National service: sharing the dirty work by Martin Anderson
[Article by Martin Anderson for the Sept./Oct. NSDA LD topic: “Resolved: In the United States, national service ought to be compulsory.”]
Today an understanding of what national service is all about is obscured by an imprecise use of language. The term, national service, is often used indiscriminately to describe proposed public programs that differ vastly in their content and in what their effect would be.
There are two radically different kinds of public service programs that are today described as “national service.” They differ from one another in one fundamental way, and in one way only. One kind of public service is voluntary, free of any coercion or compulsion, a form of public service in which citizens choose freely to give of their time and effort and money, a form of pure benevolence. The other kind of public service is compulsory, where the good deeds are done out of fear – the fear of going to jail (straight compulsion) or the fear of devastating financial loss (economic coercion) .
One reason why the idea of national service is such a controversial divisive issue is that these two very different forms of public service keep getting mixed up. Properly understood there is almost no controversy, at least not among the vast, overwhelming majority of Americans today. Americans very much like the idea of voluntary public service. Americans also believe the idea of compulsory service is morally repulsive.
So why is there continuing controversy, as there has been for most of this century? We have hundreds and hundreds of public service programs – in the towns and cities, in the states, and at the federal level. We have the Peace Corps and the Job Corps and VISTA. There are opportunities for just about anyone who would like to spend time and energy serving others. In 1989 President Bush proposed an expansion of the federal effort, Youth in Service to America (YES), that promises to fill any existing gaps in the vast network of public and private opportunities to serve. No real controversy there.
And there is no real controversy about the kind of national service programs that call for the widespread conscription of America’s youth. They are emphatically rejected by all but a handful. Politically speaking they are nonstarters, with about as much appeal as concentration camps.
The main reason why there is controversy about national service is that programs are proposed that are not exactly what their proponents claim. The programs that still stir controversy are those that claim to be voluntary, but which contain core elements of coercion or compulsion, or the intent to one day become compulsory and universal. The argument is not about whether we like voluntary or compulsory programs. That argument is settled, and is likely to remain settled for at least our lifetimes. No, the argument today is whether a proposed national service program is voluntary or compulsory, one which young people freely choose, or one into which they are coerced.
The hidden agenda of compulsion
The issue of compulsion is central for all those who favor a large-scale, universal program of service to the state, especially if they believe, which they do, that all young people should somehow be made to participate. For they know that only official laws compelling the young to serve, backed by the threat of real punishment,
[earlier LD topic: Resolved: That all United States citizens ought to perform a period of national service.]
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including jail, will ensure that everyone serves. “Any effective national service program will necessarily require coercion to insure that all segments of the American class structure will serve,” wrote Charles Moskos, one of the most persistent and effective advocates of large-scale national service, in 1971.1
“Only if it were mandatory and universal could national service impose a roughly equal burden on all citizens,” concluded the report of the Democratic Leadership Council in 1988.2
Michael Walzer, the philosophical guru of modern national service, was even more explicit in 1983 when he wrote that an effective national service program “would require an extraordinary degree of state control over everyone’s life, and it would interfere radically with other kinds of work.”3
But few advocates of national service openly propose universal compulsion of the young. Why? For simple political expediency. They know that they cannot achieve what they want if they tell the truth. So they do the next best thing. They set aside their true goal, and propose programs they hope will advance their goals without alarm- ing the general public. For example, the 1988 report of the Democratic Leadership Council candidly admits they doubt “that the American people would accept such a coercive and intrusive – not to mention costly program.”4
Professor Moskos now admits (in 1988) finding himself “in the awkward situation of rebutting my own former position,”5 one that he took in 1971. But not awkward enough to renounce the delights of compulsion. When it came to the military draft, a part of any compulsory national service program, Moskos was one of those rare individuals who saw the draft as something good in and of itself, unlike most people who, even if they supported the draft, saw it as a necessary evil. In 1980 Moskos stated flatly, “I am one of those former draftees who look upon conscription as a moral good.”6
Over the years Moskos’ lust for compulsion never dimmed. “If I could have a magic wand, I would be for a compulsory system,” Moskos told Time magazine, when asked about national service in 1987. 7 Then he bragged to a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, that his latest effort, the legislation introduced by Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia in 1989 was “just this side of compulsion, but we don’t cross the line.”8
Professor Moskos is only the latest of many who have tried to persuade Americans to adopt compulsory national service. The accepted granddaddy of national service, quoted reverently by all believers who followed him, is William James, the philosopher who was the father of Pragmatism. In a speech given in 1906, The Moral Equivalent of War, James stated unashamedly that everyone should be compelled to serve the state for a “certain number of years.”
