Service and Freedom

In light of last week’s events and a lifetime of watching kids grow up in America, on Monday I suggested the time is right for mandatory national service when each American turns 18.

I am disappointed at how many have responded, particularly those who equate national service with military service. Here’s what I wrote:

I’ll leave it to others to create the system, but this would provide us the opportunity to make sure every American has basic literacy, understands the Constitution, and knows self-defense. Beyond basic training, the program would probably split into different areas of public service, military, and who knows what else.

Some of the reasoning behind this:

  • Our public schools have failed. Too many graduate illiterate, lacking life skills, and with no self-discipline.
  • Thanks to television, movies, and video games, too many view guns as toys. Learning to use a gun will change that view.

The program would be diverse enough for everyone, including military options as well as other types of service such as the Peace Corps, Parks Service, community services, office staff at federal buildings, and a host of other options. I am not proposing a strictly military program, since I know that would violate the consciences and religious convictions of many Americans.

‘Mandatory Service Denies Freedom’

The most common response is that requiring national service somehow takes away the very freedoms we seek to defend. Following the logic of that statement, requiring us to pay taxes or drive on the right side of the road also denies our freedoms.

Rights come with responsibilities. Freedom is never absolute. We have to drive on the proper side of the street, pay taxes, and show up if drafted – unless we are willing to go to jail. Just as we require children to attend school, drivers to earn a license, and citizens to register before they can vote, the state can also require the services of its citizens.

‘We Can’t Afford It’

Yes, we are a nation of tightwads sometimes. Other nations have done this without bankrupting their economies, so why couldn’t it work in the bulwark of capitalism?

Someone suggested 1.25% of the population would be involved at any given time. That’s about 350,000. National service would provide room and board plus a stipend. Yes, we may be talking less than minimum wage, but without food, rent, and utility bills, that wouldn’t be terrible. Let’s say the total cost comes to $300 per week per individual. That’s about $5.5 billion – about $55 per household (estimated at 100,000 households in the U.S.).

If we can’t afford that, our priorities are way out of line.

And that’s not the whole picture. Some people enrolled in national service might otherwise have enlisted in the military or other government services, so we’re already paying out a portion of this.

‘A Volunteer Army Is Better’

That’s debatable. Yes, it’s good for morale to know that everyone serving in the armed forces is there by choice – but national service wouldn’t change that in the least. In fact, it could improve the picture by forcing everyone to consider their options. It could keep a lot of people out of dead-end jobs, bring some of the best and brightest into government service, and create a better workforce of those who have completed national service.

Despite mandatory national service, military service would remain a choice.

‘This Is Just a Knee-Jerk Reaction to Terrorism’

No, this is something I’ve been thinking about for some time, especially watching my sons grow up in a culture that values individuality and a school system that treats everyone the same. The current system doesn’t work; it’s time for a change.

We have too many aimless people. A year or two of national service could help them find the direction they didn’t find in school. Some might become the kind of teachers we need to overhaul our schools so they work with individual students instead of students en masse. Some might choose military or other government careers. Some might go on to become pillars of the community: honest lawyers, servant politicians, scrupulous businessmen, motivated employees, and taxpayers who have tasted the positive side of our government by serving it.

National service will result in a stronger nation, and not merely because every American will know how to handle a gun. Knowing they have served their country and are valued by their nation will make them better citizens. Assuring basic literacy and offering help with ongoing education will also improve the nation. On top of that, the service done, military and otherwise, will help build a better America.

Or we can continue with business as usual.

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