National Service Is a Terrible Idea

John Delaney’s plan amounts to forced labor.

Mike Segar / Reuters

The Democratic presidential candidate John Delaney proposed this week that the government partner with private companies and unions to create a national program of forced labor. He calls it “John Delaney’s Plan for National Service.” “Every American will complete a minimum of 1 year and a maximum of 2 years of mandatory national service when they graduate high school, or turn 18,” it states.

“No exceptions,” a press release clarifies. (Tough luck, pregnant 18-year-olds.)

With the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, the Constitution guaranteed that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude … shall exist within the United States.” Delaney obviously doesn’t see it this way, but mandatory national service is plainly involuntary servitude.

Nevertheless, the former congressman is arguing for it.

“It’s time to bring the country together, restore our sense of shared purpose and a common and inclusive national destiny,” Delaney said. “By mandating national service, we build a future where young people begin their adult lives serving their country and working alongside people from different backgrounds. Where people from Massachusetts and Florida and Oklahoma work alongside each other; where people who grew up in the suburbs, in farm towns, in coal country, in urban communities get to know each other, get to learn from each other, and get to see firsthand that we still have a lot in common.”

I sympathize with the impulse to expose Americans from different backgrounds to one another in the hopes that it will lead to better cooperation. I’d support all sorts of voluntary initiatives with that purpose in mind. But I am repulsed by the notion that every American can or ought to be united around a single “purpose” or agree on the country’s “destiny,” which even John Adams and Thomas Jefferson could not do. And forced labor transgresses against natural rights to liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

How strange that any Democrat fails to see associated perils at this moment. If mandatory national service were in place today, it would be run by Donald Trump. How would the Trump administration marshal the nation’s youths if it were able to compel the labor of each young man and woman, “no exceptions”?

Perhaps the White House political adviser Stephen Miller would help decide where to assign them and how best to advance the “national destiny” as he sees it. Perhaps some would be assigned to help patrol the border.

Or say that Delaney wins the presidency. Would national unity be advanced by drafting every 18-year-old with a MAGA hat into national service under the new, Democratic administration? Perhaps we would have a culture-war fight about whether volunteering at Planned Parenthood should count toward discharging one’s obligation. In any case, as Scott Shackford writes at Reason, “Forcing an entire younger generation to do an older generation’s bidding will not bring a ‘sense of shared purpose’ any more than drafting them to fight in Vietnam did.”

Even setting aside the costs to 18-year-olds, the assumption that this workforce would better serve the nation than the status quo is unwarranted at best.

Individuals are simply better equipped than the federal government to assess where they can best contribute to society, given their interests and aptitudes—would you have wanted LeBron James, Serena Williams, or Natalie Portman to spend their respective 19th years installing solar panels in the Mojave Desert? I don’t want the next generation of much-needed primary-care doctors to delay the day when they’ll see patients and practice for one fewer year of life.

And even if central planners could know where to place each 18-year-old to best advance the national interest, the politicians, bureaucrats, private companies, unions, and more would all try to bend the process to their own advantage.

Meanwhile, important projects would suffer from an influx of unskilled labor.

“To implement infrastructure apprenticeships,” Delaney’s plan states, “all federal contractors would be required to design and implement an apprentice program.”

I can see it now: the bridge in need of repairs to guarantee its safety; the snarled traffic every day that it’s closed; and the federal contractor fixing it even less efficiently than before because, by government mandate, it’s running something like an untaped The Real World: Seismic Retrofit. “Foreman, sorry to bother you as a steel delivery is coming in, but Mason and Isabella broke up again, Chaden is dangerously hungover, Alejandra wants to know if we can move the crane so there’s no shadow in her TikTok video, and Liam’s mom is on the phone again to make sure you told everyone about his peanut allergy.”

There’s nothing wrong with an apprenticeship program for young people. But an apprenticeship for 18-year-olds who don’t want to be there is a recipe for dysfunction.

So long as millions of Americans regard mandatory national service as immoral, unconstitutional, or economically illiterate, imposing it anyway, even with majority support, would do far more to divide the country than to unify it.

At the very least, there would be lawsuits, public denunciations of creeping tyranny, protests, and calls for civil disobedience to thwart its implementation as antiauthoritarians revolted against coercive claims on the lives of young adults.

As the legal scholar Ilya Somin once put it, “Mandatory national service is not just another policy proposal. It is an idea that undermines one of the fundamental principles of a free society: that people own themselves and their labor. We are not the property of the government, a majority of the population, or some employer. Mandatory national service is a frontal attack on that principle.”

A free people should fight it accordingly.