catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

Should we bring back national service?

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Like many young men of his generation, my Dad had to do national service in the army. I once asked him if he had benefited from the experience. “I learned to type” he said. The youth rebellions of the 1960s, fuelled by an understandable desire not to die in the jungles of Vietnam, put an end to compulsory military service. But the idea has never quite gone away. For most of my life, it’s been conservatives who wanted to bring it back. But more recently social democrats have modified and adopted the idea, so that it covers a wide range of community activities.

A story in today’s SMH reports NSW Young Labor President Sam Dastyari saying:

there were too many young people who were not willing to contribute to society. “It does not mean you would have to do military service or be an army cadet,” he said. “The community service could take many forms, from being an army cadet to helping with chores at the local retirement village. It could be helping community groups or churches or charities.”

A few years ago Labor intellectual Andrew Leigh proposed an incentive-based version of this, with students offered educational assistance in exchange for volunteer work.

It’s no surprise that these ideas are coming from the Labor side of politics. The last 30 years have exposed the limits of income redistribution as a means of making a better society. The apparent decline in social capital hits the poor hardest, undermining community services and depriving them of the social skills and connections that can be used for advancement. This was why Mark Latham pushed the social capital idea. Unlike many Labor MPs, he came from an area hard-hit by the loss of social capital.

But is a compulsory scheme the best way to go about improving social capital? Even forced community work, such as Work for the Dole, can provide short-term benefits. But what we should aim for is on-going community involvement, which extrinsic motivations (such as the threat of punishment) cannot sustain. We need to ensure that there are intrinsic motivations as well, such as a sense of contributing to the community or personal enjoyment. American research suggests that people who do community service at high school are more likely to be still engaged 8 years later if their involvement was voluntary or “strongly encouraged” than if it was compulsory. Providing incentives, as Andrew Leigh suggests, is more likely to provide long-term advantages than Young Labor’s community conscription.

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Written by Admin

January 6, 2006 at 9:05 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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