“If now – and this is my idea – there were, instead of military conscription a conscription of the whole youthful population . . . the injustices would tend to be evened out, and numerous other goods to the commonwealth would follow. “James pointedly called this kind of national service a “blood-tax.”9
James’ blood-tax was but a pale copy of the plan fictionalized twenty-two years earlier by the famous novelist, Edward Bellamy. Bellamy’s book, Looking Backward, proposed to turn the United States into a military- industrial dictatorship, where government, military and business merged into one giant fascist whole. Universal compulsory military service would be required of all the young men and women of the nation. All would be compelled to work for the state at whatever jobs they were assigned. Applying compulsion in some ways more rigorously than a modern Communist state, Bellamy sketched out a blueprint of what might be called the ultimate totalitarian state.
In the latter part of the 19th century, Looking Backward, arguably the most evil book ever written by an American, became a runaway bestseller and, even today, is referred to with some reverence by the proponents of compulsory national service. Moskos, for example, calls Bellamy’s novel part of “socialist utopian thought,” acknowledges that compulsory youth service “was the cornerstone of his new social order,” and then gives Bellamy credit for first introducing the “concept of civilian service by youth.” and presenting a “military analogy to describe the organization of civilian service, a trademark of subsequent national-service thought .”10
Another early proponent of compulsory national service in the United States was Randolph Bourne, a young radical opposed to World War 1, who, in a 1915 article for The New Republic, called specifically for an “army of youth.” Bourne envisioned two years of compulsory state service for all young men and all young women between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one. He tried to lull peoples fears of compulsion by asserting that it would be compulsory only in the sense that everyone from sixteen to twenty-one “shall [emphasis added] spend two years in national service.” The details of his 74-year-old plan are remarkably similar to today’s proposals for national service. Most of the men and women who fought for compulsory national service over the years are now dead. their specific plans and arguments interred with them. But the echoes of what they longed for still resonate, their dream carried on by others. The most sophisticated and dogged disciple is Donald J. Eberly, who has literally devoted most of his life to the concept of national service and truly can be said to be the father of the current proposals on the national scene. While Eberly supports and advocates large-scale national service programs, he has always been very careful to downplay the issue of compulsion. His program proposals are voluntary national service programs, deftly sidestepping the question of whether or not they would inevitably lead to a compulsory program. The last time Eberly addressed the issue of compulsion directly was over twenty years ago, in 1968. First, he put forth his arguments for compulsion:
A compulsory program would guarantee the involvement of millions of youth each year attacking poverty, ignorance, and disease.
It would prevent it from becoming an elitist program like the Peace Corps or a poverty program like the Job Corps.
It would remove the inequities of a system in which some serve and others do not.ll
Against that powerful array of pro compulsion arguments, he then meekly presented the case for individual freedom – ”the traditional case of the civil libertarian that any form of compulsion is an infringement on the freedom of the individual” – and promptly undercut even that weak argument in his next sentence: “My problem with that argument is largely personal: I was compelled to enter the Army but I came out with the feeling of greater freedom than when I entered.”12
Eberly then argued that his “major problem” with compulsory service is that it “would tend to lessen the quality of service performed and the value of the service experience to the individual.”
His final argument against proposing a compulsory program was that it would be “superfluous.” He asserts that a properly run volunteer program will “attract millions of young men and women,” and thus it will “not be necessary to create the elaborate machinery needed for a compulsion program.”13
Eberly’s strategy seems crystal clear. He understood earlier and better than most that the kind of compulsion necessary, to make a large-scale national service program work was repulsive to the American people. He has artfully presented a one-sided argument for compulsion, giving only the weakest of arguments in defense of personal freedom, and then slipping into the false conclusion that compulsion is not really necessary anyway. This allows him to advocate a voluntary program for the benefit of those who detest compulsion, vet leaves him a clear opening to move swiftly back to a compulsory program if it should become “necessary;” Eberly’s goals are the same as those of Moskos and Bourne. and Bellamy and James. If one has any doubts about the real sentiments of Eberly they can be easily resolved by reading the first paragraph of the dedication of his 1988 book whose subtitle is A Promise to Keep. The dedication, written to his grandchildren, is signed, “Grandpa.”
