Has the Time Come to Mandate Universal Service?

Photo above: John F Kennedy meeting with early participants in the Peace Corps, a program of people to people outreach in foreign countries.

Radical Centrism: Remaking Citizenship Part II

In my last post I promised a more detailed follow up on a key idea about rebuilding citizenship in the U.S. — mandatory universal service to country. Some will say it’s easy for me to advocate universal service to country since, of course, as a 71 year old curmudgeon, I’d be exempt from such service. But I did come of age during the days of the draft in the 60’s, and completed my service… (Yes, it was alternate service as a conscientious objector, and that is also why I am advocating for universal, but not necessarily military, service.)

I think it’s fair to say we, as a nation, have lost track of many of the responsibilities of citizenship and particularly the obligation to serve our country.  As the last quarter of the 20th century expired, we went to war with Iraq with an undrafted, professional army; no sacrifice or involvement other than political support was ever required of our citizenry — we even ran sizable deficits so we didn’t have to pay for it!  We believe the time has come to reverse the trend of obligation-free citizenship, and rebuild a new model of citizenship around the notion the everyone needs to do something, at some time in their lives, to help build and sustain our country.

As envisioned, this would be modeled on the draft during WWII and beyond, but would require men and women to serve, and provide a more expansive, comprehensive package of service options. It would also require a few tweaks to what was always seen as reasonable payback for service to country: the GI Bill of benefits to those who honorably complete their service. As updated and modernized to recognize the various contributions that citizens can make to our country, defending our nation with arms would be one — but not the only —way to fulfill the requirement. Our nation is full of needs that taxpayers seem to be wary or unwilling to keep up with: decaying infrastructure, rebuilding blighted neighborhoods, disaster first-responders, veteran medical and counseling services, education paras, elder care and support, parks system needs, etc.  After adoption of the basic concept, programs for screening and accepting draftees for jobs in any of these neglected areas (without competing with better paid private sector jobs) could be developed as part of the universal service program.

Please note that universal service would be a quid pro quo citizen compact with their country. Our country gets two years of near volunteer labor from each citizen; the draftees who complete their service honorably get the benefits of an updated GI Bill that unlocks a tier of government sponsorship and programs that are unavailable to those who do not serve.

Here is an outline of how the program would look for each draftee:

  • Universal registration. As with the draft, each citizen would be required to enroll with the local draft board on their 18th Birthday.
  • Time of service: With deferments for educational advancement, health, family responsibility, etc, the timing of the 2-year service obligation would likely differ between draftees, based upon life circumstances. Most service times would come early in life: between high school and college, after completion of 4 – 8 college years. But theoretically, service could begin any time, perhaps even as a program for the recently retired, particularly for those who never had the opportunity to serve their country.
  • Duration of service: Usually the service period would be two full years, but in the case of military or civilian hazardous service duty, that requirement might be reduced to 18 months.
  • Payment: Like the armed services, Universal Service would be structured as a low-paid corps with reasonable room and board and a basic weekly stipend. Exceptional stipends for service in areas of high expertise, (medical, educational, tecnology) might be worthy of consideration.
  • Privileges of Service: Each draftee would receive physical, mental and job training; a certificate of qualification based on level of achievement; and a post-service access to the GI Bill for education, housing, student and home loans, enhanced medical care, priority access for other government services as needed.

Advantages to our nation of a mandatory service requirement program:

  • Cultural Norming, shared citizenship: A common background of service creates a touchstone of friendships of a lifetime; other shared experiences: an experience with on-the-ground problems and solutions, a pride in citizenship and personal accomplishment, a system of public recognition for extraordinary service.
  • Fairness: No one escapes the service obligation, even if it is deferred at times. Modeled on the armed services, service alternatives would as much as feasible, allow advancement based on merit, and a springboard for future participation in business, community, and civic affairs.
  • On-the-ground experience. Citizen service would help draftees be informed and educated about our activities in foreign countries, and our own national issues with health/welfare, education, disaster and emergency care response, etc. This allows our civic and political conversation to have more informed voices with direct personal experience.
  • An available labor pool to meet national needs. A cheap, idealistic, physically capable labor pool for national defense, improvement to infrastructure, development of our national Park System, first-responders to disaster, diplomatic people-to-people outreach, addressing the real problems of second and third world countries, public safety and education, etc.
  • Healthy redistributive policies for genuine service: A Revitalized “GI Bill” for Our Times” would help redistribute income by earning benefits for service. This would help rebuild the American middle class miracle of the 50’s and 60’s that helped make the U.S. the most powerful economy in the world.

