Conscription Gets a Face Lift

In the late 1970s, a government report on national service held up Mao’s Red Guards – the paramilitary social movement in China – as a model for American youth.  Thankfully, we’ve come a long way since then.

It's not often that I say this, but we should all be thankful for Richard Nixon for ending the draft in 1971 under the guidance of Milton Friedman. The intellectual climate has shifted since then, and today re-introducing the draft is a third-rail issue. However, more than one democratic presidential candidate trotted out a less bellicose version of the draft – national service – as a kind of Hail Mary when their campaigns stalled.

John Delaney, one of the more forgettable presidential hopefuls, proposed mandatory national service for all 18 year olds, lasting one year. Not only does Delaney seem to be ignorant of the 13th Amendment, prohibiting involuntary servitude, but his proposal also disregards the economic concept of “opportunity cost.” That is, whatever value those students might produce during their year of “service” comes at the expense of productive activity, educational advancement, and progress on more valuable projects than whatever Uncle Sam can concoct. While Delaney’s proposal went nowhere, Pete Buttigieg promoted similar ideas and is no doubt eyeing 2024 as his “turn.”

This Sunday, I'm joined live by Warren C. Gibson to discuss his recent American Institute for Economic Research article, “The Dangers of National Service.” One of the last bastions of true liberalism (i.e., classical liberalism) in the United States, the AIER has become one of my go-to sources for guests. Gibson taught economics at San Jose State, and engineering at Santa Clara University. Before this, he was a co-founder of CSA Engineering, Inc., an engineering firm specializing in vibration problems for industries ranging from medical equipment to aerospace

Gibson notes that those “protesting” against statues of slave owners overlook the real possibility of a different kind of servitude “that is rising right under their noses.”

For example, the Christian Science Monitor recently ran a puff piece on the latest iteration of national service – a nearly 150-year old idea, first touted by the Utopian novelist Edward Bellamy in his 1888 book Looking Backward.  The “Inspired to Serve” report summarizes several years of research by a governmental commission looking “to address domestic and security needs, invigorate civil society, and strengthen our democracy.”Gibson believes the report is sowing seeds for a future movement to militarize a whole new segment of the population for later recruitment into a revolutionary brownshirt army – not quite the vigorous “civil society” de Toqueville championed in his 19th-century tour of the United States.

Meanwhile, the House is considering a bill (HR 6666) that would allocate billions of dollars to hire an army of COVID-19 “contact tracers” – a hybrid privacy violation and major expansion of the federal payroll.

Are Maoist ideals coming back into vogue under the guide of patriotism and national health, or will American individualism and true civil society prevail?

Don’t miss the live shows – Sundays, at 8am PACIFIC TIME - streaming live online and broadcasting on AM stations across the West Coast. Or subscribe to get the podcast/read the transcript next week – newsletter subscribers get my free PDF guide to the administrative state, The Shallow State.


Bob Zadek: Welcome to the Bob Zadek Show, the longest running live libertarian talk radio show on all of radio. And yes, in this day of pre-recorded podcasts, we are proudly and always live. We enjoy the spontaneity of an unrehearsed hour of conversation with the smartest guests on radio. Thank you so much for listening this Sunday morning.

So there I was, doing my daily reading, including the daily blog of the American Institute of Economic Research, a wonderful blog which somehow has managed to accumulate very informed writers who always entertain and inform me. And this morning's guests did just that. This morning's topic gets me thinking and delays the start of my daily for-profit work that I do. Off I go, clicking link upon link on link, more and more curious with every mouse click.

Warren Gibson is a retired professor of economics at San Jose State uUniversity. Before starting his second career as an economics professor and studying economics he was a successful engineer and business person who graduated from Case Western Reserve University with an engineering degree, so Warren has lived at least two lives that I'm aware of. Warren's piece called my attention to the National Commission on Military National and Public Service. This commission has the possibility of reactivating the draft, either directly, for military service or using conscription that requires all 18 year olds to perform one year of "public service."

