GUEST VIEW: Mandating service not the answer

South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, one of two Democratic presidential candidates with military service, said national service will become one of the themes of his campaign and that he hopes to make it — if not legally binding — a social norm. While this is certainly not a new issue, it is not one that has traditionally been discussed as much as it should have.
Between 2003 and 2013, for example, former U.S. Representative Charles Rangel of New York made five unsuccessful attempts to introduce legislation to require all people in the United States, between the age of 18 and 24, to either serve in the military or perform civilian service related to national defense. Similarly, the efforts of Stan McChrystal, the former commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, to get voters, donors and candidates to work together to make service year a common expectation also fell flat, as did the efforts of the Washington Post editorial board in 2016.
I believe all citizens of this country should want to spend some part of their lives in public service and that the government should not only encourage them to do so but also provide significant opportunities and incentives.
I know from my own experience that spending four years on active duty as a naval flight officer in the 1960s — when I could have easily avoided the draft because I was teaching high school and had polio — was the most rewarding experience of my life, and I will be forever grateful to my parents who admonished me not to try to beat the system.
There are good arguments on both sides of the issue; Mayor Pete’s is among them. He believes that public service will help repair the country’s fraying social cohesion because it will force women and men to mix with people from different backgrounds and make them be part of something larger than themselves. The mayor even quotes President John F. Kennedy’s call in his inaugural speech for people to serve the country, which led to the creation of the Peace Corps and In Service To America (VISTA), which was later incorporated into the American Corp (AmeriCorp) network.
A second argument for making service mandatory is that it not only saves money for the government but provides benefits to all its citizens. A report from the Center for Budget Cost Studies in Education found that while youth national service programs cost $1.7 billion annually they return a value of $6.5 billion.
Finally, mandatory supporters argue that national service will help young people mature and serve as a bridge to adulthood. The vast majority of students who took a gap year between high school and college reported that the deferment from school or a job helped them develop as people and increased their maturity.
But the cost of mandatory service outweighs the benefits.
Opponents, myself included, say it is not needed because volunteer programs are already working well. About 30 percent of millennials already do volunteer work and applications for civilian national service programs already outpace current funding and capacity. Moreover, the nation’s current all-volunteer military force needs professional soldiers who want to make the military a career, not people who will leave after a short period of time.
Critics also point out that mandatory service (other than for the military) violates the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and infringes on the rights of individuals to decide what to do with their lives.
Finally, opponents believe a mandatory service program would be manipulated by the wealthy and well-connected, just as the draft was in the 1960s. We know presidents Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, and vice presidents Dick Cheney and Joe Biden all avoided the draft during the war in Vietnam by gaming the system. Trump had bone spurs, Biden had asthma, Cheney had other priorities and Clinton pretended to join ROTC.
In addition, mandatory service could cause hardships for the lower-income families and communities whose young people are already performing service by contributing to household income, babysitting, or caring for sick relatives.
Compulsory service would prevent people, like athletes and entertainers, from entering the workforce at a time in which they could maximize their earnings.
In analyzing the arguments from both sides, it’s clear that making service mandatory would not make for sound national policy. However, it should be a campaign issue and whoever becomes president in 2020 should expand the opportunities in the civilian sector for those willing and able to serve country. And she or he should also reward those who volunteer to serve.
Just as the U.S. military has the G.I. Bill to provide funds for tuition and living expenses for college to those who volunteered to serve, so too should civilian service volunteers be incentivized for their contributions. Mandating service, however, is not a policy this country should explore.
Lawrence J. Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. He is also an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. Prior to joining American Progress, he was a senior fellow and director of national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He wrote this for