A Way to Put the U.S. Back Together Again

(Bloomberg View) -- In South Korea, all qualified young men have to do a term of military service. The same is true in Taiwan and in Israel even women serve. In Germany, military service was mandatory until 2011, and in France until 2001. The U.S. has never made all young people do time in the armed forces, but a few leaders, including Congressman Charles Rangel and Senator Chris Dodd, have supported the idea. This idea deserves serious consideration.

At first glance, national service would seem like a bad fit for the U.S. The country has no nearby enemies that threaten to invade. Also, the U.S. has traditionally had a more-or-less libertarian ethos that views the draft with distaste -- economist and libertarian advocate Milton Friedman called the Vietnam-era military an “army of slaves.”  

But like many libertarian positions of the late 20th century, the condemnation of national service may have been overdone. At a time when the country is riven by deep socioeconomic, racial and political divides, national service might be the best way to stitch the social fabric back together. It also might be a useful way to combat the epidemic of youth joblessness, and even other social problems like opiate use.

First, the national unity argument. Political polarization has reached dangerous levels. Social-media sites such as Facebook and Twitter have devolved into a never-ending battle over identity -- race, gender, sexuality and political party. The 2016 election was the most bitter in memory.

Meanwhile, American culture has bifurcated along socioeconomic lines. Photographer Chris Arnade has traveled across the country documenting how the lives of the poor and working class are almost unthinkable to members of the educated elite. Scholars such as Robert Putnam and Charles Murray have chronicled the profound cultural divergences between the college-educated and the rest. And my Bloomberg View colleague Tyler Cowen has written eloquently about how modern Americans use technology and geography to sort themselves into homogeneous communities.

If these trends continue, American society and politics could stumble deeper into dysfunction. But how to reverse them? I believe that social cohesion requires what I call “integrating institutions” -- shared activities that put people of diverse backgrounds in close contact and force them to cooperate.

The data broadly supports my thesis. Evidence shows that being assigned a college roommate of a different race tends to reduce ethnic divisions. Serving in the military also increases trust across groups. The same forces can be seen at work in U.S. history -- near-universal military service during the Civil War probably helped integrate new immigrants from Ireland and Germany, while World War II erased much of the tensions with Italian and East European immigrants.

It shouldn’t take a catastrophic war to make Americans put aside their differences and embrace diversity. In an era when public schools are increasingly segregated by income and race, national service might be just the institution the country needs to knit itself back together.

National service could also serve a second purpose -- inculcating young adults with a work ethic. Young people in the U.S. are working much less than they did in the 1990s:

Part of this is because of increasing education, but much is due to other causes. When people are out of the workforce, it generally reduces their skills, their work ethic and their attractiveness to future employers, setting them on a more negative life path and reducing the efficiency of the economy.

National service would have a shot at improving both American cultural cohesion and the economy. It might also help young Americans gain a broader perspective on life. So why not do it?

One objection is that for those young people who do study hard, go to college and get jobs early in life, giving up a year to the military or other national service would be wasteful. This is certainly a concern, but if the country is implementing a policy as big and sweeping as universal national service, it would seem pretty easy to make other changes to minimize the waste. For example, national service could replace the final year of high school, with the younger grades increasing the number of class hours to accommodate a condensed curriculum.

There is also the values-based libertarian argument against national service. Isn’t it wrong to force people to do things they don’t want? But this too is easily dealt with, by making national service an opt-out, like high school. If a young American really doesn’t want to do national service, they should be able to get out of it, just like any student can choose to drop out of high school after a certain age. But I predict that relatively few would choose this option, especially if national service became a requirement for a diploma.

For a country threatened by social divisions, complacency and idle youth, universal national service could be just the right medicine.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Noah Smith is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.

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