Liberty and Involuntary Servitude Cannot Coexist

A syndicated columnist has advocated mandatory national service for young adults. Specifically, the columnist wants President George W. Bush to modify his administration’s policy of promoting volunteerism.

In the columnist’s view, all young people should have to perform two years of community service in return for a government stipend.

The columnist’s proposal is similar to calls, made occasionally by others, for reinstating the draft and forcing all young adults to serve a year or more in the military.

Americans who support such proposals apparently don’t understand the meaning or importance of freedom. And they don’t seem to have much affection for it.

Have they forgotten that the Declaration of Independence proclaims that people have the unalienable right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”?

Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration, likewise said in his First Inaugural Address: “A wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement.”

A law placing all young adults in a year or more of involuntary servitude – whether civilian or military – would blatantly violate those basic American principles of individual liberty.

What business does the government have to decide the best way for millions of adults to spend so much of their lives? Our country was founded on the belief that individuals can best decide those matters for themselves.

Moreover, the columnist’s proposal would send a message to society that community service is so distasteful that we have to enslave people to get it done. This message, along with the resentment that millions would have at being forced into the activity, would likely result in less community service in the long run.

The columnist supports his proposal by saying that young Americans don’t have enough “responsibility, accountability, discipline, service, and an important sense of duty to their nation.”

Oh really? Then how would he explain the fact that many thousands more young people apply for the Peace Corps and Teach for America than those organizations are able to accept?

The performance of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq also refutes his assertions. The same can be said about their achievements in the Persian Gulf War a decade earlier. All those military personnel volunteered to serve.

Their performance is consistent with management theory, which also can be used to make a strong case against a military draft. Workers who want to do a job are likely to perform far better than workers who have been forced into it.

In fact, a slave usually takes as much time as possible to perform as little work as possible. A free person has incentives to do the opposite.

Additionally, as is the case with any line of work, some people aren’t cut out for military service. Attempting to make them into soldiers is like trying to place a square peg into a round hole. The effort to do so wastes the military’s time, energy, and resources.

It also hinders the development of the aptitudes that those persons do possess. Because their talents are in other fields, both society and the military benefit if they go into vocations where they are better suited to make contributions.

Even if the columnist’s derogatory claims about today’s youth were true, the American response is not to enslave them into performing community service. The American way is to educate them by word and example about the value of community service and the personal satisfaction to be gained from it.

Alternatively, the government could induce people to perform the work by offering to pay them more than they make elsewhere. Financial motivations are also the American way.

Similar incentives should apply to those needed for military service. People in every other line of work are supposed to be paid the market value for their services. It is nonsensical and unfair to use another standard for citizens whose interests and talents are in providing military service.

We should be no more willing to force them into involuntary servitude, which inevitably involves paying them less than the market rate, than we are to enslave others whose services are needed by society.

Of course, a military draft could be justifiable in times of extreme crisis, such as when the nation’s survival depends on quickly raising a large number of soldiers. Most rights – including liberty – may be temporarily suspended in compelling and exigent circumstances where no other measures can avert the danger.

As Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist 36: “There are certain emergencies of nations in which expedients that in the ordinary state of things ought to be forborne become essential to the public weal. And the government, from the possibility of such emergencies, ought ever to have the option of making use of them.”

Abraham Lincoln similarly argued that there are moments when “measures otherwise unconstitutional might become lawful by becoming indispensable to the preservation of the Constitution through the preservation of the nation.”

Given the nature of modern military conflicts, though, situations requiring a draft would rarely, if ever, exist. In the usual case, military needs can be more effectively met by paying soldiers at least the market rate for doing a job they willingly and bravely accept.

And by compensating them fairly, we would be showing them some of the respect and appreciation they so greatly deserve.

The American ideal of individual liberty could not be more opposed to the fascist notion of using government to force adults into years of involuntary servitude. The columnist’s proposal therefore deserves the response Lincoln once gave to a proposal to limit the rights of certain religious and ethnic groups.

Lincoln said that if the U.S. ever implemented such a policy, he would “prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty – to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”

People are more likely to love, serve, and defend a country that lives up to its ideals of liberty than one that hypocritically brushes those principles aside.