There is a lot to like about Zach Maurin’s proposal for civil national service. He is correct that there is a great need for volunteers, and also that a lot of young Americans want to volunteer but often fail to, either for financial considerations or for failing to find the right organization. He is also right that the government can play a productive role in this if it acts as a “platform,” not doing the worthy work itself but partnering with organizations and funding positions.
In essence, Mr Maurin’s proposal for non-mandatory service is less for a “universal civilian national service” and more for simply greatly expanding, and perhaps reforming, existing service platforms such as AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps. The key idea, which is that by expanding the number of people who serve we can create a social expectation that we will, is certainly important and commendable.
That being said, I want to take this opportunity to explore why universal military service might be a good idea.
I’ve become interested in the idea of military service because it is orthogonal to so many of our contemporary debates and allows me to explore some issues in a way that most people don’t. I’ve found that exploring this idea leads to viewing things in a different light and highlights problems with current society in an interesting way.
One consistent problem with putting forward ideas in the political realm is failure of imagination. Don’t we need prisons? Don’t we need prisons for kids factory-style public schools? Aren’t children unqualified to vote? Don’t we need the government to tell us which medicines are safe and which aren’t? To all these questions I say no. But I’ve found that while critiquing is easy; it is much harder to show why alternatives are not just desirable, but actually possible.
In this spirit of expanding imagination, I want to noodle briefly on what a good regime of military service would look like and would entail. You should read this less as a policy white paper and more as a rumination on contemporary society and an exercise in imagination.
1. The Problem of the Rite of Passage
A persistent feature of every culture I’m aware of is a rite of passage into adulthood. For whatever reason, it seems that we humans need this rite of passage, both socially and personally.
In most ancient societies, this rite of passage was explicit: there was an actual rite, most often religious and with legal implications.
What we see in many Modern societies is that where there are no legal social rites of passage, the society creates them anyway, and soon enlists the state to enshrine these rites of passage.
Today in America, our culture has instituted the four-year residential college as the universal rite of passage.
Alongside economic anxiety brought about by globalization/technological change/macroeconomic mismanagement, (and perhaps a need to legitimize the imposition of class privilege), I would argue that this social need of a rite of passage is the main reason we have ended up with the grotesque monster that is the current American higher-education system, or at least a very underrated reason.
Only if we understand that our culture sees the four-year residential college as a quasi-religious rite of passage do we understand the insistence that attending it is not only desirable but necessary.
And it is worth noting what a monstrosity the American higher-education system has become.
Let us postulate that most people don’t learn much in college, and certainly that there could be much more efficient and effective ways of learning what is supposed to be learned in college. Let us postulate that most of the assumed economic benefits of college are due to signaling effects and selection bias, and only a minority to human capital.
We find ourselves staring at a system which is just staggering in the amount of waste it involves. Not only the waste of money, though it is gigantic, but also the waste of countless precious man-hours of young people, and the waste of opportunity for those countless students saddled with undischargeable debt. The waste of human capital, as students receive useless degrees when they could have learned useful trades, or started businesses, or volunteered, or actually learned the discipline stated on their parchment through apprenticeships and MOOCs, or pursued higher education to actually enrich their minds and not pursue a zero-sum status competition with China/Skynet/the Joneses. The waste in endlessly delayed adulthood, as student debt prevents citizens from establishing households, and as the now-worthless BA leads to a new zero-sum arms race in higher degrees (as we plainly see in Europe, where education has been thoroughly statized).
Libertarians will be quick to note that it is government that created this monster, and that is precisely my point. In a democracy, government is responsive to the public. Government created the monster because we want the monster, and the reason we want the monster is because we need rites of passage.
In order to both restore higher education to its proper and highly important place as a fount of knowledge (and not as a merchant of dreams), and to remediate the enormous, tragic waste that we currently have, we need to invent a new rite of passage.
This rite of passage needs to have a few elements:
- It must be widely seen as a rite of passage—as ferrying people from childhood to adulthood.
- It must be widely seen as preparing people for adulthood.
- It must be the province of a widely respected institution.
- It must be seen as demanding.
- It must be widely seen as conferring various skills that enable people to step confidently into adulthood, both in market terms (i.e., get a job) and in more abstract terms. It would be even better if it actually did do those things.
I’ve wracked my brain for a while, and I can’t think of an institution other than military service that has even a chance of meeting these criteria.
You see inklings of this in societies like Israel and South Korea, where military service is widely seen as preparation for adult life. In the particular case of Israel, the vast majority of observers of its entrepreneurial miracle have pointed to its military service as one source of the miracle, since it often confers professional skills (a modern military needs engineers as well as mechanics) and also leadership skills and a certain comfort with risk-taking. Which brings us to…
2. The Problem of Risk
Here is another speculation about modern society. It’s not one that I’m sure to be convinced by, but it’s one that perhaps makes some sense. It would be a narrative that would go something like this: as the material prosperity of a society rises, the risk-aversion of its members proportionally increases. You could say that for a species that evolved with scarcity, the abundance society is a superstimulus.
You see signs of this everywhere you look. You see this in finance, where the entire apparatus of finance theory is designed to transform something that is inherently the domain of Knightian uncertainty into quantifiable risk, with disastrous consequences. You see this in the seemingly unstoppable rise of government, as people seek protection from various ills, real or imagined. You see this in the ever-shrinking birthrates and the gap between desired and actual fertility. You see this in our ever-expanding adolescence and our ever-receding horizon of adulthood. You see this in the atomization of society and the rise of narcissism. You see this in the continuing fear of free markets and their creative destruction, despite their demonstrated success.
