Why Mandatory "National Service" Proposals Target the Young:

One of the most interesting (and in my view sinister) aspects of proposals for mandatory "national service" is that they virtually always target only the young, usually 18-21 year olds. This might be understandable if the proposals were limited to military service. But most current proposals (including those by Charles Rangel, John McCain, Bill Buckley, DLC President Bruce Reed [not clear if the organization as a whole endorses his plan] and Rahm Emmanuel noted in my last post), incorporate civilian service as well. When it comes to office work and light menial labor, there are many elderly and middle-aged people who can do the job just as well as 18-21 year olds can, if not better.

Indeed, the moral case for conscripting the elderly for civilian service is arguably stronger than that for drafting the young. Many elderly people are healthy enough to perform nonstrenuous forms of "national service." Unlike the young, the elderly usually won't have to postpone careers, marriage, and educational opportunities to fulfill their forced labor obligations. Moreover, the elderly, to a far greater extent than the young, are beneficiaries of massive government redistributive programs, such as Social Security and Medicare - programs that transfer enormous amounts of wealth from other age groups to themselves. Nonelderly poor people who receive welfare benefits are required to work (or at least be looking for work) under the 1996 welfare reform law; it stands to reason that the elderly (most of whom are far from poor) can be required to work for the vastly larger government benefits that they receive. Middle-aged people are also not obviously inferior candidates for civilian "national service" than the young. I know I could do most kinds of service better today than when I was 18. 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.

Why then the focus on the young? I suspect it is because they are politically weak. Research shows that 18-21 year olds are less likely to vote, less likely to engage in political activism, and have lower political knowledge levels than any other age group (see e.g. - this book). Obviously, they also have less money, make fewer campaign contributions, and are least likely to actually hold positions of power in government. The AARP would crucify any politician who had the temerity to suggest that the elderly be required to do forced labor. Unfortunately, the young lack that kind of power.

At this point, I know some moralists will claim that the young "deserve" any political setbacks they suffer because they don't participate in politics enough. Such arguments overlook the obvious fact that many of the political disadvantages of the poor (e.g. - lack of money, lack of access to political office, lack of experience) are ones that they can't easily offset. 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.