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Gwen's Spot

08 December 2005

"New Deal"- or Bad Deal?: In Which Involuntary Volunteering Is Re-examined

::In an opinion article in the Winter 2005 issue of the Current Magazine, Sean M. Harris suggests a “mandatory national service program” as “the perfect answer to post-graduation uncertainty.”
::“Imagine," he says, "if the government took all the anxiety out of the process of determining one’s immediate future by mandating that every student partake in a national service program after commencement,” as though students who have no such anxiety, or would rather not have that anxiety alleviated in the way suggested, simply don’t exist, or perhaps don’t matter. But the rest of the article indicates that Harris just doesn’t care about distinctions of the sort to divide others who, like him, have “absolutely no idea” what they’re “going to do after college” from those who have started planning for a post-graduation life. After all, he recognizes no distinction between the programs initiated by the New Deal (all voluntary) and a mandatory program.
::When Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Congress created programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps, they did not require the “large numbers of unemployed men and women” who “were put to work on improving the country in everything from urban development to trailblazing in National Parks” to do so. In fact, the CCC was created to offer these unemployed men and women meaningful, and more importantly paid, jobs, not to build bridges and clear dams. The emphasis was on “what your country can do for you,” not “what your country can force you to do for your country.”
::Similar lapses of logic occur throughout this essay. A bait-and-switch tactic is utilized to make readers agree that “[w]hen this sort of disaster strikes, such a national service program should be a no-brainer” and that “[f]ew would argue that activities like disaster response are not meaningful,” while readers are not even given examples of what “more mundane but nonetheless vital tasks” the program would require people to do so that they can decide for themselves whether the activities are meaningful or not. Claiming that the program “should be a no-brainer” is equally condescending. It is almost always more persuasive to presume that one’s readers, especially the ones who may still disagree, have brains than to assume otherwise, and one usually ends up being right.
::For example, although it takes a brain to argue that these programs will keep people from having “an unfair advantage by declining to volunteer” following college, that brain could also be used to realize that all the mandatory service program would do is postpone that post-graduation choice between volunteering or career by a year. An argument that by forcing the non-volunteers to volunteer, the program is “evening out the field” and allowing volunteers to do what they always dreamed makes no sense. The would-be volunteers are forced to spend what could have been time actually volunteering working for a program that certainly could not be called a “volunteer” program by any responsible use of the dictionary, since it would be mandatory and presumably paid. (Would the government want anyone who couldn’t afford to forego a salary for a year to simply starve to death?) It’s about as voluntary as the draft.
::The proposed program has other things in common with the draft. For one, the draft’s “most significant benefit” is “its egalitarian nature,” because it also forces “young adults from different socioeconomic groups” to “work side-by-side.” (If the purpose first stated as primary—helping victims of national disasters as well as helping out “even outside the realm of national emergencies”—can be so easily dismissed as not the most significant benefit, surely the goal of having virtually unlimited numbers of young people to serve in the military upon demand can be dismissed just as easily.) Even the introduction foreshadows a military feel—the author states that McCain “proposed tacking on a military component to an expanded Americorps,” while “Wesley Clark, a former general and presidential candidate, supported the creation of a voluntary civilian reserve with six-month tours of service.” Military components, former generals proposing tours of service, all made mandatory by a wave of the pen—sounds like the draft to me.
::This program is similar to another, even more historically controversial, “mandatory national service program”—slavery. The government will help graduating students in the same way that slaveowners traditionally “took all the anxiety” of planning a life out of the hands of their slaves. In fact, the arguments for slavery are very similar to the arguments for this program; the economy of the South was such that slavery was vital to growing large enough crops of tobacco, cotton, indigo, and so on to export north, even though it was morally repugnant. (This is why, even after slavery was abolished, the practice virtually lived on though sharecropping, which placed many former slaves right back into depending on extremely hard work for former slaveowners just to survive.) And this program is unconstitutional, just like slavery.
::Yes, Virginia, there is a Constitution…and it is the first thing politicians have to take into account when proposing laws. The reason why Clark’s idea was a “voluntary civilian reserve,” instead of a mandatory one, and why AmeriCorps has always been voluntary, is because of a little thing called the Fourteenth Amendment.
::The Fourteenth Amendment states that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” What this means is that United States citizens (for example, college graduates) can’t be deprived of liberty (for example, by being forced to spend a year in service to the government) without due process of law (a trial) by the state where they live, and no state can enforce a law that would abridge those rights (meaning that even if the law was passed on a national level, the state could not enforce it constitutionally).
::In other words, even if it were “philosophically justified” (which I’m not sure that it is), it is not constitutionally justified. If this proposed program were voluntary, like AmeriCorps and the CCC, not only would it be constitutional but I would be a vocal supporter, but until then, I hope that mandatory national service never takes another step from unconstitutional pipe dream toward unconstitutional reality.