More National Service Means More Individual Freedom

I’m confused: why do Jacob Hornberger and others from the libertarian camp so often think that civilian national service serves the state? (Whatever is meant by the “state.”)

These arguments often make me think they view national service as a state takeover of the individual – that some government official is going to pick you up in an unmarked van in the dark of night, drive you to an unknown destination, put you in a government uniform, and then brainwash you so you’ll dutifully serve the state. For the record, I’d be against that too.

Fortunately, that is not at all how our modern day national service programs work. Or anything close to that. Perhaps the combination of the words “national” and “service” are the issue. What if we called it a “year of charity to your community”? That’s what most of us national service advocates are asking for, and that’s what exists today.

The biggest national service program, AmeriCorps, is a government agency that makes grants to private nonprofits that want to support young people in a term of service with their organizations. The host organization such as Habitat for Humanity, Montana Conservation Corps, or thousands of others, then have to match the AmeriCorps dollars (that is, taxpayer money) with non-federal funds.

When serving with these organizations you work for them, at their direction – not for the government. (Though in the words of Jerry Seinfeld, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”)

In Hornberger’s latest piece he talks about the voluntary donations to one’s church. There’s a request, but no expectation to give, and no consequence if you don’t. That’s exactly how national service works and what I’m advocating for. Political leaders, community leaders, church leaders, teachers, parents, and friends should ask – not require – young people to serve a year to their community to help others.

The work they do – mentoring struggling students so they pass their classes, helping families rebuild after floods, and working with the elderly to live independently – will help more Americans live more freely. Isn’t that what Hornberger and libertarians want?

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.