America Needs Universal Civilian National Service

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry and Jason Kuznicki have so far debated different sides of mandatory military service.  I’m going to take the debate in a third direction and argue for another big idea about what we owe and what we should expect of each other: universal civilian national service.

By that I mean a year of full-time service here at home tutoring in schools, responding to natural disasters, working in health clinics, and helping families climb out of poverty.  Universal does not mean mandatory; it means available to everyone who wants to do it.  The target age is 18-30.

While military service is certainly the most laudable type of service, it is already well-resourced, well-staffed, and a vibrant part of our culture.

What we need from our citizens – especially rising generations of young citizens – is to serve here at home and to make a year of service part of what it means to be an American.

Five Arguments for Universal Civilian National Service

1) National service tackles problems.

Right now one million kids are giving up on school each year and dropping out.  One family in ten is living in poverty.  Over 24 percent of Americans, ages 16 to 19, are currently jobless.

A generation of young people serving in struggling schools and communities could make all the difference. A small stipend to pay them is far cheaper than the cost of high school drop-outs, for example.

2) National service unites diverse Americans in common purpose.

As a country we are getting more diverse, yet we are doing less together. A year of serving with Americans of all backgrounds can help each generation appreciate diversity and realize its assets. American history is replete with examples of being unnecessary scared of “the other.” That holds us back as a nation.

3) National service creates leaders.

With baby boomers retiring, there is a growing need for nonprofit leaders, school principles, and government officials. AmeriCorps programs are one of the best pipelines to develop that leadership.

The study “Still Serving: Measuring the Eight-Year Impact of AmeriCorps on Alumni” shows impressive results:

Forty six percent of… [AmeriCorps] members are employed in education, social work, public safety, arts, religion, government, or full-time military service compared to 33 percent of their comparison group. Altogether, about 60 percent of AmeriCorps alumni in this study are employed in either government or nonprofit jobs. At a time when both these sectors are facing serious workforce shortages and the coming retirement of the Baby Boomer generation, this pipeline of new employees who are passionate about making a difference and have experience in the sectors is absolutely critical.

 The leadership of our schools, nonprofits, and community groups is everyone’s problem. Leadership is perhaps the biggest factor if these institutions are to be successful at preparing students, solving local challenges, and helping communities thrive. As such, we all have an interest to ensure they are well led.  Good leaders are not born. More national service means more leaders.  And if you happen to be someone who wants smaller government, you should be clamoring for ways to create a generation of leaders.

4) National service helps veterans reintegrate.

Over the next five years, over one million members of the armed forces will return to civilian life. Although their military service is ending, their desire to serve isn’t. Nine of ten veterans agree that serving their communities is important to them. Many veterans who did civilian national service after their military service say that it helped them reintegrate into civilian life more successfully and helped them determine career and college goals.  We owe it to our veterans to make sure they have this option available.

5) National service is a way to “pay it forward.”

We are lucky to live in America. And as Gobry notes, our rights and freedoms came from generations of sacrifice. Today, with economic and social inequalities at unacceptable levels, we should all be asking how we can do more – we should be asking how we repay our debt to our friends, neighbors, grandparents, and strangers who sacrificed to help build the country.

We cannot pay it back, but we can pay it forward to honor our shared past and help our shared posterity.  Real gratitude is more than voting, paying taxes, occasionally volunteering, and just being a law-abiding citizen. We need more.  Our fellow citizens need more.  America’s future – if it’s to be vibrant and prosperous – needs more.  A year of national service is the answer, and it’s what we should expect of each other.

Common Mistakes about Civilian National Service

Myth #1 — National service is a centralized “big government” program run out of Washington D.C.

This mistake is repeated over and over again by opponents of national service, including recently by one of this institution’s Fellows.

Fact: Our nation’s biggest national service program, AmeriCorps, has a decentralized structure that gives substantial control to states and private nonprofits.

Senator John McCain, an original skeptic himself, set the record straight in a 2001 article:

When Clinton initiated AmeriCorps in 1994, most Republicans in Congress, myself included, opposed it. We feared it would be another “big government program” that would undermine true volunteerism, waste money in “make-work” projects, or be diverted into political activism. We were wrong.

