The Case Against Universal National Service

Everyone has an obligation to give back, but a one-size-fits-all program could never be implemented justly.

The push for "national service," or compelling young people to spend a year or two doing deeds on behalf of America, is beginning anew. Entrepreneur Arianna Huffington filed a dispatch yesterday from Aspen, Colorado, where she'll be participating in an effort "to make universal national service a new American rite of passage." She is one of several high profile participants in the Franklin Project, "formed after General Stanley McChrystal's call at the 2012 Aspen Ideas Festival for a national service program." Here is the 2012 conversation that started it all: 

McChrystal went on to publish a Wall Street Journal op-ed on the same subject:

Here is a specific, realistic proposal that would create one million full-time civilian national-service positions for Americans ages 18-28 that would complement the active-duty military--and would change the current cultural expectation that service is only the duty of those in uniform. At age 18, every young man and woman would receive information on various options for national service. Along with the five branches of the military, graduates would learn about new civilian service branches organized around urgent issues like education, health care and poverty. The positions within these branches would be offered through AmeriCorps as well as through certified nonprofits. Service would last at least a year.
He subsequently wrote that "instead of making national service legally mandatory, corporations and universities, among other institutions, could be enlisted to make national service socially obligatory." As he envisions it, "schools can adjust their acceptance policies and employers their hiring practices to benefit those who have served--and effectively penalize those who do not." He's back in Aspen this year to keep advocating for some type of universal national service program. I'm also at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which The Atlantic co-sponsors with the Aspen Institute. I'd like to offer some constructively criticism of this policy idea -- and note some common ground too.


As a teen, I was compelled to complete 80 volunteer hours in order to graduate from the Catholic high school that I attended. I logged those hours at a sports camp put on by a wheelchair tennis organization, as well as at Special Camp for Special Kids, a San Juan Capistrano, California, charity that endeavors to give special needs kids the summer camp experience that would otherwise elude them (and to give their parents a brief, much needed break). Volunteering proved very rewarding, and probably wasn't something I would've done otherwise. Many (though not all) of my peers were ultimately enthusiastic about the forced volunteering, which advanced the religious, pedagogical, and college-resume-burnishing missions of our high school. Were I in charge there, I would certainly retain the "service hours" requirement.

My younger sister followed in my footsteps as a volunteer at Special Camp, attended college, joined the administrative ranks of that organization, and then helped to run Camp Painted Turtle, a Paul Newman charity equipped to give a summer camp experience to kids with a staggering variety of severe medical problems. She's since left that wonderful organization on good terms. (I'm heartbroken to report that this summer's session has been cancelled due to damages sustained in a wildfire -- the nonprofit is scrambling to raise money in hopes of reopening.) 

All over America, there are private schools, religious organizations, civic groups, non-profits, and businesses that either require or enable volunteerism. Many of their programs are worth celebrating and emulating. So why not mandate that every American do national service for one or two years at age 18 or 22?

There are a number of factors that should give us pause:

1) The educational and career demands of modern society are already causing people to delay marriage and child-bearing. I wouldn't want to coerce anyone to wed and procreate early. But building another one or two year lag into "coming-of-age" could have unintended consequences.

2) A one-size-fits-all mandate inevitably does serious harm to some people in a society as diverse as ours. Working for Uncle Sam might not cost the average person much at age 18 or 22. But think of how important that precious year of youth is to some people -- for example, the thousands of Americans who make their careers in professional athletics, whether the NBA or Olympic badminton. They've got a limited number of years to pursue their passion. If you're LeBron James, a year of service when you're age 40 makes a lot more sense! If you're a young Mormon couple with religious obligations to your community and a desire to have a really big family, an extra volunteering burden in your early 20s matters a lot. Maybe it means you have to have one less kid. The Washington, D.C., wonks who write the laws won't think of these minorities.

3) Lots of people fulfill obligations beyond themselves that aren't "public service" as we generally understand it: helping to support their single mother and younger siblings; taking care of a sick parent or grandparent; working so a significant other can afford law or medical school; babysitting for a neighbor while she finishes her master's degree on Wednesday nights; helping a talented but disorganized friend complete her application for art school. Is it proper to compel those people to reallocate their time, so that they're serving "the public" rather than their family, friends or neighbors? Of course, any opt-out clause for people in the circumstances I've described would make national service so easy to avoid that it wouldn't be universal. People "give" in lots of different ways. Why should one of them be elevated and made compulsory?

4) After college, I pursued a different path than my sister: I took a job as the beat reporter in Rancho Cucamonga, California. The stories I wrote for a community newspaper were often the only record of important civic happenings in a city of 100,000 people -- a huge responsibility, especially for a 22-year-old, and one that caused me to happily work extremely long hours for very modest pay. Given my skills at the time, as well as my notion of the good, there was no place in America where I would've been of greater value to my fellow citizens than the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin. That job also helped me build skills I've made use of ever since in my career. As a personal matter, delaying the start of my journalism career would've had a significant negative impact on my life (perhaps I'd feel differently if my path to magazine journalism was the Harvard-or-Yale-undergrad-to-internship route; it wasn't). As a matter of principle, I resist the notion that my job had no public service component. Would "professional reporter" ever count as national service? On what basis would we decide? If some jobs count, then the state must bless some and diminish others. I certainly question whether various jobs advance the public interest in any way, but I don't think my judgment or the polity's should be decisive.

5) Based on seeing the work that my sister and her colleagues did at Special Camp and Camp Painted Turtle, I submit to you that they were insanely undervalued in our socio-economic system. It frustrates me every time people speak about workers at nonprofits as if toiling for a good cause should entail everyone cheerfully forgoing salaries commensurate with their skills. (A few weeks ago, I was reading a local newspaper that had a gift guide for college graduates. Rather than generic gifts, it suggested using a grad's intended career path for inspiration. Its gift idea for folks going into the non-profit sector: donate to their favorite charity in their name. Its gift idea for folks going into finance: give them money to invest. Why is working to help others taken as a signal that you don't value financial remuneration?) I fear that universal service would further entrench the notion that there are some things Americans do professionally, as "serious" careers -- lawyer, accountant, college professor -- and other things, like nonprofit work, that many people do free for a couple years, before moving on to something "real," (even as a small minority of wrongly lower status people keep serving others for a living). I'll believe that America values serving others when the people doing it are respected and paid as if they're valuable, not when older Americans vote en masse to force younger Americans to serve, doing various jobs deemed insufficiently important to pay a skilled employee.

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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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