Politico Magazine recently launched “How to Fix Politics in America,” a blockbuster interactive feature exploring 99 “out-of-the-box solutions to America’s biggest problems.” The proposed solutions range from the interesting and creative to the mundane and hopeless, but one policy prescription is particularly cynical: “Mandatory National Service.”
The concept of a mandatory national service program is a lingering policy fantasy that’s never fully materialized. Politico Magazine contributors Eric Liu and Professor Lilliana Mason argue that it’s time has finally come: “Let’s require that every young person, upon reaching age 18, serve community and country by spending at least a year in civilian or military service,” writes Liu, the CEO of Citizen University and director of the Aspen Institute Citizenship and American Identity program: “In a single generation our political climate will be detoxified and the body politic rejuvenated.” Mason, a professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, agrees, arguing that, “a voluntary program would be less effective; it would allow those who prefer to sit in partisan isolation to continue to do so … we need to be reintroduced to each other in a place where we are all on the same team.”
Mason and Liu are hardly the first to argue for mandated service in the name of restoring a sense of national unity. Jon Stewart has argued that, “there should be a draft where every young person has to do one year of something—military, public works—something so that we all feel invested in the same game.” Current Democratic presidential candidate John Delaney has a mandatory national service plank in his 2020 platform. Other candidates—and nearly half of all Americans—support the idea in some form.
But, while it might sound like a good idea in theory, implementing a mandatory national service program would be deeply misguided. Stripping young adults of a year of their lives and forcing them to perform “national service”—whatever the federal government might deem that to be—in the name of restoring a sense of American unity is neither a reasonable nor a workable policy solution. Rather, it’s both a misdiagnosis of a problem and a grave injustice of a solution—a cruel and unusual punishment of the sons for the sins of the fathers.
Mandatory national service for young adults is most popular with older Americans, but it is they—not the young adults who’d be forced to serve—who are responsible for the ever-widening sociopolitical rifts in America. If anyone is going to be conscripted in a misguided effort to heal our national wounds, older Americans should be first in line. For decades, the older generations have dominated every influential field—politics, entertainment, journalism, business, academia—and, while their stewardship of our country has undoubtedly led to significant advancements, it has also led to nearly unprecedented levels of resentment and division—the very national ailments that proponents of mandatory service wish to cure.
By contrast, young Americans are among the most unified groups in America; millennials and Gen Zers are largely in agreement on a broad swath of political issues and are generally unified in their distrust of both major political parties. Liu, Mason and others contend that mandatory service is needed to boost critical “intergroup contact” between Americans from different backgrounds, but the youngest generations are the most ethnically and racially diverse in history—a fact that makes their general ideological cohesion all the more noteworthy. The sociopolitical rifts that a mandatory service program would allegedly heal do not exist between the youngest Americans to anywhere near the extent they do between the oldest. For older Americans to force younger Americans into mandatory service in the name of bridging national divides would be the height of hypocrisy.
Furthermore, on a fundamental basis, mandatory national service would by definition strip innocent and free people of their liberty. Yes, we’ve done that to a generation of young people before, but that doesn’t mean we should do it again. Our country would be far better advised to strive toward a natural restoration of American identity, rather than a forced one, paid for by years of mandated service on the part of millions of young people who did not contribute to the problem that their labor will supposedly rectify. There is no reason to believe that America’s youngest citizens are any less capable of establishing and maintaining a sense of unity than their predecessors: if we were once able to foster a sense of national unity without violating young peoples’ freedom and stealing a year of their lives, we can do so again.
There’s no shortage of ailments plaguing the American soul these days—the dominance of social media, the endless outrage-mongering that defines cable news, the proliferation of identity politics, to name just a few. But the absence of a program that forces young people to surrender a chunk of their lives in hopes that it will solve a problem that they did not create is not among them. Such a program would be a mistake and a cynical, morally disastrous recipe for intergenerational resentment.