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Even conceding the case for a military draft, there is a problem. The problem is that the military has no use for more than a small fraction of draft-age men and women. So if you are going to piggyback some vast national service plan on the military's need for relatively few recruits, what do you do with the rest of them? There are, it seems to me, just three possibilities: give them useful jobs that someone else is already doing; give them useful jobs that currently are not being done; or give them make-work jobs.
This is where the notion of "volunteerism" begins to seem little short of Orwellian. Consider the first category. If someone is forced, by law or by social pressure or any other reason, to "volunteer" for a necessary job that he or she otherwise would not take, someone else is going to lose that job. This someone else presumably was or would be content with what the job paid at least content enough not to quit. Now he or she is unemployed, and someone else who doesn't want the job is stuck with it. What's the point?
Now, consider the second category. There are jobs we would like society to do but feel we cannot afford it. Most of them are just the kind of therapeutically unpleasant tasks such as emptying bedpans at nursing homes that volunteerism enthusiasts are anxious to force young people to do for their own damned good. So what's the problem? It's this. There is a price at which someone would be willing to take this crummy job. Let's say it's $20 an hour. For $20 an hour, you can fill that job with a true volunteer. It may be an injustice that people should be driven by a lack of other options to want a job emptying bedpans at $20 an hour, but we are not offering them those other options in any event. Instead, we are going to take away that lousy $20-an-hour job and give it to someone who is "volunteering" out of idealism or isn't really volunteering at all. It would take $50 an hour to make this job seem economically worthwhile to this person, but since this is part of "national service," you are only paying him or her $5. Result? Someone who truly wants the job cannot have it, while someone who really doesn't want it is forced to do it for $45 an hour less than what it would take to induce him or her to truly volunteer. You've made everyone involved unhappy, all in the name of some vague social-engineering notion about changing the social atmosphere. With all the varied public and private power centers behind it, this really does start to seem like something out of 1984.
Here is an easy prediction based on past experience: if the government employee unions have anything to say about it (as they do), most of the work done by this national volunteer program will fall in category three: make-work. Only jobs that accomplish nothing important can really avoid trouble. Scandals are another easy prediction. A desperate Commissariat of Volunteerism will find itself placing young folks as interns at home decorating businesses or excusing them entirely on grounds of an allergy to cats. As with the discredited Vietnam-era draft, the challenge for bureaucrats will be finding ways NOT to use people because there will be far more people than can be usefully used.
And then, of course, will come a study showing that, when you add in training and supervision, each job, be it emptying bedpans or designing sculptures of bedpans for a National Museum of Hospital Equipment, actually costs the government $100 an hour.
I'm perfectly prepared to believe that today's young people are deplorable specimens, ignorant and ungrateful and in desperate need of discipline. Or I am also prepared to believe that they are about to burst with idealism like a piñata and only await somebody with a giant pin. But they aren't the only ones who could use a lesson about social obligation. What about grownups? Grownups, who still have some hope of collecting Social Security and Medicare before they go broke, who have enjoyed the explosion in house prices that make the prospect of home ownership so dim for the next generation; who allowed the government to run up a gargantuan national debt, were miraculously bailed out of that, and immediately allowed it to be run up a second time; who may well have gone to college when tuition was cheap and you didn't automatically graduate burdened by student loans. We are not in much of a position to start dreaming up lessons in social obligation for the kids.
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