You may some day read these words in a history textbook: “Following a 1906 speech by William James in which he advocated a moral equivalent of war, the debate on national service waned for nearly a century before it was finally adopted by the United States.”14
If Eberly, and others who profess to favor voluntary national service, are sincere, then let them denounce compulsion and state flatly that they support no national service program which embraces it. Until that time. prudent people will assume that compulsory national service is their
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secret, cherished goal.
All those who favor large-scale national service programs, like Mr. Eberly and Professor Moskos, confront one big, unsolvable dilemma. If the program is truly voluntary and non-coercive, you will not get millions and millions of young men and women to sign up. On the other hand, if you propose a compulsory program, one that will work in the sense of forced labor for millions of American youth. you will not get any program. You are damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. One won’t work, the other you can’t get.
The dirty work philosophy
The agenda of coercion and/or compulsion that is embedded deeply in nearly every national service program proposal leads to a puzzling question. Why do these people want to coerce and compel the young so badly? What has, over the years, powered this ancient urge to control young men and women, to make them do things they do not want to do?
Like all great public policies, compulsory, national service is driven by a moral engine, by a set of specific moral beliefs which guide, with sureness and precision, those who believe them. To discover the moral beliefs that allow adults to push for the compulsion of the young with no compunction whatsoever, we must go to the writings and teachings of the philosophers of national service. It is these philosophers who have set down the moral foundations for the political activists who now push for universal national service programs. There are three important ones.
The first is Edward Bellamy. A lawyer by trade, he drifted into journalism and wrote editorials for the New York Evening Post, but found his true calling as one of the most successful novelists in American history. His book, Looking Backward, a hymn to a totalitarian state, sold over a million copies in the latter part of the l9th century – and to this day sells among the intelligentsia. Written when he was only 38 years old and sporting a black, bushy, handlebar mustache, Bellamy’s novel contained the philosophical inspiration for the professional philosophers who followed.
The second, and by far the most influential, is William James, the brother of the novelist Henry James. William was the leader of the philosophical movement of Pragmatism, a school of thought that was dominant in the United States during the first quarter of the 20th century and then fell from favor.
The third and last philosopher who has had an impact on the national service movement is Michael Walzer, currently a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. Walzer’s 1983 book, Spheres of Justice is, for example, cited by Moskos as best exemplifying the “contemporary shift towards a reemphasis of citizen duties.”15
The chain of action in the making of the current proposals for national service policy goes something like this. The current legislation introduced by politicians like Senator Nunn and Congressman McCurdy was heavily influenced by the writings of the prime movers of large-scale national service programs, such as Donald Eberly and Charles Moskos. And the philosophic founda- tions of the writings of Eberly and Moskos draw, in turn, heavily on the earlier writings and speeches of Edward Bellamy, William James, and Michael Walzer.
But why only these philosophers? Why do we find, over the years, the advocates of national service referring again and again to the writings of these men? What did they say that distin- guished them from other philosophers and writers? These three men wrote a great deal in their lifetimes and it is difficult to conclude with certainty that we know exactly what gave them their special status as the three philosophers of national service. But there are some strong clues, indications that clearly point to two major ideas that separate them from the other thousands of philosophers who lived and wrote when they did.
The first idea that set them apart from their philosophical colleagues was a peculiar view on the morality of doing dirty, distasteful and dangerous work in a society. The basic thrust of their fringe philosophical view is that all the dirty, distasteful and dangerous work in any society should be shared equally by all the people who live in the society. No exceptions, woman or man, rich or poor, skillful or not, every single soul must do his or her share of taking out the garbage, preparing the dead for burial, cleaning toilets, guarding violent prisoners and taking care of those sick and dying from deadly, contagious diseases. For them it is a moral imperative.
And because the idea of parcelling out the dirty work of a society to all citizens equally is considered by them to be a fundamental moral issue, something as ethically compelling as one of the ten commandments, they see no problem with using compulsion to secure that end. No more than others see nothing wrong with using compulsion to apprehend people who kill and steal. To achieve justice, the philosophy of national service implies, it may be necessary at times to compel people to act against their personal will.
The second idea that makes them the philosophers of choice for national service is the notion that youth should do the work. There isn’t enough dirty, dangerous work to go around for all, so the essential thought is to make people do it for a year or two while they are young. That way, everyone will be forced to experience things that are dirty, humiliating or dangerous for a period of time in their lives.
