Mandatory National Service – Top 3 Pros and Cons
Mandatory national service (also called compulsory service) is a requirement that people serve in the military or complete other works of service. Modern propositions for compulsory service envision that young Americans could join the military or do civilian projects such as teaching in low-income areas, helping care for the elderly, or maintaining infrastructure, among other ideas.
Proposals in the United States to implement compulsory trace back to the 1800s. More recently, between 2003 and 2013, former US Representative Charles Rangel (D-NY) made five unsuccessful attempts to pass the Universal National Service Act, which would have required all people in the United States between ages 18 and 42 to either serve in the military or perform civilian service related to national defense.
The US military draft, created during the Civil War, is one type of mandatory national service. However, although all male US citizens ages 18 to 25 must register with the Selective Service, the United States has an all-volunteer army and hasn’t drafted men into the military since 1973 when around 2.2 million men were drafted into the military during the Vietnam War.
Public opinion on mandatory national service is split: 49% favored one year of required service for young Americans in a 2017 poll, while 45% were opposed. Among adults ages 18 to 29, who would be required to complete the service, 39% were for the proposal and 57% were against.
Should the United States Have Mandatory National Service?
Mandatory national service would foster unity and bring people from diverse backgrounds together.
Pew Research tracked an increase in partisan differences from 15 percentage points in 1994 to 36 points in 2017.
Dan Glickman, JD, former US Representative (D-KS), stated that mandatory service would be a solution to our “current dysfunction” because “National service, be it in the military, Peace Corps, or other public or private sector opportunities, breaks down the barriers of race, class, income, geography, and even language. Young adults are granted the opportunity to see their peers and fellow Americans as a member of their team.”
Around 30 countries have compulsory military service. Switzerland, which has four official languages and three major ethnic groups, bridges its divides with a mandatory national service program. The European nation is identified as one of the happiest countries in the world by the United Nations.
Gene Yaw, JD, Pennsylvania State Senator (R), recommended a two-year universal public service requirement to promote civility and understanding of what it means to be an American: “We cannot generate enthusiasm for our way of life when less than 2% of our population has put forth any effort for our country.”Read More
Compulsory service would save the government money and provide benefits to all citizens.
National service programs are a proven cost-effective method to address critical needs in the country. A report from the Center for Benefit-Cost Studies in Education found that youth national service programs in the United States cost a total of $1.7 billion annually and returned a value of $6.5 billion, creating a social benefit of 3.95 times more than the cost. For every one dollar of taxpayer money spent on youth service programs, over two dollars of savings resulted.
The National Park Service estimates that using a civilian conservation corps to maintain national parks saves an average of 65% and as much as 87% on backlogged projects. Policy Study Associates found that schools that had support from the existing national service program City Year AmeriCorps were two to three times more likely to see improvements in English and math proficiency among students.
AmeriCorps members helped 25,000 unemployed coal miners in Eastern Kentucky find jobs in other industries, and contributed to a 26% decrease in violent crime in Detroit by forming neighborhood watches and escorting kids to school.
If national service were mandatory, just as jury duty is required of everyone, the number of participants would grow and the resulting benefits would be exponentially higher.Read More
Performing national service would help young people mature and serve as a bridge to adulthood.
Compulsory service would allow all young people pursue personal development before starting college or entering the workforce. 98% of students who took a gap year between high school and college reported that the deferment helped them develop as people and 97% said it increased their maturity. Gap year students tend to have GPAs that are .1 to .4 higher than their peers.
Paula S. Fass, PhD, History Professor Emerita at the University of California at Berkeley, advocated for 18- to 21-year-olds to complete two years of service either in the armed forces or in needy communities, saying, “We know that we as a society need these services. I would argue that young Americans would be given a sense of maturity and competence by providing them.”
Service requirements would benefit America’s youth, said Isabel V. Sawhill, PhD, Senior Fellow in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution: “Many of today’s young people are floundering. They are uncertain about what they want to do with their lives. They need a structured opportunity that will allow them to feel needed and capable.”
Participants in national service would gain real world skills that will help them for the rest of their lives.Read More
National service doesn't need to be mandatory because the volunteer system is booming.
28% of millennials have volunteered for a total of 1.5 billion community service hours annually.
26% of Gen Z said they volunteered, 50% would like a job in volunteerism, and 10% wanted to start their own nonprofits, as of 2017 (when the youngest Gen Z members were toddlers).
Several voluntary civilian service programs already exist, such as AmeriCorps, Teach for America, and the Peace Corps, in addition to limitless volunteer opportunities throughout the country.
Since AmeriCorps was founded in 1993, over 800,000 participants have completed more than one billion service hours. Applications outpace funding and capacity: there are 15 qualified would-be volunteers for every available AmeriCorps spot. Forcing more people to participate would be difficult.
Conscripting people into the military would make the armed forces less efficient. Michael Lind, JD co-founder and fellow at the New America Foundation, stated, “Most members of the military are satisfied with our professional soldiers and do not want to baby-sit teenagers who will leave the military after six months or two years of unsought, compulsory training.”
Further, 71% of Americans between ages 17 and 24 were ineligible to serve in the military, according to 2017 Pentagon data, because of disqualifying factors such as obesity, no high school diploma or a criminal record.Read More
Mandating national service violates the constitution and would infringe on the freedom to choose what to do with our lives.
The 13th Amendment to the US Constitution states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.”
While the government has the authority to “raise and support Armies,” there is no constitutional basis for compelling citizens to perform public service.
Doug Bandow, JD, lawyer and Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, says, “Mandatory universal national service, at least if legally required and backed by civil or criminal penalties, would fit the definition of involuntary servitude.”
Stuart Anderson, Executive Director of the National Foundation for American Policy, stated, “Since people are now free to live and work where they want, one presumes participation in a National Service Program would be mandatory under the threat of a prison sentence… a National Service Program that takes two years out of the lives of young people (or others) contravenes the most important part of America, what has drawn people to its shores for centuries – individual liberty.”Read More
A mandatory service program would be manipulated by the rich and unfairly harm others.
Wealthy people have been able to manipulate American institutions for decades, buying their way into elite universities and avoiding the military draft. A national service program would be similarly exploited.
Conor Friedersdorf, staff writer at The Atlantic, said that compulsory service programs “will be gamed by the wealthy, the well-connected, the folks with the social capital to figure out how things work — and national service will be set up in a way that serves their ends and reflects their values and preferences.”
A period of mandatory service could be a hardship for families and communities that would lose their young people who are already performing service by contributing to the household income, babysitting for neighbors, or caring for sick relatives. Compulsory service would delay people’s entry into the workforce, resulting in significant lost earnings for some.
“Think of the aspiring athlete or entertainer who has only so many years in her prime, the talented coder who might have to pass up a big market opportunity or the young worker who cannot take a year off from helping to feed his family,” the Washington Post Editorial Board noted.Read More
1. Should the United States have mandatory national service? Why or why not?
2. If you had to complete mandatory national service, what sort of service would you like to enroll in? Explain your answer(s).
3. Should military service be mandatory? Explain your answer.
1. Analyze the arguments from Lilliana Mason and Eric Liu in favor of mandatory national service.
2. Explore the debate via readers’ letters to America: The Jesuit Review.
3. Consider Doug Bandow’s arguments against mandatory national service.
4. Consider how you felt about the issue before reading this article. After reading the pros and cons on this topic, has your thinking changed? If so, how? List two to three ways. If your thoughts have not changed, list two to three ways your better understanding of the “other side of the issue” now helps you better argue your position.