09 July 2008

More on Voluntary Required Servitude

Some thoughts on the matter from Stephen Bainbridge to be found here:

To paraphrase Jonah, it’s funny that, when the right seeks to use the schools to impose its values, the left screams about brainwashing and propaganda. When the left tries to use the schools to do so, the right thunders about social engineering.

Personally, I think they’re both wrong. The moral argument against the draft has been well established:

The draft is a form of slavery. There is no way around it. Compelling a person to work for the state is involuntary servitude. ... Conscription is slavery, and if it returns, any arguments over whether America is a free country become obsolete. No nation is free when its government seizes not just the products, but the very means, of labor from its young.

Conscripting young people to do public service is just as much a form of slavery as conscripting them to go and fight in a war. Too many people on the left like one; to many people on the right like the other; a plague on both their houses, I say.

He is completely right about the equivalent nature of military and civilian servitude. They are equally repellent, and any thoughts to the contrary are just slapdash ends-justifying-means errors.

However, I disagree with Bainbridge slightly about linking college subsidies to service. Bainbridge thinks that if ROTC counts, so should other programs. I don't feel like getting into it, but I will say that (1) plenty of people who are not me think that ROTC shouldn't have such status, so let's not take ROTC to be axiomatically good, and (2) we have one clearly defined organization (the armed forces) which has special status. I am afraid of the inevitable creep that will come when we open up ROTC-like benefits to the SPCA, then PETA, then Greenpeace, and eventually Moonbeam's Save the Animals Bongo Circle and Starlight Groove-in.

I have not read details lately about McCain's national service plans, although my intuition tells me that his particular vision of "National Greatness" would cook up something truly abhorent. Let's leave that on the table and move on.

Obama's specific plan is for $4,000 dollars in tuition credit to college students in exchange for 100 hours of service annually. This is equivalent to the taxpayers of America giving Joe College a $40/hour job to do ... something servicey. Something servicey, moreover, that they have no control over. Much like we've done with health care, we've separated the consumer (the service organization), the producer (Joe College), the decision maker (the Bureau of Community Service) and the guy footing the bill (Tina Q. Taxpayer) as far as possible from one another, and disposed of the best signal we have for efficiently allocating resources. Recipe for disaster, that. Or at minimum, a recipe for profligate waste.

Because Joe College's labor is almost certainly not worth $40/hr (if it was, he would be able to sell it at or above this rate already) this a textbook loss-producing wealth transfer program. Absolutely textbook. The exact opposite of my supposedly crass and greedy, profit-generating tutoring job, and a yet provable net-loss for society. But a politically popular loss, so onward we charge in the wrong direction, fast as our little ballots can carry us.


  1. Mandatory volunteer work. Oxymoron, anyone? There's much proof that if you make people do what they would do on their own, less of it gets done.

  2. I'm not a hundred percent sure about this Joe College scenario.

    Precisely, I'm not a hundred percent sure that it's a provable net-loss. It's true that the $4000 doesn't get immediately reinvested--Joe College doesn't graduate and suddenly haver $8000 to hand back to the taxpayers.

    But if all of those radio commercials that tell me that people with degrees are likely to make more money than people without them are to be believed, then we, as taxpayers, actually could expect to see a kind of a return on our investment, as Joe College will be able to assume a proportionately larger share of the tax burden and, presumably, become more economically successful as a result of his education.

    Of course, this is assuming he doesn't get a degree in English, or something.

    Even then, there's arguments to be made that there are tangible benefits that are not monetary, but still quite valuable, in having a voting population with a solid higher education. It's hard to measure whether or not it's a gain or a loss--because the units of measurement are different. (I'm not even sure if there's a good way to measure how "effective" a voter is, in the first place.)

    Looked at like this, a tuition program is really one in which we're saying, "Suzy Taxpayer is investing this money in Joe College, so that five or six or ten years from now he'll be a productive member of society, but we're going to have him do 100 hours of community service to offset the short-term cost of the investment." Presumably by asking him to volunteer for work that Suzy's tax money would otherwise have gone to. The hundred hours isn't really the return; it's like a little rebate.

    I'll admit that you'd have to design a system carefully to prevent it from hemorrhaging money, and to make sure the work is being done where the community needs it, but I'm not sure that this is quite so problematic in principle.

  3. As with anything government, it's just somebody giving away somebody elses money.