By: Ike Okereke, Economic Policy Fellow
In the author’s forward of the dystopian novella, Anthem, by Objectivism founder(and noted free-market capitalist) Ayn Rand, argues against the spread of collectivist ideas, mentioning: “Compulsory labor conscription is now practiced or advocated in every country on earth.” This sounds a lot like civil conscription, the obligation of civilians to perform mandatory labor for the government. Recently, against the wishes of Rand, new proposals for the creation of civil conscripted services have emerged in the United States, such as General Stanley McChrystal’s plan for high school graduates to complete a year of service. While this may seem like an expansion of state power, or the government forcing us to do more work, these initiatives are for a greater purpose: the teaching of cultural and political values, the building of relationships between different groups of people, and the instilling of service to all Americans.
To an outside observer, civil conscription looks to be a new invention. Of course, it is similar to conventional military conscription, just now applied to public services. However, this is a concept as old as civilization itself. Mit'a was a mandatory public service in the Inca Empire, which was used to improve road, agricultural, and military infrastructure. It was used during WW2, nefariously by Nazi Germany, in the various forms of forced labor in occupied territories, and through the Reich Labour Service, and in the United Kingdom to satisfy a labor shortage, where young men worked in coal mines, who are now known as the Bevin Boys. Governments adopted it amid emergencies, such as Belgium’s April 1964 mobilization of hospital and military doctors to prevent a strike, and the Greek government’s order for different occupational groups, throughout its self-inflicted debt crisis. The U.S. too isn’t left out of this discussion, for example in the corvée for road maintenance utilized in colonial America, or the drafting of people by sheriffs to form posses. As an article from Volume 30, Number 3 of the Harvard Law Review published in January 1917 states: “The common law is, then, that any service whatever, whether military or civil, which the state requires, it may exact of its citizens.” Currently, German and Swiss citizens can be drafted to their fire brigades, Nigerian university graduates are required to join the country’s National Youth Service Corps to involve them in its nation building, and the French “Defense and Citizenship Day,” a one-day program which deals with citizenship, Remembrance Day, and awareness of national and international issues. In 2019, President Emmanuel Macron announced that the aforementioned program would be replaced with the “General National Service,” mandatory for 16 through 25 year olds beginning in 2021. It would last for one month, and is meant to communicate French values, strengthen social cohesion, and promote social engagement.
So, how could civil conscription be implemented in the U.S.? Unlike France, our country is more decentralized, more fragmented, with a mixture of government and private public service. General McChrystal’s idea calls for students to complete their service year at any type of host institution, funded and supported by a system of public-private partnerships connected by a national-service technology platform. The proposal discussed at the top of this assignment pushes for students to join either the Peace Corps, Americorps, and the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps, or the military for 8 months of the calendar school year. Although these propositions are a good baseline to start from, the implementation of civil conscription could be more extensive and impactful to our communities. Imagine if this service was open to all agencies of the government. Young people could view the systems and the infrastructure of the Postal Service, and the important interactions they have with neighborhood members, experience the care and attention given to veterans and Native Americans by the Veterans Health Administration, and Indian Health Service respectively, and learn of the operation of trains on the nation’s railroad through Amtrak. Furthermore, old government programs could be brought back and remixed for a new era. For instance, the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Project Number One, a collective group of enterprises which preserved and generated American culture during the Depression, from interviewing former enslaved people, to presenting theater shows in rural areas. This could be expanded to protecting minority and disappearing languages, to producing films and video games based on historical and folkloric content, to constructing youth sports organizations to encourage healthy exercise. These efforts can also be spread worldwide, allowing young Americans to introduce their peers to their culture, and to learn of others, through cultural diplomacy programs. Finally, civil conscription could be used to experiment with new government policies. With new demands to reform law enforcement, governments could press into service community members, people who aren’t meant to make arrests or patrol places, but rather as someone who neighborhoods can trust, and are empowered to make police confrontations as peaceful as possible.
Now, many commenters and experts would argue against this, first saying that this would be a massive expansion of government power. However, this claim may be a bit misguided. While, government would be able to conscript people to achieve civic or emergency goals, this isn’t already similar to conscription and educational policies already implemented. Every male citizen must be enrolled in the Selective Service System for the time that the United States faces a wartime crisis, and schools already require students to complete community service hours before they graduate. This is only an expansion of how much time students need to do for community service, and things people can be used when we face an emergency. As well, students don’t have to work within federal agencies, as state and local government could incorporate these orders, and all levels of government would cooperate with private organizations to accomplish public service, so our decentralized nature can be maintained. Others would rally against this, citing the fact that the government could indoctrinate young Americans to their values. Well, who is to say that young Americans aren’t already indoctrinated? The media, news, entertainment, and education system have given people a warped perception of how the government works. By forcing young Americans to work within political institutions, they gave a more realistic reality of how these structures operate in society. Finally, some would disregard these plans as being socialist in nature, pointing to America’s “individualistic” character. But as shown time and time again in this essay, throughout history, and even in present times, collective action has been American as apple pie.
Civil Conscription would cultivate American and global values, construct a rapport between diverse backgrounds, and imbue a need to work towards a common goal. As problems, trends, and new foundations meant to divide us from, now more than ever, should people advocate for the practice of “Compulsory labor conscription” in all nations across the globe.