Mandatory National Service – Top 3 Pros and Cons

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AmeriCorps members working in Detroit, Michigan
Source: Michigan Community Service Commission, “AmeriCorps Urban Safety Program,” (accessed Apr. 25, 2019)

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. [2]

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. [1] [34]

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. [35] [36] [37]

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. [3]

Should the United States Have Mandatory National Service?

Pro 1

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. [4]

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.” [5]

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. [6] [7]

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.” [8]

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Pro 2

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. [16] [17]

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. [18] [19]

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. [20][21]

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.

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Pro 3

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. [25] [26] 

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.” [27]

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.” [28]

Participants in national service would gain real world skills that will help them for the rest of their lives. [29]

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Con 1

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. [9]

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). [39]

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. [10]

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. [11] [12] [13]

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.” [14]

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. [40]

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Con 2

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.” [22]

While the government has the authority to “raise and support Armies,” there is no constitutional basis for compelling citizens to perform public service. [23]

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.” [1]

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.” [24]

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Con 3

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. [30][31]

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.” [32]

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. [33] [34]

“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. [13]

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Discussion Questions

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.

Take Action

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.

5. Push for the position and policies you support by writing US national senators and representatives.


1.Doug Bandow, Mandatory Universal National Service: A Dystopian Vision for a Free Society,”, Feb. 21, 2019
2.Thomas Ricks, “Let’s Draft Our Kids,”, July 10, 2012
3.Jim Norman, “Half of Americans Favor Mandatory National Service,”, Nov. 10, 2017
4.Pew Research Center, “The Partisan Divide on Political Values Grows Even Wider,”, Oct. 5, 2017
5.Dan Glickman, “National Service Can Unite America,”, Oct. 29, 2018
6.Sharon Omondi, “Countries with Mandatory Military Service,”, Sep. 6, 2017
7.The Panetta Institute, “The Case for National Service,”, July 2017
8.Gene Yaw, “To Unite Us, America Should Require Mandatory Public Service,”, Apr. 3, 2018
9.Bill Chappell, “Should Young Americans Be Required To Do Public Service? Federal Panel Says Maybe,”, Jan. 23, 2019
10.Alia E. Dastagir, “Pete Buttigieg Wants a National Service Program. Could It Heal a Divided Country?,”, Apr. 17, 2019
11.VolunteerAR, “About AmeriCorps,” (accessed Apr. 22, 2019)
12.Associated Press, “National Service Bill Gets Obama’s Signature,”, Apr. 21, 2009
13.Washington Post Editorial Board, “National Service for Young People Should Be Encouraged — but Not Required,”, Sep. 18, 2016
14.Michael Lind, “No, America Doesn’t Need a National Service,”, July 10, 2012
15.Nolan Feeney, “Pentagon: 7 in 10 Youths Would Fail to Qualify for Military Service,” June 29, 2014
16.John Hickenlooper, “Invest in What Works: National Service,”, Nov. 2, 2017
17.Clive Belfield, “The Economic Value of National Service,”, Sep. 2013
18.Joseph Gersen, “Senate Hearing 113-82,”, July 25, 2013
19.Policy Studies Associates, “Study Overview Analysis of the Impacts of City Year’s Whole School Whole Child Model on Partner Schools’ Performance,”, 2015
20.Stanley McChrystal, “Every American Should Serve For One Year,”, June 20, 2017
21.Michigan Community Service Commission, “AmeriCorps Urban Safety Program,” (accessed Apr. 22, 2019) Editors, “13th Amendment,”, Apr. 15, 2019
23.Ilya Somin, “Why Mandatory National Service is Both Unjust and Unconstitutional,”, Oct. 19, 2018
24.Stuart Anderson, “Mandatory ‘National Service’ for New York Times Columnists,”, Jan. 31, 2012
25.Nina Hoe, “American Gap Association National Alumni Survey,”, May 2, 2016
26.Bob Clagett, “Bob Clagett on Taking a Gap Year,”, Mar. 20, 2013
27.Paula S. Fass, “Young Americans Need Required National Service,”, Mar. 2, 2016
28.Isabel V. Sawhill, “It’s Time to Make National Service a Universal Commitment,”, Nov. 30, 2017
29.Lawrence White, “The Case for Mandatory National Service,”, Mar. 3, 2014
30.Libby Nelson, “The Real College Admissions Scandal Is What’s Legal,”, Mar. 12, 2019
31.Nick Visser, “John McCain Slams Wealthy Draft Dodgers in Apparent Swipe at Trump,”, Oct. 23, 2017
32.Conor Friedersdorf, “The Case Against Universal National Service,”, June 26, 2013
33.Randi Hjalmarsson and Matthew Lindquist, “What Are the Effects of Mandatory Military Conscription on Crime and the Labour Market?,”, Apr. 2, 2016
34.GovTrack, “H.R. 5741 (111th): Universal National Service Act,”, Feb. 3, 2013 Editors, “Conscription,”, Aug. 21, 2018
36.Andrew Glass, “U.S. Military Draft Ends, Jan. 27, 1973,”, Jan. 27, 2012
37.Sean Mclain Brown, “Should the United States Reinstate the Draft?,”, May 17, 2018
38.Rwanda Governance Board, “Impact Assessment of Umuganda 2007-2016,”, Oct. 2017
39., "Gen Z: The Next Generation of Donors," (accessed July 8, 2021)
40.Kim Strong, "71% of Young People Are Ineligible for the Military — and Most Careers, Too,"