Can you imagine such a thing? That is a process being adopted in Western Europe, for example in France and in Germany. They are experimenting with mandatory "public service" for the youth of their country. And that is perhaps unless we pay attention right around the corner for us. I will now introduce the speaker and Warren and I will discuss the history of the National Commission on Military National and Public Service, what its mission was and what does it mean for the draft? I bet you all thought the draft was dead.

The Creeping Threat of Mandatory Public Service

Bob Zadek: No, it is not dead. It is just asleep. So we still have the draft. And indeed, as Warren will explain, maybe the cohort of youth who are required to register for the draft may be expanded. More about that in a moment. Warren, welcome to the show this morning. Thank you for the article that woke me up to something that I should have known about, but didn't. Tell us about what caught your attention in the National Commission on Military National and Public Service, whatever public service may even mean and what prompted you to alert the rest of us by writing your piece for AIER. Good morning Warren.

Warren Gibson: Good morning, Bob. First of all, thank you very much for having me on it's a great privilege and a pleasure. Well, when this piece came out, when the final report of the commission was issued on March 25th of this year, it got a little bit of notice in the press for the idea that not just men, but women should be subjected to the draft as well. Now I have to say my response to this was visceral, because it cut to the core of my fundamental beliefs about who we are and how we should treat each other.

We have a quote here that says our nation is “built on pride in sacrifice and commitment and shared values, a willingness of our citizens to give their time and energy.” Now I read the Declaration of Independence to say that we are here in pursuit of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. So, that really cut to the core of what I believe when I read the report in more detail.

Bob Zadek: Who says? Where is it written that we are a nation of sacrifice? I would say sacrifice is contrary to our founding principles. We are not here to sacrifice ourselves. We are here to pursue and preserve our life, liberty, and happiness. We're not here to make sacrifices and surrender any of those. We are already at direct disagreement and variants with the very goals of the commission. Now, Warren, how and why was the National Commission on Military National and Public Service?

Warren Gibson: Well, it was included in the Defense Authorization bill in the last month of the Obama administration. Now I'm not quite sure who was behind this or what the impetus was, but in any event, the commission was established at that time. That would have been December of 2016. The final report was issued on March 25th of this year, as I say.

Bob Zadek: The commission was created in the national “Defense Authorization Act.” That is the mega omnibus spending bill which gives the military its money now. So we have a defense authorization bill which has nothing whatsoever to do with public service.

I'm going to be mentioning this throughout the hour because this will show you how this stuff gets created. It's insidious. It's scary. And it shows how these very apparently innocent concepts get started with perhaps sound and limited intentions, and how it grows to what you will learn its mission is now. So it was formed from the Defense Authorization Act. It was actually formed by the Obama administration and it began in September of 2017, early in the Trump administration. It started operating very recently in January of 2018.

Selective Service to Forced Conscription: The Commission’s Recommendations

Bob Zadek: Its mission was kind of limited. It was limited to a reexamination of the selective service system. There wasn't much said in its authorization, except for a few throw away words about public service. So here we are now finding ourselves surprisingly discussing the draft. Now I thought Nixon ended the draft.

So why are we talking about it?

Warren Gibson: As you may remember, Milton Friedman got Richard Nixon's ear back in the late sixties I think and argued that the draft should be abolished and Nixon listened. The draft was ended, but it was not abolished, as you know the selective service system continues in operation. Every young man must register between 18 and 25. Of course there hasn't been any draft since then, but they could push a button and start it almost overnight.

Bob Zadek: So, every young man on their 18th birthday or thereafter must register for the draft just so they have your name if they need it. I don't really remember the act of registering for the draft, but every male in this country registers at 18 years old for the draft. So they have your name, and you are subject to conscription until you are 26.

Warren Gibson: That is correct. What's interesting is if you go to the selective service website there is a place where you pick either a male or female and underneath those buttons it says that we do not register women at this time. So they are ready to go to register women. Of course that was the aspect of the commission's report that got the attention in the newspaper. It's a 250 page report, but registering women is what got attention in March of this year.

