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A Bad Idea Whose Time is Past: The Case Against Universal Service

If each woman in China could only be persuaded to lower the hem of her skirt one inch, some 19th-century English merchants reasoned, the looms of Manchester could spin forever. Like that romantic calculation, the idea of universal service assumes a mythical economic and cultural system where people behave as you would like them to, with motivations of which you approve. Unlike it, universal service adds coercion to ensure compliance.

Universal service never was a good idea, and it grows worse with time. It fails militarily, morally, financially, and politically.

For almost a century, universal service has brought forth new advocates, each desiring to enlist all youth in something. Only the justifications keep changing. Today’s justification is “homeland security.” But is it realistic to suggest that youth who help guard a “public or private facility” (let alone those who stuff envelopes at some charity’s office) are “shouldering the burden of war” in the same way as a soldier in Afghanistan?

I don’t want to attach to Robert Litan all the customary arguments that universal service advocates have been promoting for years, especially because he states that “advocating universal service before September 11 would have been unthinkable” (at least to him). Except in times of mass conflict, such as the Civil War and the two World Wars, there has never been much of a reason for universal service. Still, the varied arguments for it need to be addressed.

No Military Case

Universal service is not needed on military grounds. We eliminated the draft three decades ago in part because the armed services found that they needed relatively fewer recruits to serve longer than conscription provided. As the numbers that were needed shrank, the unfairness of the draft became ever more apparent-and offensive. Youth, ever ingenious, found ways to get deferments, decamp to Canada, make themselves a nuisance to everyone in authority-and make those who did serve feel like chumps. Many of the young people who objected to military service availed themselves of alternative service, but no one seriously believed that most “conscientious objectors” were “shouldering the burden of war” in a way comparable to those fighting in the field.


The government took advantage of its free supply of almost unlimited manpower by underpaying its servicemen, thereby losing many recruits who might have chosen a military career. Raising the pay when the volunteer force was introduced changed the incentives and-surprise-eliminated the need for the draft. The all-volunteer force has been a big success.

Leaders in today’s increasingly sophisticated, highly trained military now are talking of further manpower cuts. They have no interest in short-term soldiers of any kind and give no support to a return to conscription. The idea of using universal service to round up young men and women who, instead of direct military service, could be counted on to guard a “public or private facility,” as Litan proposes, is naive. In Litan’s plan, youth would be obligated for only a year-slightly less, if AmeriCorps were the model. Philip Gold, a colleague at Discovery Institute and author of the post-September 11 book Against All Terrors: This Nation’s Next Defense, points out that “if the object is fighting, a person trained only for a few months is useless. In a noncombat defense position, he would be worse than useless. He would be dangerous.”

Litan’s interest in compulsory service grew partly out of recent work on Israel. According to Gold, armed guards in Israel do protect day care centers, for example. But all have had serious military training and two to three years ofactive duty, followed by service in the active reserves. A population with widespread military training and service can accomplish things that a civilian volunteer program cannot.

Litan anticipates nothing comparable from short-term universal servicemen and -women. A one-year obligation, under the AmeriCorps example, works out to only 1,700 hours—roughly 10 months of 40-hour weeks. By the time the compulsory volunteers were trained, it would be time for them to muster out. The system would be roiled by constant turnover. It is surely unrealistic to expect to fill security jobs with youths who will be around for only a few months. Ask yourself, would you rather have a paid and trained person or a conscripted teenager inspecting the seaport for possible terrorists?

No Moral Justification

Trying to justify universal service on moral grounds is also a mistake, and a serious one. Morally, service isn’t service to the extent it is compelled. Involuntary voluntarism is like hot snow. And allowing the pay to approach (let alone surpass) that available to ordinary workers of the same age performing the same tasks as the stipended and officially applauded “volunteers” stigmatizes the private sector. (The military recruit of today is sometimes called a volunteer only because he is not conscripted. His service is more commendable morally than that of some other paid employee because he is prepared to risk his life.)

