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It would be an introduction to the responsibilities of citizenship, a communion with different layers of society and people from different backgrounds, a taste of different paths of life. He might even be rewarded with credits for public college tuition or other federal benefits, just like the GI Bill has done for some veterans in years past.

The devil, as always, is in the wording, like “mandatory” or “government.” To libertarians, to speak of government-mandated service sounds like a greater government imposition on individual freedoms, perhaps even a violation of the 13th Amendment ban on “involuntary servitude.” Some conservatives argue that national service is, in effect, government-paid and government-run social activism, replacing private and denominational charity. Forced service is not service, they argue. The rich would get the desirable jobs, while the poor would get stuck with the bad. The cost would outweigh the benefits to society.

These are serious arguments and there is no doubt that one of the reasons why compulsory service has been relegated to the fringes of the legislative effort.

It is hard to imagine a government imposing sanctions on young people who do not want to do what is essentially volunteer work, unless it is offered as an alternative to compulsory military service, with women now also being responsible. This is unlikely to happen, as Mr Buttigieg acknowledged when he said his proposed national service would be “if not legally compulsory, but certainly a social norm”.

This social norm is absolutely necessary. As American democracy is threatened by a political and ideological chasm that seems to widen day by day, with dialogue rendered almost futile on fundamental issues such as racial justice, the environment, a battered economy and the role of America in the world, the national service debate is really a debate about how we move forward.

“This is a debate about how we are going to solve public problems and what we owe to our country and to others,” wrote EJ Dionne Jr. and Kayla Meltzer Drogosz in a 2003 study on national service for the Brookings Institution. “If we decide that there are no public things to which we are willing to devote part of our time and part of our effort – let alone ‘our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor’ – then we will have quietly abandoned the experience of our nation. in freedom rooted in mutual aid and democratic aspiration. “

In his address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday, Mr. Biden said: “It is time for us to remember that ‘we the people’ are the government. You and me ”, and his call to the American people was“ that we all do our part ”.



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