Bob Zadek: I am going to trace the life of this commission. So it starts with a throwaway concept, which became codified in a statute that as part of the Defense Authorization Act, which everybody votes for and nobody reads. In 2016 some congressmen said we need a national commission on military national and public service. The commission was formed for "analysis for sustaining and modernizing the selective service process." So the commission started primarily to modernize the selective service process. So that's why it was started. No one can argue about modernizing the process, if you reluctantly concede we need a selective service system.

We have to be able to find all the 18 year olds in case we need them. So now we have this commission formed for the selective service system. And if that's all it did, I assure you Warren and I would never have met and become fast friends and Warren would not have written his piece. But once given a budget the commission includes as part of the review 164 recommendations addressing civic education, the federal workforce, national service programs, and military service, in addition to the selective service system. It becomes an afterthought rather than the mission itself.

Expanding the Draft to Include Women

Bob Zadek: Expand a bit more on women and their relationship to the draft. What is existing law and what is the suggestion made by the commission regarding women and the draft?

Warren Gibson: They are concerned about inequality. There's no question that it's discriminatory to register only men and not women. What they're proposing is the wrong way to do it, In my opinion. It shouldn't be doubling the pool of potential draftees. They should be eliminating it. They should achieve equality by eliminating the draft, in my opinion. But of course that's not what they said.

Bob Zadek: Before we leave the subject of the draft, some of you may wonder how conscription can be constitutional? It is in the classic sense requiring people to work against their will. Yes, the military gets paid, but it is still involuntary servitude. Those words, involuntary servitude, actually appear in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. The 13th Amendment was of course, one of the Civil War amendments.

Warren Gibson: There was a lawsuit in 1918, soon after the draft was instituted for WWI. Interestingly enough, it was filed by a progressive group. Now I don't know how many people know that the progressive movement dates back to the early 1900s, but it does. So this progressive group challenged the draft on the basis of the 13th amendment. It went all the way to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court in 1918 decided that it was constitutional because Congress has the right to raise armies.

I was a little hesitant to use the word “slavery,” but there is this precedent. The 13th Amendment flat out says no involuntary servitude unless you've been convicted of a crime. Well, you've been drafted in the army, you're serving involuntarily.

Bob Zadek: There has been some interesting discussion at a high level by constitutional law scholars. There was a wonderful piece by Illya Somin, a frequent guest on our show where he reexamined the constitutionality of the draft. He obviously cited the 1918 decision and concluded as many others have that it probably was done on a very weak constitutional law basis. It is fair speculation as to whether, if that were litigated today, the Supreme court would reach the same conclusion. So it is right now, we'll call it a doctrine of weak constitutional law that conscription by the government is legal.

The commission went beyond the bureaucratic modernization of the selective service system. That's no way to spend a day. They ended up suggesting that maybe our country would be better off with mandatory public service. That is, conscription on steroids. The commission actually had hearings to decide whether or not this country "needs" mandatory conscription for public service. Like building roads and cutting down trees and stuff like that.

What is Wrong with Mandatory Public Service?

Bob Zadek: What's wrong with rendering mandatory public service to the nation as a concept?

Warren Gibson: Because there is no acting entity called "the nation" to whom you can serve anything. It's an abstraction. And when you look at the reality of the service that's implied, it's service to particular politicians and bureaucrats who hold the strings. So the draft in the Vietnam era was because Lyndon Johnson's ego was behind the whole thing, really. So there's no such thing really as national service. There's service to the particular politicians and bureaucrats who hold power.

Bob Zadek: The public service part of it was the commission, in my opinion, clearly exceeding their authority. They were formed to do an administrative function, to clear up the selective service system and examine it. And one of their gifts was that they said that the draft should include women. That scared the bejesus out of everybody. We may discuss that briefly after the break, but then they were off to the races.

Not only do they exceed their authority on cleaning up the draft, of the 164 recommendations, almost all dealt with the national civil service system, the employment of more government employees and paying them more, and mandatory public service. Very little had to do with the selective service system. Should we have a country which requires 18 year olds to give up a year of their life to the service of some bureaucrats?