Universal service advocates such as Litan are on especially shaky ground when charging that citizens should be “required to give something to their country in exchange for the full range of rights to which citizenship entitles them.” This cuts against the grain of U.S. history and traditions. Citizens here are expected to be law-abiding, and they are called to jury duty—and to the military if absolutely necessary. They are encouraged (not forced) to vote and to render voluntary service—which Americans famously do. But to require such service before the rights of citizenship are extended is simply contrary to the purposes for which the country was founded and has endured. The Founders had a keen awareness of the ways that the state could tyrannize the people, and taking the people’s liberty away to serve some specious government purpose unattached to national survival is a project that would horrify them.

I also raise this practical question: exactly which citizenship rights will Litan deny those people who decline to perform government-approved national service? What will be done to punish the activist who thinks he can do more to serve humanity through a political party than through prescribed government service? Or the young religious missionary who would rather save souls than guard a pier for a few months? How about-at the other end of the virtue spectrum-the young drug dealer who is only too happy to help guard the pier? Will you keep him out of the service of his choice and compel him to do rehab as his form of “service”?

Outside of mass mobilization for war—or in the special case of Israel, a small nation effectively on constant alert—the only modern nations that have conscripted labor to meet assorted, centrally decreed social purposes have been totalitarian regimes. In those lands, the object, as much as anything, has been to indoctrinate youth in the morality of the state. Litan may not have such goals in mind, but many universal service advocates want to use conscription to straighten out the next generation—to their approved standards. No doubt many-most?-think they can inculcate a sense of voluntary service through compulsory service.

In reality, however, no previous generation of youth has been so encouraged to volunteer for various approved, state-sponsored social causes. In many high schools in the United States, students cannot get a diploma without performing a certain number of hours of approved “community service.” Does a child who must perform service to graduate from high school develop a high sense of what it means to help others? Does a student who learns that almost anything counts toward the service requirement—so long as he doesn’t get paid-develop a keen sense of civil calling? Or does he hone his skill at gaming the system? And why, if we have this service requirement in high school—and some colleges-do we need yet another one for the year after high school?

Unintended Consequences

Universal service (indeed any national service scheme that achieves demographic heft) is a case study in unintended consequences. One surprise for liberals might be a growing disillusionment with the government and the way it wastes money. Today’s youth trust the government and are immensely patriotic, but bureaucratized service requirements could cure that. Another unintended consequence might be instruction in how government make-work is a tax on one’s freedom and an irritating distraction from education goals and serious career development. Conservatives of a sardonic nature might come to appreciate the prospect of generations growing to adulthood with firsthand experience of government’s impertinence. It would not be necessary thereafter to exhort the veterans of such unnecessary compulsion to resist the claims of government over the rest of their lives.

Universal service likewise would be an invitation to scandal. The military draft was bad enough, dispatching the budding scientist to pick up paper on a base’s roadsides and sending the sickly malcontent to deliver meal trays to patients in base hospitals. People with powerful parents got cushy positions, while the poor got the onerous tasks. When labor is both free and abundant, it will be squandered and abused. If that was true in eras when mass armies were raised, what can one expect in a time when only a small fraction of the population is needed to operate our high-tech military?

No Financial Justification

The cost of universal service would be prohibitive. Direct costs would include those for assembling, sorting (and sorting out), allocating, and training several million youth in an unending manpower convoy. Indirect costs include clothing and providing initial medical attention, insurance, the law enforcement associated with such large numbers (no small expense in the army, even with presumably higher discipline), housing, and the periodic “leave” arrangements.

