Telling you what to do with yourself
On the Texas power grid, the California system of higher education, and the overreach inherent to imposing a plan for universal compulsory "national service"
One of the daffy ideas that periodically gets revived as a plausible public policy is the notion of compulsory "national service", in the form of something like Rep. Charlie Rangel's 2013 bill for a "Universal National Service Act". That bill proposed "a 2-year period of national service, unless exempted, either through military service or through civilian service in a federal, state, or local government program or with a community-based agency" for every American resident between the ages of 18 and 25.
■ There are plenty of reasonable Constitutional and moral obstacles to enacting a sweeping claim to two years of every young person's life. Despite these obstacles, people float the idea every once in a while; this time around, it is the suggestion of New York Times opinion writer Jay Caspian Kang.
■ As a matter of scale, a universal national service program would be expensive (assuming that the "service" would consist of paid work) and enormously difficult to administer. Such problems could be so substantial that it would make sense to conduct a pilot test first, perhaps by implementing a two-year mandatory service period in a state or two. Good national policies often originate with state-level programs.
■ But the very thought of an individual state imposing a mandatory service program seems ludicrous. What state would do it, and where would the idea be tolerated? Does a state like California (which offers one of the nation's most ambitious programs for college education) have the stomach to impose such a stiff requirement of its residents? Does a state like Vermont (which votes more to the left than almost any other state) have the internal fortitude to make young people sacrifice two years for the "common good"? Does a state like Texas (which has such an independent streak that it even resists interconnection with out-of-state power grids) have the legal authority to mandate what millions of its own people would have to do with two precious years of life?
■ All of these cases seem extremely unlikely -- what state would even try to impose its own service requirement, and what are the odds the people of any state would stand for it? If a reasonable observer looks at a policy and can't see a way it could be done at the state level, then the burden of proof is extraordinary for anyone seeking to justify the same proposal at the national level. Scale isn't its own justification.
■ Setting aside the unlikelihood of any idea working at the national scale that seems unfathomable at the state level, we should remain alert to the false promise of "shared experience". Proponents of ideas like compulsory national service often argue that we can capture in the modern day some of the esprit de corps that went along with the mandatory conscriptions into the armed forces during World War II.
■ Winning a war against a totalitarian enemy to save the future of democracy is the kind of enormous, ambitious, life-or-death goal that tends to bind a society together. (There is, for instance, a fairly good chance that Ukraine will emerge more unified in the long run after repelling the Russian invasion than it would have under the status quo ante.)
■ But the same cannot be said of putting millions of Americans through a common statutory requirement without a shared investment in a common, tangible outcome. Millions of students attend college at the same time all across the country, but aside from decorating their caps and gowns in similar themes, not much can be found in common among the graduates of Boston College, the University of Alabama, the Air Force Academy, and Brigham Young University. They did the same thing at the same time, but they didn't do it together for a common purpose.
■ There may indeed be merit in the case for a larger menu of service programs at the national level. AmeriCorps alumni may be more vocal about their loyalties than fans of the Green Bay Packers. But we shouldn't see the good feelings of a limited, self-selecting population that volunteered for an activity and extrapolate the conclusion that a similar experience is necessary or prudent for making all of our young people into good citizens.