Tuesday, September 25, 2007

National Service, Rights and Responsibility

Ilya Somin has a good piece on national service legislation and why it is always targeted at young people, usually between 18-21. The reason is, as Somin posits, is that young people lack the political force to obviate being picked on by Congress. It is a good point as far as that goes, but some language in Somin's piece, equating national service to "forced labor," that needs to be addressed.
To be clear, I am not arguing for imposing forced labor on the elderly or the middle-aged; but I do believe that doing so would be no worse than imposing that burden on the young... And whatever the validity of the general view that the young should spend more time on political activity, I hope we can agree that forced labor is not a proper punishment for spending too little time on politics.
Why is it when we talk of national service, the concept of forced labor is always raised? Why can't we discuss national service in more positive terms?

Forced labor contains within it some dangerous connotations, namely "slave labor." But national service is not, and should not be confused with forced labor, even if such a program of national service became mandatory for any age cohort.

Many, many years ago, Robert Heinlein wrote that the converse of rights is responsibilities. In an age when our everyday speech, particularly our everyday political speech, is peppered with references to rights, is it so hard to remember that with rights comes responsibilities. We have our politicians talking about all sorts of "rights" we seem to find, the right to healthcare or high quality healthcare, right to an abortion, gay marriage rights, right to a quality education, right to this entitlement or that benefit. Indeed if you were to do a word search on the last 15 speeches given by all of the candidates for president of both parties, I would wager you would find the word or phrase right to XXXX occurs far more often that the word "responsibility to do XXXX." Oh, that is not to say that responsibilities don't come up in political speech, but they are almost always phrased a "a responsibility to our children" or a "responsibility to the old/young/sick/dying/(insert group here)" or my personal favorite "our responsiblity to the world." As election time rolls around, we occaisionally hear words to the effect that we as voters should "exercise our right to vote responsibly" as if the political parties really want us to do that.

In short, our leaders talk incessantly about our personal rights, but never talk of our personal responsibilities.

The practical foundation of a national service plan is to help the government by providing labor for a defined period of time. The problem is that most of the work that sponsors of national service plans envision fall into one of four categories, a) military service with its attendant risks; b) physical labor of varying degrees of difficulty and danger; c) occupations difficult to staff due to various working conditions not conducive to long-term employment; or d) labor so mind-numbingly dull that the government finds it difficult to staff. I can't fault the government from seeking labor for these purposes, even if it is "forced."

However, national service has a moral foundation as well that cannot and should be overlooked. As noted earlier, the concept of rights must have a converse, that being responsibility or accountability. When our nation's Founders set out to build a new nation, they sought expanded rights, rights unavailable to them under British colonial rule. In doing so, they accepted the responsibility that their actions could lead to their imprisonment or death for treason against the crown. In short, the Founders risked everything in seeking the ultimate freedom, the right to manage one's own govnerment.

Today, we tend to think of our nation as conferring rights upon its citizens without ever asking what do we owe the nation in return. John F. Kennedy's admonition, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country," seems lost in annals of black and white film. But now, more than ever, we do need to ask ourselves if we have lost sight of responsibilities that come with the trappings of citizenship.

When less than half of the American citizenry votes in a presidential election, the connection between right and responsibility is lost. Perhaps a mandatory refesher of the connection may be of use. The theory of national service is not just about "forced labor," but about remembering that the privileges of citizenship carry a price and sometimes that price needs to be paid by more than a tiny percentage of Americans who choose to serve their country.

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