Now, women are of course permitted to serve in combat roles in the military, but up to now, women have not been required to register for the selective service. But the commission softly recommended it. Then, the commission , using the review of the draft as a starting point, examined and made extensive recommendations - mostly positive - on whether we should have conscripted mandatory public service.

The commission stopped short of actually suggesting that 18 year olds should be conscripted in public service, but wasn't there some really scary language in their final report that kind of implied how close we are to conscription for public service.

Warren Gibson: Well, it was implicit as you know, through the whole report. They tiptoed around the mandatory concept, but they were laying the groundwork. You just can't escape that conclusion if you look at all these recommendations.

The Obscure “Emergency of Last Resort”

Bob Zadek: There was one sentence you highlighted in your piece. And I want to just read this. Although the commission did not outright recommend mandatory public service, they said, "policymakers should make every effort to promote voluntary approaches to service, reserving mandatory service as a last resort." We can only speculate in the most scary way who and when would decide that we are ready for the last resort. What would be the emergency that would occur on some Wednesday morning that would require a state of public service emergency?

Warren Gibson: You never know what might come out of left field to trigger this. It could happen.

Bob Zadek: Once the last resort comes it means that 18 year olds will be required to clean kitchens, scrub floors, cut down trees, and do whatever a politician determines you should be doing. You can pick which unpleasant chore you want to do. We will pay you way below market wages because we don't have to pay you a lot because we can force you, and if you don't like it, go to jail. That is the clear recommendation. Take a job at below market wages against your will. All I will say is open up the Canadian border once again and they're heading North until they are 26 and then they will come home. I think this is what you were suggesting is the scariest part of this report.

Warren Gibson: Well, there's an aspect that's even scarier than what you say. And that is, if they can convince young people that it is their duty, then they have them hooked. So if they can convince people that they have basically no right to their own life and if they buy into that, then they are home free.

Bob Zadek: When you say “convince,” I think you used far too polite a term. I think you mean indoctrinate, don't you?

Warren Gibson: Yes. So much of this report is about indoctrination, about propaganda. As you pointed out, a great number of the recommendations have to do with what they call "education." So they want to have courses available at all the universities and so forth. It sounds very bland and mild, but when you sum it all up, it is to convince us all that we do not have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that we owe our lives to the state.

Bob Zadek: So now we have a national commission, we spent a bunch of money and now the commission is recommending, even as a last resort, mandatory public service. I found an appropriate quote: Emma Moore, an analyst for military veterans and social programs, and who is associated with the center for New American security. She is commenting on the report of the commission.

She said, speaking about the pandemic virus, "The virus highlights in my mind, the greater need for national service." How can you take the virus and say, "Wow, that proves my point! We need compulsory public service!" That's the kind of dynamic that scares the heck out of me. We start with a report on the selective service system and look where we get. Everybody is jumping on the bandwagon and looking at any event in public life and saying that proves that we need mandatory public service. That's the kind of stuff Warren that you mentioned in your article.

Warren Gibson: Well, I don't know if it was born of innocence or guilt, but in any event, it is indeed scary to the extent it is taken seriously. Now we can always hope that it'll get shelved and forgotten and that only the draft part will be remembered, but I'm afraid now that it is just a little more groundwork for increasing collectivization of our society.

Bob Zadek: This commission held public hearings available. I actually watched some of them. It asked for expert commentary on the subject, not of reorganizing the selective service system, but on mandatory public service. They had expert commentary on this. I listened to one of the hearings and Doug Bandow from Cato spoke passionately about the downsides of mandatory public services. What was so interesting is that those who said they loved the idea of national public service but they found it to be politically a nonstarter, well, I hope they are right. But what that tells me is that they would love it today, except we get voted out of office.

Warren Gibson: Yes. That's the tone of the whole article.

A New Form of Taxation

Bob Zadek: Implicit in mandatory public service, one of the most damaging aspects as a matter of policy, is that it says, "okay, since nobody will volunteer to do a good thing, let's force them to be charitable." Well, that's a form of taxation. It's no different than forcing me to pay taxes, the purpose of which is to allow the government to do a charitable activity.

