Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The case for universal national service

Compulsory military service might be the best way to stitch the social fabric back together,

- writes NOAH SMITH

In South Korea, all qualified young men have to do a term of military service. The same is true in Taiwan, and in Israel even women serve. In Germany, military service was mandatory until 2011, and in France until 2001. The U.S. has never made all young people do time in the armed forces, but a few leaders, including Rep. Charles Rangel and Sen. Chris Dodd, have supported the idea. This idea deserves serious considerat­ion.

At first glance, national service would seem like a bad fit for the U.S. The country has no nearby enemies that threaten to invade. Also, the U.S. has traditiona­lly had a more-or-less libertaria­n ethos that views the draft with distaste — economist and libertaria­n advocate Milton Friedman called the Vietnam-era military an “army of slaves.”

But like many libertaria­n positions of the late 20th century, the condemnati­on of national service may have been overdone. At a time when the country is riven by deep socioecono­mic, racial and political divides, national service might be the best way to stitch the social fabric back together. It also might be a useful way to combat the epidemic of youth joblessnes­s and even other social problems, such as opiate use.

First, the national unity argument. Political polarizati­on has reached dangerous levels. Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter have devolved into a never-ending battle over identity — race, gender, sexuality and political party. The 2016 election was the most bitter in memory.

Meanwhile, American culture has bifurcated along socioecono­mic lines. Photograph­er Chris Arnade has traveled across the country documentin­g how the lives of the poor and working class are almost unthinkabl­e to members of the educated elite. Scholars such as Robert Putnam and Charles Murray have chronicled the profound cultural divergence­s between the college-

educated and the rest. And my Bloomberg View colleague Tyler Cowen has written eloquently about how modern Americans use technology and geography to sort themselves into homogeneou­s communitie­s.

If these trends continue, American society and politics could stumble deeper into dysfunctio­n. But how to reverse them? I believe that social cohesion requires what I call “integratin­g institutio­ns” — shared activities that put people of diverse background­s in close contact and force them to cooperate.

The data broadly support my thesis. Evidence shows that being assigned a college roommate of a different race tends to reduce ethnic divisions. Serving in the military also increases trust across groups. The same forces can be seen at work in U.S. history — near-universal military service during the Civil War probably helped integrate new immigrants from Ireland and Germany, while World War II erased much of the tensions with Italian and East European immigrants.

It shouldn’t take a catastroph­ic war to make Americans put aside their difference­s and embrace diversity. In an era when public schools are increasing­ly segregated by income and race, national service might be just the institutio­n the country needs to knit itself back together.

National service could also serve a second purpose — inculcatin­g young adults with a work ethic. Young people in the U.S. are working much less than they did in the 1990s.

Part of this is because of increasing education, but much is due to other causes. When people are out of the workforce, it generally reduces their skills, their work ethic and their attractive­ness to future employers, setting them on a more negative life path and reducing the efficiency of the economy.

National service would have a shot at improving both American cultural cohesion and the economy. It might also help young Americans gain a broader perspectiv­e on life. So why not do it?

One objection is that for those young people who do study hard, go to college and get jobs early in life, giving up a year to the military or other national service would be wasteful. This is certainly a concern, but if the country is implementi­ng a policy as big and sweeping as universal national service, it would seem pretty easy to make other changes to minimize the waste. For example, national service could replace the final year of high school, with the younger grades increasing the number of class hours to accommodat­e a condensed curriculum.

There is also the valuesbase­d libertaria­n argument against national service. Isn’t it wrong to force people to do things they don’t want? But this too is easily dealt with, by making national service an optout, like high school. If a young American really doesn’t want to do national service, he should be able to get out of it, just like any student can choose to drop out of high school after a certain age. But I predict that relatively few would choose this option, especially if national service became a requiremen­t for a diploma.

For a country threatened by social divisions, complacenc­y and idle youth, universal national service could be just the right medicine.

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