You Belong to Us


In late 2007, Richard Stengel wrote a cover story for Time magazine calling for a massive national service program to be imposed on American young people. If you’d like to read it, knock yourself out. Someone probably needs to smash it, but the avalanche of propaganda and nationalism you’ll find there was too demoralizing for me to attempt it. The very idea that helping someone in your neighborhood should be called "service to the nation" should be spooky and Orwellian enough, but for many people I guess it isn’t.

One thing I couldn’t get out of my head, even though it’s not by any means the weirdest aspect of the program, is Stengel’s proposal for a Cabinet-level Department of National Service. I think it was this piece of advice that struck me the most: "And don’t appoint a gray bureaucrat to this job; make it someone like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Mike Bloomberg, who would capture the imagination of the public."

Translation: the American people, too stupid to engage in government-approved service projects without being prodded by their betters, need a crowd-pleasing Hollywood actor to rouse them to action. Bloomberg, possibly the dullest human being in public life, would be a better choice than Schwarzenegger from my point of view: the American people would barely be able to keep awake through one of his droning appeals.

The issue has become especially important because Democratic nominee Barack Obama has embraced national service as a priority of his presidency should he win. Obama would not directly impose forced labor on young people, but would instead withhold educational funds from them and their institutions if they fail to comply. (Yes, they shouldn’t be taking these funds in the first place, but there is something sinister in Obama’s program all the same.) We should, he says, "set a goal for all American middle and high school students to perform 50 hours of service a year, and for all college students to perform 100 hours of service a year."

That’s not quite Stengel’s proposed year to which morose and resentful young people would be sentenced to "volunteer" against their will, but it’s a start, and federal programs don’t exactly have a record of contracting once they get off the ground.

This is not just an Obama problem; Republican John McCain supports "volunteerism" funded by Washington, and just about everyone believes in the federal government’s power to conscript Americans into the armed forces. One way or another, whether it’s the empire’s welfare or warfare division, they have no compunctions about making you do what they want.

Not that anyone cares, but just where in the Constitution (that some people laughingly pretend limits Washington’s power) is there mention of a power to drive American citizens into involuntary service to the federal government? Kevin Gutzman and I ask the question in our new book, Who Killed the Constitution? The point of our book is not so much to wring our hands over the poor Constitution and dream about how wonderful it would be to return to it (as much of an improvement as that would surely be). The point, as in this example, is to show how government really works, in contrast to the pristine model kids learn in "social studies." Alleged restrictions like the Constitution pose no restraints on government at all, which merely interprets them out of existence. This process is not only fascinating in its own right, but it also speaks volumes about the nature of government, which is why we wrote a book about it.

For example, the Thirteenth Amendment seems clear enough:

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Very simple: there can be no involuntary servitude in the United States except in the case of those convicted of crimes. Right?

Let’s see what happened when the Supreme Court finally took up the issue. Although Chief Justice Roger Taney had written a memorandum on the subject in 1863, dismantling the government’s case for conscription point by point before the future Thirteenth Amendment had even been drafted, it was not until what became known as the Selective Draft Law Cases of 1917 that the Court took up the question formally. The defendants in these cases had refused to present themselves for the draft, enacted by the Conscription Act of 1917, when President Woodrow Wilson called on them to do so. They asserted that the draft law was unconstitutional on various grounds, among them that the Constitution had not given Congress a draft power. Lower courts upheld their convictions.

Chief Justice Edward White’s views on the subject were relatively unsurprising. "As the mind cannot conceive an army without the men to compose it," he wrote, "on the face of the Constitution, the objection that it does not give power to provide for such men would seem to be too frivolous for further notice." So if government has the power to raise armies, it therefore has the power to raise them by any means whatever, including by forcing people to serve. (I guess that falls under the "necessary and proper" clause.)

White pointed to "the almost universal legislation" allowing conscription around the world as evidence against the claim that the U.S. government lacked this power. He provided citations to the draft laws recently in effect in Argentina, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Belgian Empire, Brazil, the Bulgarian monarchy, Bolivia, Colombia, Chile, the Chinese Empire, the Danish monarchy, Ecuador, the French Empire, the Greek monarchy, the German Empire, Guatemala, Honduras, the Italian monarchy, the Japanese Empire, Mexico, the Yugoslav monarchy, the Dutch Empire, Nicaragua, the Norwegian monarchy, Peru, the Portuguese monarchy, the Rumanian monarchy, the Russian Empire, the Siamese monarchy, the Spanish Empire, Switzerland, El Salvador, the Ottoman Empire, Canada, and South Africa. In short, the examples of Asian and European imperial republics (such as France) and monarchies of various stripes, South Africa, Switzerland, the Windsor Dominion of Canada, and a number of Latin American banana republics were marshaled by Chief Justice White to disprove the assertion that Americans were supposed to be free.

Daniel Webster, speaking half a century before the Thirteenth Amendment was added to the Constitution, argued in a memorable speech for the unconstitutionality of the draft:

Is this the real character of our Constitution? No, sir, indeed it is not. The Constitution is libeled. The people of this country have not established for themselves such a fabric of despotism. They have not purchased at a vast expense of their own treasure and their own blood a Magna Carta to be slaves. Where is it written in the Constitution, in what article or section is it contained, that you may take children from their parents, and parents from their children, and compel them to fight the battles of any war in which the folly or the wickedness of government may engage it? Under what concealment has this power lain hidden which now for the first time comes forth, with a tremendous and baleful aspect, to trample down and destroy the dearest rights of personal liberty? Who will show me any Constitutional injunction which makes it the duty of the American people to surrender everything valuable in life, and even life itself, not when the safety of their country and its liberties may demand the sacrifice, but whenever the purposes of an ambitious and mischievous government may require it? Sir, I almost disdain to go to quotations and references to prove that such an abominable doctrine has no foundation in the Constitution of the country. It is enough to know that that instrument was intended as the basis of a free government, and that the power contended for is incompatible with any notion of personal liberty.

That’s not quite what the Supreme Court would say, just over a century later, in the Selective Draft Law Cases. There, the possibility that anyone could describe forced labor in the service of the central state’s military ambitions as involuntary servitude is indignantly dismissed without even the pretense of an argument. That is, unless you consider this an argument: it’s an honor to serve the government, and an honor cannot be involuntary servitude. It is a "supreme and noble duty" to fight what Daniel Webster called "the battles of any war in which the folly or wickedness of government may engage," so we’ll have none of this Thirteenth Amendment nonsense!

Here are Chief Justice White’s exact words:

Finally, as we are unable to conceive upon what theory the exaction by government from the citizen of the performance of his supreme and noble duty of contributing to the defense of the rights and honor of the nation as the result of a war declared by the great representative body of the people can be said to be the imposition of involuntary servitude in violation of the prohibitions of the Thirteenth Amendment, we are constrained to the conclusion that the contention to that effect is refuted by its mere statement.

So Justice White is so appalled by the comparison of conscription to involuntary servitude that he declares, without argument, that it refutes itself. Well, that’s all I need to hear. The defendants must have marched out of the courtroom in shame when they heard that.

As usual, Ron Paul gets to the heart of things: "Young people are not raw material to be employed by the political class on behalf of whatever fashionable political, military, or social cause catches its fancy. In a free society, their lives are not the playthings of government."

No kind of conscription, whether on behalf of the welfare or the warfare sectors of the imperial capital, can be reconciled with freedom. Nor can it be reconciled with the Constitution. But those who govern us laugh with contempt at such arguments. And yet Americans persist in the delusion that they have a Constitution that limits their government. There is something deeply pathological about this. What else can be said?