On July 28th, Congressman and 2020 longshot John Delaney unveiled his new Mandatory National Service program in time for the second round of Democratic debates. The plan is relatively simple: when a young citizen graduates high school or turns eighteen, they enter a mandatory period of service for a “minimum of [one] year and a maximum of [two] years.”
The choices will be limited to military service (the current period of enlistment will remain the same), national Community Service programs, a “new National Infrastructure Apprenticeship program,” or a “newly created Climate Corps.” The stated intentions of such a program are to “provide opportunities for young people to give back to their country and to meet and work with people from all backgrounds.”
While many will draw similarities to friendly nations who require military service, such as Norway, Israel, and Switzerland, others may draw similarities to nations of the likes of China, Russia, and North Korea. In a free society, national service is not compulsory, but entered into freely. The American idea of liberty uses the bedrock of individual rights, and individual choice, upon which to set a society. Mandatory service to the nation, which is a pseudo-patriotic way of saying service to the government, is an affront to individual liberty and choice, woefully expensive, and a violation of the Thirteenth Amendment.
Debt, Debt, and More Debt
The reality of such a program is that it would require an enormous expenditure. While it will be some time before such a proposal can be fully evaluated for cost, it includes elements of other proposals, including salaries and stipends, housing, and “free” tuition to in-state public universities when service is complete.
The Climate Corps is particularly interesting, especially when combined with the Infrastructure portion. Together, these programs are strikingly similar to the Green New Deal, proposed earlier this year by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The cost of the Congresswoman’s proposal has been estimated to be between $51 and $93 Trillion over ten years, which would raise the national budget exponentially. Taking into the promise of “free” college as well, the cost increases by an additional $47 Billion per year, using a previous plan proposed by Bernie Sanders as a barometer.
With this plan only having been just proposed, the over all cost is still left to be fully estimated. But similar programs that have been proposed over the last few months and years have given a terrific view into the expected expenses. With the added bonus of this being a program that would mobilize tens of millions of persons, it is fair to say that this is one more proposal that would bankrupt the country.
When it comes to military service, the United States has a long history of both voluntary and involuntary service. While the draft is not currently active, as it would be political suicide, all young men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five are still required to register with the Selective Service. The draft, while immoral, has fortunately transitioned to a function of necessity, rather than routine.
The military has also transitioned to more of a career focus, rather than solely a function of war. Recruitment videos and materials focus on the different training and career experiences that recruits can receive during their enlistment period, as well as money for college tuition through the GI Bill. This change, coupled with heavy increases to the military’s budget over the years and reserve forces, has given the United States the most powerful military force in the world, voluntarily served. Reestablishing a draft that is only partially optional would be incredibly wasteful and unnecessary unless Delaney is willing to adopt a policy of greater military intervention.
There is no denying that there is no limit to the good that can come from community service. Individuals volunteering their time, money, and resources for the greater good of their local community is always an incredibly positive and powerful thing. Which is why the United States already performs so well in this area.
According to the World Giving Index, the United States currently ranks fourth in the world. This ranking considers money donated, time volunteered, and willingness to help a stranger. What is more fascinating is when these lists are compared to the Index of Economic Freedom. Six of the top ten most charitable nations also appear in the top ten nations with the freest economies, which also correlates with the top nations on the Human Freedom Index.
America currently ranks twelfth on the Index of Economic Freedom, but still has a willingness to give more than all but three nations. The answer does not lie in the national mobilization of citizens against their will, but to focus on advancing economic freedom. A nation that already gives would conceivably give more if its citizens are truly free to pursue their own interests and create wealth for themselves.
National Infrastructure and Climate Change
Our infrastructure could always better, there’s no denying that. State by state, our roads lack repairs and maintenance. We have old buildings that could use an upgrade. We consume a massive amount of fossil fuel every year. But is an army of youth, compelled into service for such a purpose, feasible?
The current estimate to bring US infrastructure up to code sits around $2 Trillion. If Delaney’s proposal is anything like the aforementioned “Green New Deal,” combined with the logistics of mobilizing and training millions of persons to assist, it is highly likely that $2 Trillion will seem like a drop in the bucket.
Currently, the Federal Reserve estimates that there is only $1.7 Trillion in US currency in circulation, including currency that is no longer issued. If you confiscated one hundred percent of the country’s money and wealth, you could not fund such an endeavor, nor could you fund the federal government for a single year.
A better option would be utilizing privatization and voluntary efforts to upgrade national infrastructure, than continuing federal efforts that have failed to produce adequate results. For climate change, individual efforts have shown more promise, through the personal adoption of alternative energies, including solar panels and electric vehicles.
Solutions abound in a country of nearly 330 million persons. Removing barriers to entry in the marketplace would allow for a limitless supply of potential solutions from which each person can voluntarily choose. This would mean an end to federal subsidies that protect fossil fuels and prevent competition in the alternative energy market. Change is not unattainable because of the unwillingness of the people. Change is merely stymied by the protections available to established businesses and providers by state and federal governments.
Starship Troopers and Looking Backward
With all the discussion and praise for socialism emerging once more in the United States, I find myself reminiscing on two novels of yesteryear. The first is a novel published in 1888 by Edward Bellamy, entitled Looking Backward. The second is a novel entitled Starship Troopers, popularized as a movie, by Robert A. Heinlein.