Please note that universal service would be a quid pro quo citizen compact with their country. Our country gets two years of near volunteer labor from each citizen; the draftees who complete their service honorably get the benefits of an updated GI Bill that unlocks a tier of government sponsorship and programs that are unavailable to those who do not serve. Participants would find privileged access to programs like college tuition (low or no interest loans), job training, home and business loans, enhanced unemployment or injury benefits, etc. Existing benefit programs, like social security, medicare and health care would continue to be paid for with direct paycheck withdrawals, but we should examine ways that benefits of those programs could be enhanced or options expanded, by satisfying the Universal Service obligation.

Side Benefit: Defeating the “Nanny State” narrative. Some will point out that we already “give away” some of these privileges for free. What is being suggested here is a differential government response to such “needs,” based on whether the individual has spent their time helping to defend and build our country and our democracy.

There’s a Republican/Libertarian idea — grounded in some factual data — that it is destructive and habit-forming for individuals to get something for nothing without having to earn it. An important corollary is that other people (especially the perceived “undeserving”) getting government help is a major cause of resentment for hard-working Americans. They seem to have lost empathy for what everyone knew coming out of the Great Depression: that hard luck can hit any of us, at any time. In whatever manner benefit programs can be divisive politically, or whatever hazards they carry for individual initiative, New Deal income redistribution policies are strongly correlated to increasing the size and wealth of the American middle class of the 50’s and 60’s (ironically, the era that MAGA seems to be the most focused on).

These same political strains existed during the New Deal, but the genius of FDR and his New Dealers — which led to the brilliant successes of redistribution without undermining individual initiative or inflaming resentment — were the “pay as you go” programs, like Medicare and Social Security, and, on the other hand, an earned benefit for service to country… i.e. military service. So a side benefit of Universal Service Mandate might be to qualify millions of our citizens for programs that advance and rebuild the American middle class in return for their service, universal service, to country — like the GI Bill led to the postwar boom in housing, education, and business formation that was the foundation of the greatest economy in the world.

Disclaimer: I know, I know! Reconstituting the draft and creating the personnel infrastructure to handle these millions of qualified draftees over the expanded service options is no small task. It would, no doubt, have to be phased in administratively, and psychologically to build effectiveness. But we do have a basic model in living memory, and we have a chance to articulate in greater detail what would constitute meaningful service as we go forward. The examples I use in this post should be taken just as suggestions for how such a program might look. They are not intended to shut off debate, but rather to encourage it. Use the “Leave a Comment” button below to join the conversation!


By the way, I have taken to collecting news articles in special curated magazines on the Flipboard program. These are facts and opinions that interest me and which provide some of the statistical rationale (and narrative logic) for the concerns that interest me. It’s fun, and I hope you find it informative to supplement your reading.

Metadada ‘Pocalypse Review is a catch-all magazine and media repository for articles I am writing or have written or support/disagree with my trains of thought.
OK, It’s the Trump Show is my surrender to Trump, Trump Trump all the time. A collection of articles specifically about our current President.

Radical Centrism Review is my search to recover a dynamic center to our politics
Culture: Wars and Pieces is relating books, movies, music and art to the current state of our social and political structure. 
Let me know what you think!  

  1. Simple answer: I totally approve

    Now you try and sell that to the Left. Not going to ever happen

    Would be a tough sell on the Right as well because there isZero sense of community purpose and self sacrifice. I blame that totally on the politicians of both parties who demonize the other side while doling out gifts or promises of gifts to their supporters

    Not about to change because of the gutless feeding the greedy

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    1. I’m publishing to a number of Democratic and Republican Facebook groups, so far with positive replies except on infrastructure. Still, I consider it heartening. I think many people feel the vacuum at the heart of our civic life. I think that’s true of young people as well. So maybe the concept will coalesce in both parties!!!??

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    2. By the way, anything to add or modify about the proposal??

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      Reply

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