The Case for Universal National Service (Guest Column)

This guest column was written by Norman Fiering, Director and Librarian Emeritus, John Carter Brown Library. The following are his words.

Social, economic, and political divisions in the United States in 2020 are alarmingly hardened. No acts of good will or concerned pleas for unity can significantly modulate, let alone eliminate, them. The chasm between the financially privileged, let’s say the top 10 percent, and the rest is truly enormous and obdurate; that between progressive coastal elites and the vast heartland is equally stubborn; and the mutual resentment between “whites” and “colored” all the more difficult to tone down because it is no longer a matter of Jim Crow segregation but a deep-seated family quarrel. As Diane Johnson asked in the New York Review of Books a few years back: “How do we go about getting a feeling of cohesion in America?”

Not since the Civil War, or perhaps the 1890s, has the disunity and cultural antagonism been so deep, and in the case of the former it took a war to reinvent the country. Even the huge political friction brought about by the Great Depression was not finally overcome until the outbreak of war. Wars unify nations like nothing else, as is well known, and at times like the present there is always the danger that executive officers here or anywhere will turn to the device of national bellicosity to create a semblance of cohesion.

If there was ever a time to hearken to William James’s call in 1910 for a moral equivalent of war it is now. Is it possible, as James asked, to incorporate the social and personal virtues of war into peacetime life and thereby avert killing each other, either world-wide or at home, for glory, for love of country, for tribal solidarity. Any veteran can testify to the inherent virtues of war: the self-sacrifice, the courage, the honor, the camaraderie, the patriotism that transcends all personal differences for the sake of the greater mission. Despite the horror of their recollections of battle, many veterans feel ennobled for life, and rightly, because of their wartime devotion. Pacifists have to accept that we cannot wish war away or pretend that it is merely a recurrent aberration in the human psyche. The United States, while identifying itself as a peaceful nation, has since its founding been a belligerent every twenty-five years or so, and the metaphor of war to signify all-out effort is constantly invoked for peaceful endeavors, such as the War on Poverty or the battle against cancer.

We need now in the United States a kind of mission that is as radical and goes as deep as war does, but is wholly non-belligerent, a mission that begins with the life education of the young and in application encompasses the entire population. I am thinking of mandatory work service in the cause of human betterment for every inhabitant of the United States between the ages of 17 and 24, for one or two years (one year required, two years optional), with the exception only of those in prison or too disabled to work. Even young parents would not be exempted, although in all cases the requirement would be fulfilled humanely and intelligently. Among other virtues, service to the country will balance the progressive call for new rights (such as the right to health care or the right to education) with the somewhat forgotten necessity also of obligations to society at large.

Such a program has no counterpart anywhere, to my knowledge. Israel has universal conscription for the military, not for a national service reaching into all facets of life, serving all human needs. Switzerland, too, has a highly popular military conscription, but it is restricted to males. Only recently (May 8, 2020) the New York Times columnist David Brooks forcefully proposed a national service program, but he did not suggest that it be universal. Such calls resurface every few years.

Before conjuring up negative images of a vast new bureaucracy and huge costs, consider the weighty problems such an initiative would help to relieve. Universal conscription for national service definitely does not mean exclusively military service, although that would be one meritorious choice among several open to young men and women obliged to perform some service. Among other things, the military option, if it attracted significant numbers, would go a long way toward bridging the divide between our professional military and the citizenry as a whole, a division that is never healthy in a democracy and that is now awkwardly papered over by the celebration of veterans. Our all-voluntary military with the exception of the officer corps, West Pointers and the like, is made up essentially of those in the less educated economic classes.

Military service in this country used to have a social benefit that had nothing to do with battle: the integration, for a period of time, of social and economic classes, ethnic groups, and eventually races. Today, rich and poor spend whole lifetimes on separate tracks, never once having any substantial interactions across the gap between the top ten percent and the rest, whereas in some periods of the past century, because of the draft, the military was our true equalizer, promoting a sense of national unity, a benefit much featured by Hollywood war movies showing multi-ethnic squads and platoons.