Part of what conservatives admire about AmeriCorps is that it strengthens “civil society”–the rich web of neighborhood, nonprofit, and faith-based groups outside of government that provide services to those in need. This is built into the decentralized design of the program. Most AmeriCorps funding is in the hands of state governors, who give it to their National and Community Service Commissions, who in turn make grants to local nonprofits, who then recruit and hire AmeriCorps members. The vast majority of AmeriCorps members are thus “detailed” to work for organizations like Habitat for Humanity, the Red Cross, or Big Brothers/Big Sisters. They become, in effect, full-time, paid staff members of these often-understaffed organizations.”

Myth #2 — National service is in conflict with traditional volunteerism and charity.

Fact: National service strengthens traditional volunteerism and charity.

One of the biggest returns on the federal investment in service is the fact that national service members recruit, train, and manage millions of traditional volunteers.  Don’t just take my word for it.  This fact is one of the aspects of national service that won over Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah:

We recognize that national service programs give Americans opportunities to serve for a full year or more to tackle tough problems and they, in turn, can leverage the federal investment in them to mobilize more traditional volunteers to help… National service programs have a multiplying effect,” Based on past patterns, the 250,000 AmeriCorps members called for in the 2009 Serve America Act would help recruit or manage seven million unpaid volunteers.

Myth #3 – Federal investment in national service is a government handout that supplants private responsibility.

Fact:  National service embodies principles of both private responsibility and the public good.

Organizations that receive AmeriCorps funding must match it with support from foundations, corporations, and individuals.  Therefore, the public investment leverages a significant amount of non-government support.

How to Grow National Service and Create a Culture of Expectation

More supply will require more money from taxpayers, private philanthropy, and corporate philanthropy.

To create a culture where a year of service is expected, we should implement a variety of things.  Colleges should show preference to applicants who did a year of service after high school.  Companies should preference to applicants who did a year of service after graduation.

We also need to embed the idea in scripts of TV shows and movies to reach a wider audience.


Gobry wrote, “The Founding Fathers, full of Enlightenment belief in individual freedom, clearly had in mind a system akin to Switzerland or Athens, where citizenship implied soldierdom.”

Today, with so many battles to fight here at home from education equity to income inequality, we need a citizenship that implies civic leadership.  An expected year of civilian national service is how we will get there.  

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry argues that libertarians ought to support compulsory military service, at least in principle, as a means of defending a free society. While it is true that such service entails compulsion, it is also true that the freest peoples in all of history have relied upon it.

    Compulsory service would have some good public choice effects as well. In particular, it would change the incentives in the decision to go to war: When all must bear the sacrifice, wars will be fewer and less deadly. Finally, Gobry notes that our ancestors commonly bore similar burdens, and we owe them a debt of gratitude — one he believes is best discharged by following in their footsteps.

Response Essays

  • In a vehement dissent, Jason Kuznicki argues that the so-called libertarian case for compulsory military service is an illusion. To the ancients, liberty meant something very different, and we should reject their definition, which rests on militarism and compulsion. Our liberty rests on commerce, not on conquest. Taxes are at best a necessary evil, and conscription is always worse than taxation. Moreover, it is not at all apparent how we might settle a debt of gratitude with the past. If we even have one.

  • Zach Maurin argues that what we need now is not universal military service, but universal civilian service. In his proposal, this service will not be legally required, but it will be federally subsidized and available to all who want it. He argues that there are many ways the United States could be made better, and he suggests that civilian service is the way to accomplish these goals, from feeding the hungry, to education, to health care.

  • Jacob Hornberger asks what the advocates of compulsory national service would do with determined resisters: Are they prepared to use force? If resistance continues, are they prepared to kill? Hornberger insists on the moral right to resist coercion, regardless of the nobility of the cause for which it is deployed. To him, it is a question of trust: Can free people be trusted to take care of themselves and their society? Or do they require some coercion? If they are coerced, they are not free, he concludes.