For most people the principle of an equal distribution of dirty work is such a peculiar, bizarre notion that it is difficult to believe that intelligent men and women seriously advocate it. Shouldn’t trained nurses and doctors take care of people with deadly, infectious diseases? Shouldn’t professional trained guards, preferably large, strong ones, guard violent prisoners? Do we all really need to takes turns hauling the city’s garbage to the dump? Yes, this is exactly what they mean. “Is it not an appropriate goal for social policy, however, that all the dirty work [emphasis added] that needs to be done should be shared among all the citizens,” wrote Walzer in Spheres of Justice in one of his clearest expositions of this view.16 As he explained it, the question, in a society of equals, who will do the dirty work? has a special force. . . the necessary answer is that, at least in some partial and symbolic sense, we will all have to do it. . . this is what Gandhi was getting at when he required his followers – himself, too – to clean the latrines. . . people should clean up their own dirt.17 [emphasis added]
Professor Walzer did not leave the national policy implications of this philosophical view open to speculation, for he argued that “work of this sort might be done as part of a national service program.”
“Indeed,” he continued, “war and waste seem the ideal subjects of national service: the first, because of the special risks involved; the second, because of the dishonor. Perhaps the work should be done by the young, not because they will enjoy it, but because it isn’t without educational value.” Well, there it is in a nutshell, the philosophical essence of compulsory national service. The dirty work of a society must be shared equally. It should be part of national service (and here Walzer adds a perverted twist) because of the dishonor. And the young should do the work. Preceding Walzer by some 77 years was William James. In his now famous speech, “The Moral Equivalent of War,” delivered on the campus of Stanford University in 1906, Dr. James spelled out a plan to draft young men to do civilian work. This was 1906, so young women were not considered or even mentioned. As Donald Eberly approvingly describes James’ plan in his book, National Service, the so-called moral equivalent of war would come about by “conscripting young people to do the work of society that was risky, tough, and unpleasant.” James spelled out the moral underpinnings of his idea of a just society, his utopia. Curiously, that part of his speech, which is critical to understanding why he proposed what he did, is never quoted by his followers and admirers. Here is what Professor James told the students at Stanford on that balmy, damp day – February 25 – in California:
There is nothing to make one indignant in the mere fact that life is hard, that men should toil and suffer pain …. But that so many men, by mere accidents of birth and opportunity, should have a life of nothing else but toil and pain and hardness and inferiority imposed upon them, should have no vacation, while others natively no more deserving never get any taste of this campaigning life at all – this is capable of arousing indignation in reflective minds. It may end by seeming shameful to all of us that some of us have nothing but cam- paigning, and others nothing but unmanly ease.18
In James’ extreme egalitarian philosophy it is
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clearly implied there should be an equal sharing of “toil and pain and hardness,” the “campaigning” as he called it, the dirty work of society. James had a specific program for achieving his utopia. He proposed that a young man in his teens be forced to serve the state for a “certain number of years.” These young conscript laborers would be sent:
To coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December, to dish-washing, clothes-washing, and window-washing, to road-building and tunnel-making, to foundries and stoke-holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers, would our gilded youth be drafted off, according to their choice, to get the childness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas. They would have paid their blood-tax.l9 [emphasis added]
The transparent hostility of James toward young men, for whatever the reason, is obvious. There is a streak of cruelty here (fishing fleets in December?), of a barely concealed, seething lust to control the young, to hurt them, to crush the innocent enthusiasms for which the old so often envy the young. James’ program of conscripting the young is often referred to with respect and reverence by the advocates of national service, but the dark side of his plan is never criticized – no criticism of knocking the childness out of children, no criticism of a blood-tax for youth. In Edward Bellamy’s fictional totalitarian society, created over 100 years ago, the dirty work was reserved for the young. Indicting all previous societies, especially free ones, Bellamy argued that the “reward of any service depended not upon its difficulty, danger, or hardship, for throughout the world it seems that the most perilous, severe, and repulsive labor was done by the worst paid classes.”20 In Bellamy’s society, “all needs of this sort can be met by details from the class of unskilled or common laborers.” And that army of unskilled conscript labor was where “all new recruits belong for the first three years of service…three years of stringent discipline,” a “severe school.” The term of service in Bellamy’s industrial army began when the young person finished school, at age 21. For three years they served as common laborers doing whatever tasks the rulers decreed. Then they were “free” to apply for better work, serving as conscripts until the age of 45.
