I suppose if a fellow could join the Hitler Youth and-ah den become-ah da Pope, or if a fellow could join the SS and then become the president of Austria, or if a guy could sort of forget to mention joining the SS and then become Günter Grass, then there's no reason to carp about a national service plan right here in the Peoples Republic of United Statesistan. "Everyone was doing it." "I had no choice."
This plan came to my attention via Nicholas Beaudrot at Ezra Klein's place, who concisely notes that such plans are incoherent mashes of populopatriotic national boosterism that take for granted the premise that a bunch of 18-year-olds cleaning highway berms and sponge-bathing the elderly because THEY MUST will produce a genreation of better--read "more compliant"--citizens. After suitably mocking this silliness, Beaudrot inexplicably offers a tentative endorsement: "But it seems like it's worth considering." But didn't you just say it's not worth considering? Well, qu'est-ce qu'on peut faire alors ?
The first comment is so priceless that I'll quote its entirety:
Properly structured to get impressionable young people out of their homogenized, sanitized suburbs or out of their hopeless ghetto slums, as the case might be, such programs might actually do some significant good. It is not as if American high schools are doing much with the time of these kids."Homogenized, sanitized suburbs!" "Hopeless ghetto slums!" Oh, we are in for a wild ride indeed. Their home lives miserable and their mandatory education having failed to inculcate a sufficiently Democratic Ask-Not-What-Your-Country-Can-Do-For-You-ism, let us put them to work! Lest they join a "criminal youth gang."
I, personally, would not sneer too much at social engineering. A little social engineering to address the problems, say, which are being entrepreneurially addressed by criminal youth gangs, for example, makes a lot of more sense than building more and more prisons.
And, I am concerned enough about the rise of authoritarians in politics, to wonder if a program that got people out of the narrow confines of their youth might not be good, overall, for the country.
It seems to me that this comment addresses unintentionally the basic category confusions of the nominal American left. Concerned about the rise of authoritarianims? Why, mandatory national service should do the trick!
Meanwhile, one of the great merits of Western prosperity over the last few centuries was to allow for the re-creation of a reasonable period of youth, something which the grimmer period between antiquity and modernity had largely obliterated. My own "narrow confines" involved exploration, friendship, a little trouble, a lot of fun. I read books, made goofy movies with my friends, played some sports, wandered in the woods of Western Pennsylvania, imagined conspiracies of local personalities, hung out in coffee shops, smoked some pot, learned to change a tire, mastered a few video games, rode some roller coasters, and worked just enough to make some extra spending money. Granted I grew up in neither a hopeless suburb nor a sanitized ghetto--or have I reversed those?--but I'm tempted to say that a little leisure while one awaits adulthood is salutary. Life's purpose is not love of country, whatever anyone tells you, and to spend a few years in splendid dissipation would in a just world be one of the universal rights of man.