Service Nation, Part III: Mandatory Community Service is a Basic Assault on Anglo-American Liberty.--

Every year around so-called "tax freedom" day, people talk about moving from working for the government to working for themselves. But this is too glib because it conflates paying taxes with compelled physical labor. There is a big difference, one central to the history of Anglo-American liberty.

Under the medieval system in much of Europe, serfs or peasants owed obligations of actual physical labor (beyond military service) to their political overseers. As English liberties grew, this obligation of physical labor was replaced by the right to pay taxes instead, with the chief exception being obligations of military service for males. Free men were increasingly free to choose their line of work and pay their political overseers with money, rather than owing an obligation of service to whatever physical tasks happened to be thought important or profitable to the upper and the political classes.

Service Nation is an organization devoted to stripping away this bulwark of Anglo-American liberty, hoping by the year 2020 to require every young American man and woman to be drafted into either military or community service.

[4th UPDATE: Service Nation has emphatically stated that it does not favor mandatory service, favoring only voluntary service. My characterization of their goal for 2020 was based mostly on their 13th stated goal, which used to be on their website, but has since been scrubbed: "13. Launch a debate about why and how America should become a nation of universal national service by 2020: debating baby bond, lottery draft, new GI Bill, etc." Their email to me did not explain what they did mean by their 13th goal, but I hope to speak with them next week. Their more immediate goals include passing a National Service Act in 2009 (which would probably not require universal service).]

But they do not even discuss the Constitutional Amendment that ought to be required before they can mandate community service and take away the hard-won Anglo-American liberty from involuntary servitude. The Constitution gives the Federal Government the power to raise a military, which in the 18th century contemplated an obligation of male citizens to serve in the military. In my opinion, the Constitution does not give the Federal Government the power to compel community service.

Let's hope that the Supreme Court would not permit Service Nation's move backwards to a more feudal relationship between ordinary people and the people who govern them. One senses that de Toqueville understood American values of volunteerism and freedom of association much better than the people behind Service Nation, an understanding that was also concerned about the tyranny of the majority.

UPDATE: Service Nation's coordinator, Alan Khazei, argues that doing community service turns on one's "'justice nerve. . . . And once a justice nerve is turned on, it rarely goes off."

It seems to me that, if it really turned on one's justice nerve, one would have a good enough sense of justice to oppose Service Nation's unjust goal of state-mandated public service. I wonder whether instead forced community service would tend to turn on one's "collectivist nerve."

2d UPDATE: Comments below helpfully point to Butler v. Perry (1914), in which the Supreme Court upheld a Florida statute that required EITHER 6 days of labor a year on local roads OR the provision of an able-bodied substitute OR the payment of $3 to the road repair fund.

Although the statute allowed the payment of a tax to avoid service (which made service not mandatory), from reading the case my guess is that the Court would probably have upheld the statute even if it were truly mandatory.

Whether requiring a full year, rather than 6 days a year, would be allowed and whether one could expand services beyond road building duties is unclear.


1. Philip Hamburger points out that the federal government is one of enumerated powers, while the states have more general powers. This wouldn't affect the involuntary servitude argument, but it would affect whether the Constitution gives the Federal Government power to compel participation in an "army" of domestic service workers several times larger than the US military.

2. Ann Althouse comments:

Service Nation. It sounds like the title of a dystopian novel.

You'd think before naming your movement, you'd check the etymology of your key word:


ETYMOLOGY: Middle English, from Old French, from Latin servitium, slavery, from servus, slave.

But as Lindgren notes, one man's "justice nerve" is another man's "collectivist nerve." Something might sound so right to you, that you don't even notice how it sounds to others.

3. I came across these quotations from De Toqueville:

a. Every central government worships uniformity: uniformity relieves it from inquiry into an infinity of details.

b. Democracy extends the sphere of individual freedom, socialism restricts it. Democracy attaches all possible value to each man; socialism makes each man a mere agent, a mere number. Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word: equality. But notice the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude.

I very much doubt that the highest and best use of ALMOST EVERY American for a year of his or her life is to spend it in a government program.

4th UPDATE: See the 4th UPDATE embedded in text above.]