Looking Backward is a socialist utopian novel, detailing a vision of the United States in which the nationalization of labor and production has already taken full effect. Unlike the novels of the 20th century that focused on socialism and communism and depicting such societies as “dystopias,” Bellamy’s novel is a celebration that became the third most popular book in the United States after its publication, joining the ranks of Ben-Hur and Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Similar to Delaney’s proposal, Bellamy’s fictional society makes use of a “labor army” in which each person is drafted into and provided a role in the machine of centralization. Which brings me to Heinlein’s novel, Starship Troopers.
Heinlein’s novel also provides a vision of the future, presented as a global military society, which exists as a fascist state that requires service to the state in order to earn full citizenship. In the same way that Bellamy’s work glorifies his vision, Heinlein’s is equally glorious in its presentation, although whether this is the driest example of satire ever has been hotly debated for decades.
Which brings me to a simple question for Delaney: what happens if someone chooses not to serve the government’s new labor army? A pacifist will not choose the military. An artist probably has little interest in engineering. Community service, which would probably become the most popular choice, is simply not that, when one is required to participate.
Heinlein’s novel is quite graphic when it comes to crime and punishment, including celebrated public corporal punishment and executions, broadcasted live for all to see. Our Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, but it also prohibits involuntary servitude, i.e. slavery. I do not believe that Delaney would suggest that severe punishments be issued, but the question remains. Out of millions of persons, there will certainly be those who refuse service in order to pursue their own lives.
The other option is through gradual indoctrination, which brings us back to Looking Backward. Edward Bellamy’s brother, Francis Bellamy, was a well-known Christian Socialist, who often preached socialism from the pulpit. In 1892, Francis Bellamy introduced a string of words that became our Pledge of Allegiance in 1942. The Pledge was disseminated through a popular magazine to schools around the country.
In addition to money (you could purchase a flag with copies of the Pledge. Very capitalistic…), Bellamy’s intention was to have the Pledge adopted and recited daily by all children. His hope was to create a blind love of country and a sense of service, backed by national unity. This would make his brother’s vision far easier to obtain. Fifty years later, Congress adopted the Pledge as an official oath, mandating that all schools implement it in the classroom. The Supreme Court ruled such a mandate as unconstitutional in 1943 and the Pledge has since become optional.
What’s interesting is that Bellamy’s plan worked in fostering blind nationalism but backfired in terms of national unity. Many schools and states continue to discipline students who choose not to say the Pledge and such stories generally receive some form of national coverage as pundits and trolls emerge to squabble over minutia. If something as simple as a Pledge being mandatory is considered unconstitutional, would refusal to serve the federal government be seen the same way? Or should millions of young Americans prepare to be treated as criminals for making a personal choice?
Individual Liberty, Personal Choice, and the Thirteenth Amendment
If there is one thing that I agree with from John Delaney, it is his call to restore “an understanding of our common American identity.” Unfortunately, the Congressman’s interpretation of the American identity, our liberty, misses the mark.
The United States’ revolution was predicated on the idea that no man should be subservient to another man, nor its government. In our Declaration of Independence, our Founders declared that we were no longer subjects of the British Crown and that we were free to choose our own destiny. This is the basis of individual liberty: the freedom of choice.
We may choose careers that interest us. We may decide what kind of products to buy. We may choose what to believe, what to say, and what to think. We may choose to recite the Pledge of Allegiance or not. We may choose to protest the government and demand change. To implement mandatory service, to the point that it would cost one to two years of a person’s life, goes against the very principles on which our country was founded.
Enter the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The desire and fight to end slavery in the United States can be traced back to the sixteenth century. Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration and a slave owner himself, introduced legislation banning the practice but failed to gain support. Fortunately, abolitionism continued to grow, eventually leading to the Civil War. It was this idea of liberty, written and fought for by our Founders, that proved the immorality of slavery.
It is the Thirteenth Amendment, ratified in 1865, that made clear that slavery and involuntary servitude were illegal practices in the United States, with the exception of labor as a part of criminal punishment. It reads:
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
This is the reality that John Delaney’s proposal faces. Even with payment and housing, that such a program requires mandatory participation would make it involuntary servitude and illegal under the Constitution. Even if it were affordable, it would be legally and morally abhorrent.
Finding the American Identity
In conversation with people that claim that we must protect “American culture,” “American values,” or the “American identity,” I always make a simple request: define what it is you wish to protect. Interestingly, I have never been given the same answer. By anyone. This is the beauty of the American identity; it is made up of nearly 330 million individual identities.
America is not perfect, by any stretch of the imagination, but there is an idea that permeates our nation. We are free to live our lives as we choose, so long as our actions do not conflict with the rights of others. This applies to the government as much as every individual, if not more so.
Finding the American identity requires understanding what America is: we are the Great Experiment, designed to foster the greatest of humanity’s achievements. This does not happen in a vacuum. This does not happen through the enforcement of a collective identity or mindset. This does not happen through central planning. It happens by stepping back and allowing each person to live their own life to their own end.
Americans are remarkably resourceful, with a penchant for ingenuity, entrepreneurship, and generosity. When left to our own devices, we flourish. When restricted by the government, we stagnate and fail to grow personally and nationally.
I have written heavily on the topic of civics education; it is an extremely important topic to me, and I work to stress that importance with others. If we truly wish to foster a sense of national identity and purpose, we as teachers, parents, students, and individuals should take the time to study American civics.
If we, including John Delaney, take the time to study the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and Bill of Rights, the Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers, John Locke, and Thomas Paine, among many other works, we will be able to find the American identity. The greatest flaw in such proposals as Delaney’s is an inherent lack of trust in the principles of liberty and thus an inherent lack of trust in humanity.
American liberty is humanity’s liberty; we can thrive as free individuals or we can falter as slaves to the state. I prefer the former and I’d wager that Delaney does too.