Why New Calls for Military Conscription and a National Service Draft Make Neither Moral Nor Economic Sense

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Advocates neither defend the value judgments implicit in the policies nor suggest that people in their age cohort should be conscripted.
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Everyone who calls on Americans to create some sort of non-military draft, as Tom Ricks did earlier this week in a New York Times column, presumes that the forced conscription of American citizens during peacetime would be an ennobling enterprise. Why? It's true that Western democracies have instituted military drafts at various times, or even universal military or community service for young men. But at their best, they were necessary evils justified by the need to provide for a common defense, or, as in the case of post-World War II Germany, rebuilding and a common national identity.

The Framers likely understood Congress to have an ability to draft citizens in service of its power to raise an army. But the 13th Amendment to the Constitution states that "neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."

That language would seem to prohibit at least non-military conscription.

Another thing to notice: the "national service" crowd always wants to conscript people unlike themselves. Born in 1955, Ricks seeks to mandate 18 months of service after high school graduation. How would he react, I wonder, to the forced conscription of individuals upon their 60th birthday? (Veterans could be exempt.) Given that one of the jobs he foresees is teaching kids at disadvantaged schools, the senior citizens would add more social utility than the 18 and 19-year-olds, who won't even get the benefits of volunteerism themselves so long as their labor is mandatory. 

The national service proposals are rife with a lot of unacknowledged value judgments that their advocates never defend, perhaps because they're unaware of having made them. The Ricks proposal presumes that conscription would be insanely cost effective because he arbitrarily assigns an extremely low value to the time and labor of the folks he'd force to work, and values the freedom that they'd be losing at zero. I'd like to hear a defense of that last valuation.

And look at the particulars of the Ricks' proposal for the new peacetime military conscripts:

These conscripts would not be deployed but could perform tasks currently outsourced at great cost to the Pentagon: paperwork, painting barracks, mowing lawns, driving generals around, and generally doing lower-skills tasks so professional soldiers don't have to... Those who don't want to serve in the army could perform civilian national service for a slightly longer period and equally low pay -- teaching in low-income areas, cleaning parks, rebuilding crumbling infrastructure, or aiding the elderly.

So let me get this straight. Presuming that these 18 months of conscription don't affect college plans, except to delay them for two years, its effect will basically be to shift two years of a person's working life from whatever they spend their career doing to menial labor compensated at below market rates (sorry, everyone who presently does those jobs to feed their families!).

This would result in a lot of curious tradeoffs.

For example, America would have 18 fewer months of Steve Jobs the entrepreneur and inventor, and 18 more months of Steve Jobs painting barracks; 18 fewer months of Atul Gawande practicing medicine, 18 more months of Atul Gawande cutting lawns; 18 fewer months of Tiger Woods playing golf, 18 more months of Tiger Woods rebuilding infrastructure; 18 fewer months of Megan McCain writing a Daily Beast column, 18 more months of Megan McCain teaching children.

Are any of these good tradeoffs?

Says Ricks, "libertarians who object to a draft could opt out. Those who declined to help Uncle Sam would in return pledge to ask nothing from him -- no Medicare, no subsidized college loans and no mortgage guarantees. Those who want minimal government can have it." At present, Gary Johnson is the Libertarian Party's standard bearer. In college he worked as a door-to-door handyman. Upon graduation he founded his own mechanical contracting company. He built it up into a corporation that employed more than 1,000 people (all of this before running for governor of New Mexico and serving two-terms). Am I to understand that if Johnson, the libertarian, would've declined to mow lawns for 18 months, preferring to start a company that would eventually employ a thousand people, Ricks would regard him as having contributed less to Uncle Sam? Count me among the Americans who regard ourselves as beneficiaries of a system that doesn't require guys like Johnson, or anyone else who is gainfully employed, to spend two years of their working lives mowing laws at a bureaucrat's direction -- or maybe even mowing bureaucrats' lawns.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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