For those averse to service in the military — presumably the great majority of young people — an obvious alternative would be enlistment in conservation tasks and disaster response, an idea promoted by William James as the never-ending war against the depredations of nature, although today we might call it a war for nature, a rescue mission. Conservation was a particular goal of the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps, but the CCC is definitely not a model for what is proposed here. For one thing, the CCC was a welfare program, as opposed to a solidarity project, officially excluding youths who were not impoverished or in trouble with the law. Hence, it reinforced the division between the upper and lower classes, social and economic. It was also operated by the Dept. of the Army and to some degree militarized, which today must be eschewed. It also was lacking in educational goals. The problems of the CCC are well documented in Jack Preiss’s Camp William James (1978).

One hopes that a new service program would give priority not to supplying cheap labor but to on-the-job training in multiple areas. Many corps members would come out of the program with rudimentary vocational skills and, more than that, a direction in life, which would be followed up by government subsidies to graduates of national service for further education in fields of their choice, a kind of GI bill, including technical training. Free college in this case would thus be partially earned.

Military and conservation needs are obvious and important areas for national service. Others might include rebuilding our national infrastructure, including the urgency of preparing for the effects of climate change. The needs here are countless, as everyone knows — roads, bridges, water supply and sewage disposal systems, rail and airport upgrading, flood control, low-cost housing (on the model of Habitat for Humanity), and so forth. The pay of national service corps laborers engaged in such construction tasks would be far less than union wages and thus economical. But absolutely the national service corps must never be associated with union busting or in any way twisted into a federal program that drives down wages. The pay for labor on federal or state construction projects would thus be two tiered by law.

Of equal scope is service to the elderly and infirm and various sorts of health maintenance jobs, a need that we know is growing rapidly with an aging population and has become urgent in the face of the covid-19 pandemic. We need an assured supply of CNAs (certified nursing assistants) and full-fledged nurses, well distributed throughout the country in rural and urban institutions. In another separate category would be social services, including a variety of programs in depressed rural areas and neglected inner cities, plus teaching in the broadest sense, that is, beyond the public schools. Enrollment in Teach for America would qualify as fulfilling one’s national service obligation. Introduction to various digital skills would be included in the curriculum for all.

Those in national service would both teach and be taught. A certain amount of what used to be called Civics education, lately neglected, would be mandatory for all participants. With regard to the high unemployment among black youth in the cities, universal service would have a double benefit: unemployed youth within the age group, like everyone else, would be required to enlist in national service, and at the same time, those not in the program at any one time would be served at home by the program. We would have young men and women both serving and being served.

Intensive, organic, sustainable agriculture and husbandry, as opposed to agri-business, is much in need of government support, in the form of labor, not cash. Here, too, service and training coalesce, and there is an opportunity to harness idealism. Perhaps this would fall into the broad category of service to the environment. To some degree and in some form, national service could supplement or even replace migrant farm labor.

The national service proposed here is focused on domestic needs, but the requirement could also be fulfilled by enlistment in the Peace Corps, although the Peace Corps lacks a central element of this new domestic program, namely community with others engaged in national service. Most of those in the program, whatever they are doing and wherever they are enlisted, would live in planned communities of varying size, sleeping in dormitories or the equivalent, sharing and preparing meals together, regularly gathering for discussion, listening to invited speakers, engaging together in recreational activities. Cell- or smart-phone use for merely social purposes during the 8 to 5 working day and at common meals would be strictly prohibited, a rule that is certain to become wildly popular after a few weeks of experience. Few activities are as bonding among people as working together, when everyone is expected to hold up their end of the responsibilities of daily living, of housekeeping as well as responsibilities in the field. Under such circumstances, an awareness of interdependence is inescapable.

It is not well enough known that a foundation for such a program already exists in Washington, the Corporation for National and Community Service, a Federal agency that runs AmeriCorps, ServiceCorps and a complicated tangle of other programs. The CNCS has a budget of about $1 billion and over the years has narrowly survived various efforts by some in Congress to kill it altogether. President Trump’s 2020 budget, in fact, includes $80 million to cover the cost, you guessed it, of an orderly shutdown of the CNCS.

Of the 300,000 people in one way or another sponsored by the CNCS, most are unpaid volunteers. The agency gives people of all ages the opportunity to serve meaningfully, working as Foster Grandparents, Senior Companions, and such. But there are also programs with paid workers, especially Vista, aiming to reduce poverty, and the NCCC (echoing the New Deal’s CCC, Civilian Conservation Corps) for 18 to 24-year olds, a residential program with tasks such as responding to national disasters, building homes for low income families, conservation measures, and the like. There are about 70,000 people annually in the paid programs. Universal service would be engaging a constantly revolving army of about 40 million young people. It is an irony symptomatic of how confused the United States is in 2020 that covid-19 has temporarily shut down the NCCC, even though one of its stated goals is to help counter the effects of national disasters!

