 100,000 of them, and pay for them to work at random locations around the country for a year or two.

    Wait a sec. Don’t we already do something like that? Oh yea, the voluntary military! Well, there ya be!

  8. From my experience talking to, and interviewing, WWII veterans, from many different backgrounds, the Draft, six weeks of boot camp, and serving overseas, sometimes for years, which meant bringing many different kinds of people together, did, in many cases, change their outlook on American culture.

    Folks who would likely never have “rubbed shoulders” were forced to work together for a common cause, and, almost to a person, from the one’s I have run into, were changed.

    But, as a member of one modern “national service” program, and as either the former supervisor, staff member, or director of several others, I can tell you that, while I have no objection to such programs, they are nothing like what happened in WWII, and the idea of developing some kind of improved “shared experience” or “outlook” is ridiculous. Most people today don’t even know their neighbors up the street. Maybe we should be encouraged to start there.

    1. Regarding our neighbors, there’s, unfortunately, a language barrier.

      1. Yeah, but a handshake, a “hello,” and offering to help build that gate in the fence can be a start. Hell, so can handing someone a beer. Of course, right now, in some areas, that will land you in the pokey 🙂

  9. May our children have even more choices than we did.

    They won’t. Precisely because you have eliminated citizen responsibility.

    We have been at permawar now for 20 years. With no protest whatsoever because there is a massive unbridgeable gulf between those who serve and those who don’t. Between the professional/expert class – and their subjects. At a cost of mere trillions. With the ability to lock into power those who profit from perma-war. There is no protest at that. There will be no protest at that. EVER.

    A mercenary army is the first requirement for a government that wants to eliminate accountability. Today permawar. Tomorrow today lock down everything internal by declaring some things essential and others not.

  10. ::looks at most recent paycheck::

    “I already spend ~17% of my time in service to the government”

  11. National service? Hell no. The government doesn’t own me. Never has, never will. If i want to meet people who are different than me, I can take care of my own. Don’t need the frigging army or navy for that.

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