Of course, the problem is that the continuation of our material prosperity—and more generally the vibrancy of our civilization—requires a society-wide comfort with risk-taking. And libertarians will be quick to see how society-wide comfort with risk-taking is related to society-wide comfort with individual liberty.
If I am right about this idea of abundance superstimulus leading to irrational risk-aversion, we have a serious problem on our hands.
One idea that might have merit would be to have some sort of controlled environment where people could be shown—could experience by themselves—that risk-taking is the salt of life, and that most of us can be more comfortable with risk, and thrive more, than we would tend to believe ahead of time.
Meanwhile, the military art necessitates the understanding of judicious risk-taking. You could envision a curriculum of military service that would, with the right kind of exercises, teach people about risk-taking and leadership. People would learn by doing, and they would feel it in their bones.
I am an entrepreneur, and many of my friends are entrepreneurs. I can report, and all of us can report, that taking the leap into starting our own business, taking this risk, while scary, was a lot more scary beforehand than after. I often ask this question to entrepreneurs I know: if they had known before starting their business what they now know, would they have started it? The answer I get is almost always the same: if I had known what I know now, I would have started sooner, because I now realize the only reason I didn’t do it was because I was scared, and I was wrong to be scared.
3. Military Service As Education
When people advocate for military service they often point to the virtues that it is supposed to inculcate. This often takes the form of fuzzy hand-waving, which is in turn easy to exaggerate, and to mock.
Military service teaches virtue, or else it teaches endurance, or else it teaches how to live together, or… something. I can’t say that I’m not guilty of this.
I think one reason for this vagueness is probably that we haven’t thought of military service properly as a kind of curriculum. When modern military service was established in most large countries, the military priorities were evident and immediate, for it was the era of mass warfare, and the first necessity of military service was to produce soldiers, in sufficient numbers and hopefully sufficiently trained.
Today we still need militaries, but (hopefully) the era of mass warfare is over for advanced nations and (probably) the era of completely automated robot warfare is still a long ways off.
This allows us to consciously think of the military as a part of the school curriculum. This allows us to think of a training program that would, first, obviously, teach people to be soldiers, but also consciously be designed to teach them virtues applicable for the rest of their lives.
There are the things that soldiers should know and that everybody else should know, such as physical fitness, self-defense, weapons handling, first aid and emergency medicine, backpacking, sewing, cleaning, and so on.
Then there what we might call “virtues,” the fuzzy things that military service is supposed to inculcate. Instead of puffing and postulating that military service teaches virtues, let us instead think of how it can teach them. Can we imagine exercises that put people in leadership roles? Can we imagine exercises that are designed so that the proper response is to question a superior’s commands? We already know that military boot camp is in fact not just designed to inculcate physical fitness and obedience, but also to subtly teach certain values, such as comradeship.
Then there are the professional skills. Here the opportunity is enormous to create a new kind of credential, one that would work on both the signaling plane and that of human capital. A military needs people who can actually do a job, not people who just checked boxes on an exam, because if people don’t do their job, other people die, which is why military training in a certain professional skill is (or should be) highly regarded. A military also needs people of every vocational field, from highly skilled engineers to tradesmen and manual workers to accountants, to painters and writers (really). This means that these certifications would obliterate the artificial and elitist separation between the trades and the desk-bound, valorized vocations. We should certainly not mandate that people “graduate” from military service with a skill, since it would destroy the selectivity and thus value of these credentials, but we should certainly set ambitious targets. We can imagine that over time half of the people would leave military service with a marketable skill, and thus be able at a young age to step fully and confidently into an independent, adult life. They would be numerous enough to suck the blood out of the college-industrial complex.
We should imagine a flexible, algorithmic system that would allow the military to offer positions and training commensurate with both the military’s internal demands and the market’s demands. We should also demand experimentation and rigorous, public testing in how every aspect of service is designed, so that service keeps being useful to recruits instead of devolving into mere bureaucracy.
Finally, we should make the inducement for pursuing military service not that fake currency, educational scholarships (which would make service an arm of the college-industrial complex), but instead cash. Lots of it. Why shouldn’t someone who performs outstandingly and earns a difficult certification receive several tens of thousands of dollars upon leaving the military? Given the money currently incinerated by the current higher-education system, it would be a bargain. If that person wants to apply that money towards further education, let them (and if the college-industrial complex is tamed, the price of education will fall like a rock). But if they want to start a business, or save for the future, or for that matter travel around the world, as many young Israelis do after military service, wouldn’t that be great too?
Instead of building a nation of over-indebted 22-year old teenagers, we would be building a nation of independent, 19-year-old adults.
I can see certain problems with my ideas: All the reasons why it wouldn’t work, and all the reasons why it’s not acceptable to try to do this. But I hope I can’t say that I’ve failed for lack of imagination.
 Another, and highly desirable, way the government could expand civil society and volunteerism would be to increase the tax deduction for charitable giving.
 In short, Nassim Nicholas Taleb is right.
 It is often noted that many self-described conservatives want small government in theory but don’t want it when shrinking the government might affect them. This is a convincing reason.
 And even then—what does Country A do when Country B’s robots destroy its robots?
 This might also be a way to reconcile my vision with libertarians’: let’s just raise the reward of military service until it’s market-clearing.