Both Barack Obama and John McCain have long supported some sort of "national service" that involves large-scale participation by Americans in projects deemed worthy by a government agency. It may mean building housing, assisting with the provision of medical care or patrolling the border, but overall it involves putting aside personal preferences for, as McCain puts it, "a cause greater than yourself."
Obama devotes an entire section of his campaign Website to national service; McCain does the same and penned a column back in 2001 praising AmeriCorps and calling for expanded opportunities for government-sanctioned service. Both candidates recently appeared at a national service forum sponsored by Time magazine, which has made the issue its house hobbyhorse. McCain and Obama each have praised local volunteerism, but seem to think that donating your time to a soup kitchen, a clinic or a church is less valuable than participation in a grand-scale scheme managed by the state.
I have a lot of thoughts about politicians who deem hours spent in grassroots service to causes chosen freely by volunteers to be inferior to government programs run from D.C., but I'll hold my tongue -- for now. What does interest me, though, is whether all of this talk of "national service" means that the grand old days of conscription are about to return, though now with draftees stuffed into hospital scrubs and denim as often as they're required to don camouflage.
McCain was once an advocate of the draft, though, as far as I can tell, he's uttered nary a word in favor of conscription since he started pursuing residency in the White House. The national service section of his Website is full of talk of opportunities and incentives -- lots of carrot, but no stick. Whatever his personal feelings, he seems to understand that draft boards are no longer compatible with presidential ambitions.
At first glance, Obama's scheme is similar. His proposal even specifically refers to "universal voluntary citizen service." It's all very touchy-feelly. But, as Michael Kinsley put it so well in the pages of Time: "Problem number one with grand schemes for universal voluntary public service is that they can't be both universal and voluntary. If everybody has to do it, then it's not voluntary, is it? And if it's truly up to the individual, then it won't be universal."
Of course, Barack Obama could be playing the usual politician's game of throwing empty words at an audience, without worrying overly much about their meaning. But his campaign has put forward a detailed plan for national service, and on close inspection, it's clear that he really does mean "universal." And while there's no call for old-fashioned conscription, his national service carrots are matched by very modern sticks that introduce almost as much compulsion as the old kind.
In fact, Obama's national service plan is "voluntary" in a technical sense -- nobody will be arrested for declining to participate. But non-participants also won't be allowed to graduate from high school, and without those diplomas, life could get a bit rough.
Obama's national service plan (PDF) says:
Schools that require service as part of the educational experience create improved learning environments and serve as resources for their communities. The Obama-Biden plan sets a goal for all students to engage in service, with middle and high school students performing 50 hours of service each year, and college students performing 100 hours of service each year. Under this plan, students would graduate college with as many as 17 weeks of public service experience under their belts.
But schools set their own policies, don't they? Well ... sort of. You see, as the saying goes, "he who takes the king's coin becomes the king's man." And most public schools depend on federal dollars. As Obama elaborated in a speech last December, "At the middle and high school level, we'll make federal assistance conditional on school districts developing service programs, and give schools resources to offer new service opportunities."
So, it won't be the nasty federal government forcing your kids to donate their time to government-approved service, it'll be the local schools -- but that requirement will be the among the strings attached to federal money.
This is a very modern way of imposing mandates from the top down. The uniform 21-year-old national drinking age, for instance, is nominally the choice of each state government, not a federal law. But the states set the age at 21 as a condition of continuing to receive a full measure of federal highway funds. The same goes for the late, unlamented 55mph speed limit.
Of course, state and local agencies could choose to give up the checks from D.C., but they almost never do. And so, violations of federal policies get punished by state and local authorities.
Under Barack Obama's plan, a refusal to participate in a national service program touted at the federal level will be punished by the withholding of high school diplomas by the school district in your town. And without that diploma, few colleges or employers will even bother to look at your application.
It's a softer sort of authoritarianism which requires no draft boards, muddles the identity of the "bad guy" and produces no martyrs i handcuffs for the evening news. You just can't get a job if you don't do as you're told.
Such "soft" mandates are easier to escape than the old draft. Private schools will still be able to set their own criteria for graduation, as will homeschoolers. At least, they will so long as they can resist social pressure to conform to the requirements imposed by public schools.
And 50 hours of service isn't exactly a tour in the rice paddies. Most people will just roll their eyes and do what it takes to get that diploma. (The 100 hours required of college students will be in return for a $4,000 grant, which amounts less to conscription than to the world's most expensive work-study scheme.)
But make no mistake: Barack Obama wants your kids. And he's willing to draft them, in a plausibly deniable way.
Labels: involuntary servitude