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National Service versus America

National Service versus America

4 Mins
March 7, 2013

If you know an unemployed college graduate under 25, Charlie Rangel has a job for him. And if you know an employed one—Rangel has a job for him, too.

And Congressman Rangel has no intention of letting him turn that job down. Because it isn’t actually a “job.”

Rangel, a Democratic representative from New York, is proposing a law that would force every young American to perform two years of national service—potentially even military service—starting by the age of 25. College students could defer service, but only until they graduate or turn 24.

Some of the costs H.R. 748 would impose on young Americans are obvious: It would take away two irreplaceable years of their lives, wasting those years on purposes that may not contribute to their careers or serve their values. It might cause skills they developed at great expense in college to waste away from lack of practice before they can build on them in a first job.

"You may go in screaming and yelling, but when you come out, you salute the flag.”

- Rep. Charlie Rangel

And that’s saying nothing about the physical and psychological harms people can suffer if they’re forced to go into combat—harms Congressman Rangel, who was wounded in the Korean War, knows very well and still wants to impose on unwilling victims. It’s saying nothing about the possibility that you or your child or grandchild might be sent to war and never come back.

But beyond all those obvious costs to young Americans, the bill risks subtler costs to Americans of all ages, even those (like him and me) who are over 25 and would not have to serve.

In 2009 TIME magazine's managing editor Richard Stengel wrote a cover story supporting national service. He later testified on Capitol Hill in support of related legislation.

Rangel thinks this bill would teach patriotism. “You may go in screaming and yelling,” he says, “but when you come out, you salute the flag.” In other words, he hopes that even victims who go in hating what their country is doing to them will come out honoring the government that stole two years of their lives—because they will have been broken to the habit of submission and obedience.

That is the opposite of the way a free society teaches patriotism, and that is the opposite of the kind of patriotism a free society needs.

A free society earns its citizens’ patriotism by protecting their rights. More precisely, a government earns respect, affection, and loyalty by making and enforcing laws under which people can live their lives, exercise their liberty, and pursue their own happiness. In such a society, citizens can see that their government is providing the security they count on—that it’s protecting them from criminals, from foreign enemies, and from anyone who, under the guise of government, would take over their lives (see: Charlie Rangel).

And a free society needs its citizens’ patriotism to protect all its citizens’ rights. In voting, in serving on juries, and in countless other ways, Americans are called upon to stand up for freedom. That means being prepared to say no to authority figures: to incumbent presidents who trample liberty; to prosecutors who accuse innocent people; to police officers who abuse suspects; to legislators who propose unjust laws, and so on. When neither you nor someone especially important to you is an obvious victim, it’s your patriotism, your liberty-loving patriotism, that tells you to stand up for the principles of freedom—because you count on those principles being upheld when it’s your freedom on the line. But this sort of patriotism is incompatible with the kind Charlie Rangel wants young Americans to develop, the kind that salutes even when their own freedom is taken away.

The kind of patriotism that the rising generation embraces will shape the country. If Rangel succeeds in teaching young Americans not to treasure their own freedom, he will have taken not just two years of their liberty, but the future of ours.

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Alexander R. Cohen
About the author:
Alexander R. Cohen
Law / Rights / Governance