Via Nicholas Beaudrot and Jonathan Singer comes Chris Dodd’s ambitious plan for national service. These things seem to me to invariably founder on certain conceptual confusions and Dodd’s plan is no exception.
The basic animating insight of national service is that, from a liberal point of view, mass conscription as practiced in World War II had certain kinds of benefits — building social solidarity by throwing men from all regions and walks of life together. But, of course, absolutely nobody thinks we need a military as big as the one that would be generated by a program of WWII-scale conscription and the officer’s corps doesn’t want the sort of under-motivated, under-trained military that would result from replacing their cadre of professionals with a mass of conscripts. Thus, one adds the idea of drastically expanding the array of vocations that will count as service. Here, however, the idea of conscription seems bizarre. Military conscription is the sort of thing that might be justified by Michael Walzer’s “supreme emergency” doctrine but you’d need genuine peril to the nation’s existence. Otherwise you’re just talking about slavery — corvée — and you have to think that conscript third grade teachers would do a terrible job anyway.
At this point you get to where Dodd is: National service that isn’t universal and isn’t mandatory, but instead consists of expanding already existing programs like the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps that pay people money in exchange for performing certain public functions. There’s nothing wrong, generically, with such programs but they really need to be looked at one-by-one on the merits primarily through the lens of whether or not they’re cost-effective methods of achieving the public purpose in question. Does appropriating more money to the Peace Corps make sense as a development strategy, or would it be better to boost funding for the Millenium Challenge Corporation or the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria.
At this point, though, we’re well beyond evaluating “national service” and down to the nitty-gritty of evaluating specific program effectiveness. It’s often the case that you can recruit small numbers of young people to do public-oriented work at sub-market prices — e.g., Teach for America or essentially all left-of-center non-profits in DC — but it seems unlikely that one could scale these things up substantially without seeing costs explode or the programs become totally ineffective.
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