A lot of what the government does is just public sector charity. Charity is not bad, but it's public sector charity, which means that the politicians get to pick the charity. Charity is good. Compulsory charity doesn't feel so good. As an economist, Warren, is it accurate to say that when you compel an 18 year old to give a year of their life to some activity they don't want to do, that year of that 18 year old's life has an economic value. Is that any different than saying all 18 year olds have to pay a special tax?

Warren Gibson: Basically, it's not different. It's forcing them to contribute something that they would otherwise not want to do. In the case of tax it is money and in the case of national services it is labor. It's compulsory extraction of value.

Bob Zadek: Let's not say that public service will instill some special values on 18 year olds. No, it is attacks on 18 year olds and others are exempt from the tax. That is just call it a tax. Why not allow an 18 year old to either serve in compulsory public service or buy out of it by giving the economic value of a year of their life. During the first system of draft, which was in the civil war, there were draft riots in New York. Why were there draft riots in New York? Was it because people didn't want to serve? Yes, but it was more complicated. In the draft during the Civil War, young men were drafted by Lincoln and had to serve but if you were drafted you had the option to hire somebody else to serve in the military.

If you hired them to serve for you, you didn't have to serve. That makes it even more clear that conscription is nothing other than a tax, just like in England in the middle ages, taxes were assessed and you paid the tax not by money, but by grain or by giving the crown an item of livestock. You were taxed and you gave up livestock or corn or things of that nature. Taxes are never limited just to money. Taxes are taking anything of value. And if you don't pay the tax, which is the time, then you go to jail. It is exactly the same, isn't it, Warren?

Warren Gibson: Yes it is. Now, service is a good thing. I don't say that public service is necessarily bad per se. It is good for young people to have some experience in serving voluntarily and locally to people they can look in the eye and become better people for it. So service is a good thing, but it's not a primary obligation and is not something should be forced.

Bob Zadek: Public service also just means conscripting people to do what the government wants to get for the cheap. It is simply a way to force people to perform a task that the government or the private sector could perform at its proper market value, but instead the government gets it on the cheap.

In the conversation about public service, politicians are already identifying the following kinds of areas as eligible for public service: A "Climate Corps." We need to get 18 year olds to work for below market wages and give them some free tuition to "save the planet."

Another one is a “National Infrastructure Apprenticeship Program.” You know what that means? Cleaning up parks and cleaning up federal buildings–janitorial services in effect. So that's what will happen once we give politicians and the government to do the politicians' bidding. That's what we get in exchange. Is that a good use of an 18 year olds high energy and intense-learning year? Is that the best use? To go and clean up office buildings or pick up paper in the parks? We actually experienced that in the sixties during the various job programs during the great society.

The Big Picture: A Movement towards Communism and Collectivism

Warren Gibson: I want to again reemphasize the broader implication of all this, which is a trend towards collectivism. There's a great deal of what is said that amounts to crushing individualism and establishing a collectivist mentality in the country. We all have to be on the right side of this and that issue, whether it's climate or racism or you name it. If you're not right in lockstep with what is currently accepted, then you're no good.

Bob Zadek:I am so happy you mention that Warren, because whenever any government agency talks about compulsory public service, they invariably use it as the model, as the starting point of the military. The military. Wearing the same uniform. Profound obedience, following orders, severe punishments if you disobey, if you leave the reservation, if you disrespect the chain of authority. It is always the military which is the model. We think back in history to Maoist China or the Hitler Youth. Instinctively, we fear indoctrination. Turning 18 year old’s to the government to educate and to train, and to indoctrinate them against their will.

And if you think this is all farfetched, I will remind you that only a year ago during the Democratic primary, we had a candidate named John Delaney from Maryland, a progressive, who was passionate about advocating mandatory public service. So this idea is not far fetched. It was advocated by one of the lesser known candidates for the democratic candidates for the Presidency. What do you see as the future of the commission program? How concerned are you about mandatory public service and what might be the event that triggers it?

Warren Gibson: I'm very concerned about it because the groundwork, as we've said, is laid, by this commission's reports for the collectivization of our society. Who knows what event might trigger mandatory service. It will be something that we have not anticipated.

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