It remains a question whether the existing Corporation for National and Community Service could expand exponentially to accommodate and administer the employment of millions of young people coming and going every year. Given the range of fields of work for these young enlistees, other agencies would have to help — the Depts. of Interior, Education, Health and Human Services, Agriculture, Defense, etc. Decentralization is essential for a universal program to be practical, but the CNCS has the potential to be the coordinating center of it all. Much responsibility would devolve to the fifty states and the territories, but all of the service groups would be geographically diverse, Californians and Kansans together.

Universal service if sustained over decades would substantially better our fabulous country, dramatically helping to overcome the present woeful lack of commonality. The service corps would necessarily be a deep purple institution, blending red state and blue state young adults. It would represent the vast middle by incorporating indiscriminately the poorest and the richest into its projects. Young people from troubled neighborhoods would be rescued from social hazards, and economic mobility reinvigorated. Progress would be made in re-building infrastructure, in low-cost housing construction, and in preparing for the weather changes of the future. Much human suffering would be alleviated by the added man- and woman-power in healthcare and social services, and social integration strengthened. It might also undergird young idealism. There are enduring human passions. Youth everywhere responds to causes that transcend mere self-interest. National service at its best, as a form of patriotic duty with high ideals, would be attractive as a constructive mission without enemies and without scapegoats to galvanize it.

It is easy to imagine scandals and deficiencies in such a large undertaking, among them insufficient demand for labor and the assignment of demoralizing make-work projects as substitutes. There is a danger, too, that corrupt influences would lead to work projects that furthered private interests rather than the national interest, breeding cynicism. Truly valuable and necessary projects would have to be identified, as opposed to bridges to nowhere. To avoid over-supply in one area or another, those conscripted in national service would not necessarily get their first choice of the multiplicity of programs offered. But when openings appeared, switching programs should not be difficult or objectionable. The New Deal’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) employed millions, accomplished much, and functioned without scandal and a small bureaucracy. No doubt mature labor, whether unionized or not, would see universal national service as a threat to well-paying jobs. This was a problem under Roosevelt, but laws can be enacted that would prevent displacement of workers and ease the contention.

The biggest challenge to universal national service is ideological. In a society that in almost all areas is modeled on free market consumerism, it is taken as dogmatic truth that the greatest public good and public happiness is always attained by the marketplace of individual choice. It is easily forgotten that citizens have obligations as well as having rights, among them occasionally putting private interest aside in order to serve the greater good. It is almost unfathomable how far we have departed from President Kennedy’s enthusiastically received injunction sixty years ago, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

An offering of one or two years out of a lifetime is not too much to ask of an individual when still relatively young. Service to country, which in a democracy is service to fellow citizens, at most may entail putting aside self-advancement temporarily. The United States now is astonishingly populous, with some 320 million residents. To trust that market forces alone can meet our manifold needs is preposterous, especially when self-interest is so celebrated and cultural cocoons and silos endemic. To believe that the entrepreneurial spirit and the invisible hand alone will provide, is tantamount to a religious faith and not much more convincing than assuming the Lord will provide and doing nothing. Whatever the merits of the marketplace, we must trust as well in the efficacy of government taking direct action. As was noted some time ago, the United States is prone to government efforts at nation building in foreign lands but averse to it at home.

How will an 18-year-old today react to a requirement for national service? Predictably, some will hate the forced interruption in their career or educational plans; others will see a year or two of service as a gift of time spent fruitfully while postponing big decisions. It should be remembered that government imposes itself on youth right now in every state, requiring school attendance to the age of sixteen typically. National service is thus a short compulsory extension of what presently exists. It is probable that most people will fulfill the requirement right after high school or college, natural points of transition.

Is such a plan budget-busting? Measured against the gains in productivity, probably not. Much good work will get done every year paying only subsistence wages. Taking all into account, both spiritual and material, universal national service would be a net economic gain for the country.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and professor of international relations at the George Washington University.

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