A New Institution of the Public Good: Mandatory Civil Service

In my last short political thought piece about the public good as a support system for immigrants, I highlighted some great language by John Ralston Saul about public schools. Saul explains public school as a vital inclusive equalizing institution that is more relevant than ever due to modern life. If we needed a new institution to carry out those same vital roles and possibly solve a host of other hard to reach problems, what would it be? I wager it would look like mandatory civil service.

Today we have a largely urban population. Our cities are filled with a highly mobile population, two job families, high divorce levels, single parent families, the return of long hours of work, the loss of community identification, high immigration levels, a new rise in the division between rich and poor and so on and so on. All of these factors mean that the one—if not the only—public structure we have which is capable of reaching out to all citizens in all parts of the country and making them feel part of the extended family of citizenship is the public education system. In the classic sense of the inclusive democracy, those simple bricks and mortar buildings, which we call the public schools, are in fact the one remaining open club house of citizenship. Not only is the public education system and its fundamental structure not old fashioned, it has found a new form of modernity. I would argue that we are more reliant on it today than we were through most of the 20th century. -John Ralston Saul, Address to the Canadian Teacher’s Federation (2001)

To combat the formation of class divisions and to promote the idea of inclusive democracy we likely need to create a mandatory civil service as an extension of our public school system (which is in danger of going private). U.S. politics have become extremely polarized, almost as if we are living in bubbles, so we may benefit from the forced mixing of young people. Conservatives would rub off on liberals and liberals on conservatives. We would have the opportunity to create a new center before we spread too far.

I never thought I’d be outlining this and I’ve encouraged a discussion group of women I know to also pursue it, but the ideas have to become more common place. Whether we adopt one or not, thinking about a civil service and outlining one reinforces that we rely upon, and need to firm up, our equalizing institutions.

A mandatory civil service may also positively impact three of the most pressing and hard to solve problems within our society. The first is the heroin epidemic that gets many people at the critical age range of a civil service program. Young, impoverished Americans succumbing to hard drug addiction are often thought to be in cages and need geographic change to escape. Programming could be designed to give maximum positive impact to the nation’s growing heroin and meth problems.

Second, is the gang problem which is something I do not know of firsthand, being from Boston, but no doubt geographic change and forced mixing of young people at a critical age will make a positive impact where other strategies have failed.

Lastly, is making a dent in America’s startling leadership gap. The recent election season has shown that we are critically short of viable leaders. Programming within a civil service can highlight individuals who show strong leadership abilities and opportunities can be provided so they can advance as public servants. The equalizing nature of a program may fill our leadership gap with much needed diversity.

Civil Service programs previously have been associated with the military and were used as methods to build large trained forces in times of war, but this does not need to be the case. The U.S. is a startlingly large country and currently has a vast network of neglected and crumbling infrastructure that could be the target of civil service. Much of the infrastructure work is labor intensive and cannot be automated. The U.S. is also in need of transformative change to its energy infrastructure to combat climate change. All of these needs could be met and channeled in a way that provides equalizing opportunity for America’s young.

The major classic pro of a mandatory civil service is the promotion of national unity through shared experience and training together. Where in the past, programs have rallied around a threat from another nation, America could rally around the threats of climate change and extreme partisanship. A lot of the labor required to mend American infrastructure will be physical. Military programs create an appreciation for sacrifices, and no doubt young Americans would learn to appreciate the physical sacrifices of hard labor.

A new civil service deal will not be military oriented, but the American military will benefit from an increase in organized and trained individuals. Catching young Americans before they fall at ages where they are far more likely to commit crimes will increase military eligibility. Countless young Americans cannot benefit from the positive life transforming effects of military service due to prior offenses.

High levels of government participation come from civil service programs generated by heightened awareness of issues. Classically, this watches politicians and puts the breaks on military intervention because anyone’s immediate family could be impacted. An infrastructure orientated program would increase participation by tying more Americans to smaller national decisions that have typically attracted less scrutiny. Knowledge of local politics would increase as more communities worked with the civil service department.

Many neglected skills will be taught offering significant equalizing opportunity. Infrastructure work would require vocational technical skills and fill large voids in the American work force. Due to national mixing, young Americans will also migrate to fill these voids in ways that previously saw too much friction and expense. A young person from North Dakota with no local opportunity could find their calling and become a machinist in Georgia. There will be gains to character related skills such as teamwork, responsibility, stress management, initiative and diversity tolerance which are all increasingly deficient in young Americans. Anyone that goes on to college after their civil service will likely be more successful.

Civil Service is equalizing because it exempts no one. The wealthiest and the poorest Americans will have to work side by side and come to understand each other. Urban Americans and rural will have the opportunity to see more of the country and learn each others concerns first hand. The opportunity for all walks of American life to rub off on each other will hopefully generate bi partisan interest in developing a program.

There are classic cons to a mandatory civil service and the number one is the violation of free will. This is true, but few young Americans have enough opportunity to make it worth their while to skip out. Many rebels may find some adventure in it (though I’ve seen some Israeli movies that make it out to be horribly boring and bureaucratic). Wealthy Americans who want their children to work for the family business would likely be happy to have their children cut their teeth elsewhere (at civil service), shedding entitlement, and developing a work ethic before they return. A non military focus with the promotion of inclusion will reduce concerns for violating free will.

Interference with higher education is a concern, but statistics are showing that we are sending young people to college unprepared for what they are committing to. Too many are also unable to afford higher education while most jobs require education beyond a high school degree. State sponsored education within a civil service program may help everyone.

Safety, which is a concern of military oriented programs, will be less of a concern for a climate change and infrastructure orientated program. The military may also benefit with higher quality recruits that have graduated the civil service program. The American military is in transition to more specialist personnel and capital intensive warfare. Civil service may be a catalyst for significant military transformation while maintaining a pool of organized and trained young Americans to draw from in an emergency.

Not everyone will fit in, even while not being military orientated, but a big percentage require a kick in the pants. Americans are riddled with physical ailments, emotional problems like anxiety and depression, as well as unstable political ideology. It is time to take stock. Many young Americans will rise to the occasion and mandatory civil service could be the cure to numerous ailments. Bi partisan support should not be hard. What heartland American does not want to see a rich kid from Connecticut forced into some manual labor? What coastal progressive does not want to see a rural kid meet their first Muslim, work side by side, and learn they are not too different.

The aim of this article is simply to get you to ponder the idea and hopefully take up a pen and outline it for yourself. What did I overestimate or what did I miss all together? Is civil service more pragmatic than making college free where students exercise their miss guided free will and study for unmarketable degrees? When I discussed this with the group of women I referenced in the beginning, I assumed their children would not benefit, but wondered if they would anti them up to help others by rubbing off. The unanimous reply was that all their children would benefit immensely. Straight from their mothers lips, they all need to shed entitlement and gain focus before college. Near no kid out there is on a straight path out of high school through college and straight to a high paying job at Google. Any premier high tech company, no doubt, would want to hire the identified leaders of a few years of mandatory civil service.

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