Writing in the Christian Science Monitor, Dr. William A. Babcock, a senior ethics professor at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, proposes:
Every young American citizen, once he or she graduated from high school, would have the responsibility to complete two years of public service. National need would define the nature of such service, but at any given time the variety of jobs likely would be in education, infrastructure repair and maintenance, construction, healthcare, the military, and the arts, for example. Participants, most age 18 to 20, would be provided with room and board and given minimum wage during this two-year period.
In exchange, after a young person had completed this two-year commitment, the United States government would bear the responsibility for paying for that person's two-year junior college education or the first two years of his or her four-year college tuition.
Young people will know that between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, the nation will enlist them for three months of civilian service.
Babcock himself references Obama's own idea for requiring high school students to engage in government-approved service, though his scheme obviously goes farther. It should be apparent, then, that Babcock's talk of forced labor for all Americans isn't just a voice in the wilderness.
Let me be clear: There's not yet any sign that the Obama administration plans to implement civilian conscription. Still, the idea has certainly been entertained by both the president and at least one of his top aides. It's long past time, then, to ask the authors of such plans to engage moral and practical objections to compelled service. Advocates of a draft have yet to tell us how such a scheme differs from slavery. And they have yet to explain why they think the good to be done would outweigh the harm inflicted by punishing and alienating the large numbers of young Americans likely to resist conscription.
Just a few weeks ago, Jim Stillman, a colleague at The Examiner, challenged my rejection of forced labor of any type. Jim didn't like the idea of "comparing the concept of some form of compulsory service to be, alternatively, communistic, fascist, and the equivalent of slavery. It is none of these and deserves consideration on the merits."
Jim went one to explain those various supposed merits of compelled service. But his points didn't in any way refute the charge that compulsory service is slavery. Instead, he seemed to argue that a scheme commonly characterized as slavery can be a good thing -- if used the right way. Frankly, that's all too common for would-be-drafters -- they cheerlead for their schemes while glossing over serious challenges to the idea.
And compulsory service has been characterized as slavery or its equivalent by everybody from Mahatma Gandhi to Albert Einstein to Milton Friedman. True, those critics were usually referring to the military draft. But their objections weren't framed solely in pacifist terms -- they also referred to the value of liberty and challenged the compulsion inherent in conscription.
Clearly, the slavery critics refer to when criticizing conscription isn't the overt transformation of people into property that came with chattel slavery. Compelled service of one sort or another is more like the corvee system of forced labor used by European colonial powers in Africa and by some southern states after the Civil War. But the corvee system was plenty objectionable enough without ever permitting the buying and selling of draftees. According to University of Hawaii political science Prof. R.J. Rummel, in his book, Death by Government:
All the European colonial powers seemed to have extorted labor from their subjects in Africa, Asia, and the New World through such devices. For the Spanish, German, and Portuguese subjects, this was particularly deadly. In some cases the average colonial plantation or estate laborer may not have survived for more than a couple of years. It was sometimes easier or cheaper to "replenish the stock" than provide health maintaining food, clothing, medical care, and living quarters. I suspect that at a rock bottom minimum 10,000,000 colonial forced laborers must have died thusly. The true toll may have been several times this number.
So, granted, Babcock, Emanuel and President Obama aren't talking about chattel slavery, but rather corvee labor. I'm sure, too, that they'd argue that their implementations of the corvee would be much nicer than that in the Belgian Congo. They're probably right -- I doubt that mass murder is on their agenda. But we're still talking about forcing millions of people into service against their will, with their ultimate fate up to the (hopefully) gentle disposition of politicians.
But how gentle will those politicians be toward those who simply ... refuse to serve? And, of course, people will refuse to serve.
Opposition to the draft was so intense during the Civil War that it resulted in riots that left hundreds dead. The Wilson administration found anti-draft sentiment so threatening during World War I that it imprisoned about 1,500 critics. During World War II, one in every six men in U.S. prisons was a draft resister. And during the Vietnam War, 209,517 men were charged with refusing service (though only about 9,000 were convicted).
Even allowing that compelled civilian service might be less objectionable to many than compelled military service, plenty of Americans can be expected to refuse to participate. Most of them will object not to the vague idea of serving the community that permeates these proposals, but to the naked compulsion and government direction that will inevitable lie behind actual programs. Coming from a variety of backgrounds, but all believing that they have a right to choose that trumps any of Babcock's fine-sounding arguments about "shared responsibility," they'll dodge the draft in public and private, peacefully or confrontationally, as their temperaments dictate.
So what do Babcock, Emanuel, Obama and company propose to do to penalize such disobedience? And do they think the consequences of such penalties are worth whatever they hope to gain?
In the newspapers and in public office as they are, it's time that advocates of mandatory service answer these questions -- or else drop the idea and leave us alone.
Labels: involuntary servitude