The $20,000 per involuntary volunteer estimated by Litan is too low. The more realistic total figure would be more like $27,000 to $30,000. First, the federal cost for a full-time AmeriCorps member is about $16,000, according to AmeriCorps officials. And that, recall, is for an average 10-month stint, so add another $3,000 or so for a 12-month term of service. (The $10,000 figure cited by Litan appears to average the cost of part-time volunteers with that of full-time volunteers.) Giving the involuntary volunteers the AmeriCorps education benefit of some $4,000 brings the total to about $23,000 of federal contribution for the full-time, one-year participant, which, with local or private match, will easily reach a total cost of some $30,000. Few unskilled young people just out of school make that in private employment!

Because organized compulsion costs more than real volunteering, however, the indirect expenses for governments would be still greater. Chief among these are the hidden financial costs of universal national service to the economy in the form of forgone labor. That problem plagued the old draft and would be more acute now. The United States has suffered a labor shortage for most of the past two decades, with the dearth of educated and trained labor especially serious. Yet universal service advocates want to pluck out of the employment ranks some 4 million people a year and apply a command-and-control approach to their optimal use. How can we even calculate the waste?

Litan says that in 1995 the GAO “positively evaluated” a cost-benefit study of three AmeriCorps programs that found them to produce quantifiable monetary benefits of $1.68 to $2.58 for every dollar invested. But Litan overstates the GAO’s “positive evaluation” of the private study’s findings. The GAO study merely analyzes the methodology of the private study based on the assumptions that are baked into it. These assumptions (of future benefits and their dollar values) are inherently “problematic,” based as they are on “projected data.” And neither the GAO nor the private study whose methodology it checked says anything about the applicability of the private study to some universal service program. Inferring GAO endorsement for some putative financial benefits from a national service scheme—let alone a program of compulsory national service—is not good economics.

By contrast, a recent review of the literature and evidence of government spending by William Niskanen, former chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors (under Ronald Reagan), concluded that “the marginal cost of government spending and taxes in the United States may be about $2.75 per additional dollar of tax revenue.” As the late Nobel economist Frederick Hayek said, “There is only one problem with socialism. It does not work.”

The cost of universal service for one year would not be $80 billion, with certain additional economic benefits, as Litan would have it, but roughly $120 billion, with considerable additional losses to the economy as a whole.

No Practical or Political Worth

There is no demand for all these volunteers, as charities themselves have pointed out. Nonprofits can absorb only so many unseasoned, unskilled, short-term “volunteers,” particularly when some of the “volunteers” are reluctant, to say the least. So what is the point? Is it political?

Some universal service advocates (not Litan) have cited a January 2002 survey by Lake Snell Perry & Associates, The Tarrance Group, Inc. (The survey was conducted for the Center for Information and Research in Civic Learning & Engagement, the Center for Democracy & Citizenship, and The Partnership for Trust in Government at the Council for Excellence in Government.) The study shows strong support among youth for universal service. But these advocates usually neglect to mention that this support is based on a stated assumption in the survey question that such service would be “an alternative to (compulsory) military service should one be instituted.” A truer reflection of youthful opinion is found in the survey’s largely unreported question on community service as a requirement for high school graduation. That program is overwhelmingly opposed—by a 35 percent margin among current high school students. Interestingly, the same survey shows that “instituting civics and government course requirements in schools is favored by a 15-point margin by current high school students.”

This should tell us something. Putting $120 billion, or even $80 billion, into a universal national service scheme would be a waste. But how about spending some tiny corner of that money on teaching kids about real-that is, voluntary-service? How about paying to teach students about representative democracy and their part in it as voters and volunteers or about the way our economy works and how to prepare for successful participation in it? Or to teach them American history (for many, it would be a new course) in a way that inspired them with the stories of men and women, great and humble, who have rendered notable service in their communities, nation, and world.

The way to get a nation of volunteers is to showcase voluntary service, praise it, reward it, and revere it. The way to sabotage voluntary service is to coerce it, bureaucratize it, nationalize it, cloak it in political correctness, and pay for it to the point where the “volunteer” makes out better than the poor soul of the same age who works for a living. Voluntary service blesses the one who serves as well as those to whom he renders service. Universal service would be civic virtue perverted into a civic vice.

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