The lead article in a recent issue of Time magazine makes the case for “universal national service”--which the article describes as “the simple but compelling idea that devoting a year or more to national service, whether military or civilian, should become a countrywide rite of passage, the common expectation and widespread experience of virtually every young American.” This is just the latest call from commentators and politicians for Americans to engage in more national service. National service, they all claim, is necessary to preserve and sustain America’s greatness; the Time article calls it “a recipe for keeping a republic.”
In fact, the idea of national service is profoundly un-American.
America was founded on the principle of individualism: the idea that each individual is a sovereign being with the moral right to his own life and to the achievement of his own goals. This is the basis of the political idea, enshrined in our Declaration of Independence, that the individual possesses inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Founders accordingly reconceived the purpose of government as being the servant of the individual, rather than his master.
But the idea behind national service is that service to the state is a moral duty. The government, its advocates claim, should teach us that service is an integral part of American citizenship. Robin Gerber, a professor of leadership at the University of Maryland, writes: “Young Americans should be told they have an obligation to serve, a duty to actively support their democracy.” Conservative writer David Brooks endorses national service because it “takes kids out of the normal self-obsessed world of career and consumption and orients them toward service and citizenship.” Brooks favors military-related national service, because under it, “Today's children . . . would suddenly face drill sergeants reminding them they are nothing without the group.”
This collectivist belief in the supremacy of the group over the individual is the foundation of the national-service ideology, which regards the individual as a servant to the nation. The notion that people are “nothing without the group” and owe their lives--or any portion of them--to the state is antithetical to American individualism and freedom.
The logical end road of the belief that you have a duty to serve the nation is legislation that forces you to do so--i.e., compulsory national service. Like Time magazine, Senators John McCain and Evan Bayh, who introduced the Call to Service Act in 2003, think that “national service should one day be a rite of passage for young Americans.” But there is only one way to make national service a “rite of passage”: by government coercion. McCain has long favored compulsory national service, but laments that it “is not currently politically practical.” Robert Litan of the Brookings Institution has proposed that every 18-year-old be forced to perform one year of compulsory service. This is nothing less than involuntary servitude of the youth in the land of the free.
On the premise that service is a duty, those--such as President Bush--who have called for voluntary national service will be morally powerless against future bills that seek to make it mandatory.
Every totalitarian society in history has rested on the premise of man’s alleged duty to the state. It was Adolf Hitler, for example, who declared that “the higher interests involved in the life of the whole must set the limits and lay down the duties of the interests of the individual.”
To call service to a collectivist state pro-American is perverse. To preserve our great nation, we must embrace not the subjugation of the individual to the state, but his sovereign right to the pursuit of his own happiness.