Of all the bad ideas that just won't die, the proposition that it would be swell to force people to work at government jobs they wouldn't choose for themselves is one of the more persistent. It's a scheme that's eternally most popular among those to whom it wouldn't apply and championed by pundits convinced it will inculcate an appreciation for a political system among those from whom it steals time and labor. Even more insulting, the latest such proposal is presented as a cleverly coercive solution to a shortage of public-sector workers.
"New York City is certainly not the only city facing a civic employee shortage. In San Francisco, municipal staffing problems have gotten so bad that workers have taken to the streets demanding that the city fill vacant positions. The city of San Diego, as of this spring, had an eye-popping 16 percent job vacancy rate for its various agencies and services. Washington D.C., which is facing a police shortage, started offering a $20,000 hiring bonus to new officers who join the force," Jay Caspian Kang, an opinion writer for The New York Times, wrote August 4. His solution?
"The White House should increase the size of the AmeriCorps work force from 250,000 to three million (for the rest of this column, I'll refer to it as Mega AmeriCorps), embark on a substantial press tour to promote it, and broadly expand the benefits of enrolling in the program. This would be the first step in eventually calling for a revival of the Universal National Service Act, which would require every American to commit two years of their lives to national service between the years of 18 and 25."
Maybe I shouldn't be surprised that "send out the press gangs" is put forward as a serious means to address shortfalls in hiring cops and sanitation workers. Mandatory national service has become very popular in certain circles, though not usually as an alternative to holding job fairs. Last year, as a solution to political polarization, syndicated columnist Neil Patel proposed conscription "broader than just military service. Other options include the Peace Corps, community service, cleaning up public lands and rebuilding aging infrastructure." David L. Carden, former U.S. ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, agreed that "a program of mandatory national service, if designed effectively, would bring together young Americans from across the country and all socioeconomic groups to work on public interest projects and accomplish common goals for the good of the country."
This isn't your grandfather's military draft (though some advocate reviving that, too, in response to recruitment shortfalls). Instead, it's eagerness to force people not just to defend the country, but also into clerical roles, law enforcement, tutoring, and janitorial work on behalf of the state. Advocates for mandatory service seem to think they've stumbled on an innovative way to bring Americans together, but as is so often the case these days, they're dusting off an authoritarian idea better left in the past: corvée. That's "forced labor imposed by a conqueror on the conquered, or by a government on the citizens under its jurisdiction," according to Encyclopedia.com.
Since the use of forced labor is old, so are objections to the practice.
"What is freedom? It is the right to choose one's own employment. Certainly it means that, if it means anything," responded Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave and prominent reformer, to the U.S. Army's Civil War-era policy in Louisiana of extracting one year of forced (though compensated) 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."
So, advocates of mandatory national service in jobs assigned by the government propose a policy long-ago rejected by one of this country's greatest advocates of liberty as indistinguishable from the slavery he had experienced first-hand. Most recent proposals wave away objections; Kang acknowledges such concerns without ever really addressing them.
"Last year, my colleagues on the editorial board asked if young Americans should be required to do a year of service," he wrote. "The issue, as the editorial board pointed out, is that it's difficult, potentially illegal, and perhaps even morally wrong to compel young Americans into a period of service."
Those are pretty serious barriers to compelling people to work in jobs to which they're assigned by bureaucrats under (never specified) penalty of law. That would seem to necessitate serious consideration of philosophical and practical objections, and to address the likely prospect of widespread defiance of a policy historically linked to slavery. But while Kang mentions that mandatory service might be morally wrong, he then suggests a "real test run for universal national service" without offering a reply. Carden sniffs that "prioritizing the rights of citizenship over its obligations, is one of the main reasons the program is needed in the first place." Patel doesn't even acknowledge moral concerns, insisting that "the main argument against mandatory national service comes from the military" because the all-volunteer force satisfies its needs.
At least the Times editorial board conceded last year that "these are serious arguments, and no doubt one reason mandatory service has been relegated to the fringes of legislative effort."
Unsurprisingly, a national corvée remains most popular with those who will never have to surrender time and effort to the state. Advocates of the idea like to point to a 2017 Gallup poll that found 49 percent of respondents favoring mandatory national service, with 45 percent opposed. But that same poll found "a majority (57 percent) of the group most likely to be affected—those under the age of 30—oppose the idea."
An August 2022 Rasmussen poll asking specifically about restoring military conscription found just 23 percent in favor, with a majority objecting.
Of course, even if conscription of any sort were popular among those on the receiving end, it would still be unacceptable as a violation of individual liberty. Until Kang and other advocates of mandatory national service seriously engage with and answer moral objections to compelled labor, their proposal will remain one whose time has not come and, in a just world, never will.