In both the fantasy of Bellamy and the real life proposals of James and Walzer there is a common theme. Dirty work – that which is dangerous, degrading or difficult – must be shared equally. All citizens must, for a period of time, perform conscript labor. The period of time chosen out of one’s life is always just as they reach the threshold of adulthood. In effect, all adolescents become slaves for several years, doing the dirty work of society.
Of course, there are many who favor national service not because it entails the sharing of society’s dirty work, but because it may help them achieve other goals they desire – bringing back the military draft or helping the poor, aged and disabled, for example. But those who favor compulsory, large-scale national service generally have a different goal. They have a moral impera- tive, one that is aimed at the server rather than the servee. It is the experience of the person who serves that is of paramount importance, not the services provided. It is this peculiar moral dimen- sion that sets apart the prime movers of national service from the policy hitchhikers.
Professor Moskos makes this moral sentiment quite clear in one of his earlier articles urging a compulsory national service program:
If America’s privileged youth would really like to demonstrate the moral concern for our country’s underclasses, they must be willing to put up with an “extended period of indignity” on par with those very same underclasses.21 [emphasis added]
It is this moral imperative, the idea that to be moral one has to suffer indignities, that in a moral society dirty work is required of all, that inevitably leads those who so believe to embrace compulsion or coercion as the key means to achieving that kind of national service. It does, because there is no other way to achieve it.
The peculiar philosophy of sharing the dirty work of society with young men and women lies at the heart of all compulsory national service proposals. If you believe that it is morally just for everyone to be required to do a share of society’s dirty work, if you believe this is something which is right to do, then a universal national service program which coerces or forces young men and women to carry out that work will logically follow. The ultimate philosophical goal of that program will not be to provide service for others. That is only a secondary result. The first and primary goal is participation of all in the dirty work, for that is the mark of morality, of justice, in that kind of society.
On the other hand, if you believe sharing the dirty work is a bizarre philosophy, or a morally repulsive one, then you will most likely come down on the side of a voluntary service program, only large enough to accommodate the desires of those who wish to participate.
Those who are opposed to large-scale national service programs generally suspect they are all stalking horses for universal, compulsory national service. For those who favor large-scale programs, but avow they should be voluntary, it would help a great deal to allay the fears of the rest of us if they would assure us of two things: (l) they do not believe in sharing the dirty works of society equally, and (2) they oppose forcing or coercing people to serve.
Until then, I for one shall remain suspicious.
[From Liberalism, Values, and LD Debate, a collection of articles from the LD Extemp Monthly, Econ 87 and other Economics in Argumentation debate publications. PDF here: liberalvaluesld]
1. Charles C. Moskos, A Call to Civic Service: National Service for Country and Community (New York: The Free Press. 1988), p. 179.
2 “Citizenship and National Service: A Blueprint for Civic Enterprise.” Democratic Leadership Council, May, 1988, p. 50.
3. Michael Walzer, Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality (NY: Basic Books, 1983), p. 175.
4. Ibid., 51.
5. Ibid., 179.
6. Moskos. “How to Save the All-Volunteer Force,”
The Public Interest, Fall 1980, p. 84.
7. “Enlisting with[Uncle Sam,” Time, February 23,
1987, p. 30.
8. Richard Dennis, “National Service Offers An Idea
Whose Time Has Gone,” Chicago Tribune, August 9, 1989, p. 17.
9. William James, “‘The Moral Equivalent of War,’ Documents of the American Association for Interna- tional Conciliation,” New York, 1910, p. 17.
10. Moskos, Call to Service, 30.
11. Donald J. Eberly, National Service: A Promise to Keep, (Rochester, New York, John Alden Books, 1988), 93.
12. Ibid., p. 16.
13. Ibid., p. 94.
14. Ibid., p. 1.
15. Moskos, Call to Service, p. 6.
16. Walzer, Spheres of Justice, p. 175. 17. Ibid., p. 174-5.
18. James, “Moral Equivalent,” p. 16-17.
19. Ibid., 17.
20. Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward: 2000-1887
(New York: Modern Library, 1951 edition, originally published in 1887), p. 71.
21. Moskos, “The Equivalent of Military Service: Teachers College Record, Vol. 73, No. 1, September, 1971, p. 12.
Martin Anderson is a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, California.
This article was condensed from a paper delivered at the Hoover Institution Conference on National Service, September 9, 1989, and will be included in National Service Pro and Con (tentative title), forthcoming in 1990 from Hoover Institution Press.