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Should we have a compulsory national civilian service?

The best blog posts are fashionable. They deal with questions, events, or ideas that are current or topical. This blog post does not do this. It deals with an idea that is very much out of fashion. Indeed, so much out of fashion that I believe it is not given a fair hearing. It is the idea of a compulsory national civilian service.By a compulsory national civilian service, I have in mind the following idea: At the age of eighteen, all citizens are required by law to perform a one-year-long civilian service in return for a subsistence wage. The work that each citizen undertakes will differ, but generally speaking citizens will perform work that, although socially useful, is not well provided by job markets. As an example, let’s consider work in nursing and social care.

There are several sets of considerations that count in favour of the proposal. Let me briefly mention three. First, the proposal would benefit those on the receiving end of the nursing and social care provided. The work provided by these citizens is not well provided by the market and so, in the absence of the introduction of this proposal, many more citizens are left vulnerable and in need of vital nursing and social care.

Second, the proposal would benefit the citizens who perform the civilian service. The point is not that they are likely to enjoy the work. Perhaps they will not; after all, there is often a reason for why these jobs are not provided by the market. The point is that the experience is likely to broaden their horizons, teach them various important life skills, and is likely later to be regarded as a positive, meaningful experience. In short, the experience may end up being liberating and autonomy-enhancing.

Third, the rest of society is likely to benefit from proposal also. The hope is that a compulsory national civilian service will produce better, more civically-engaged citizens who will live in a way that is sensitive to the vulnerabilities and needs of others. Part of the problem with current society is that too many people, and often those with power, have no experience of what it means to be vulnerable. The proposal under consideration would have the effect of attending to this fact. (Similar arguments are made about military service.)

There are several types of objection that could be levelled in response. Let me briefly mention two. The first concedes that the proposal would be beneficial in all the ways described, but it claims that we should resist it on the grounds that it involves the violation of citizens’ rights. In particular, perhaps the proposal amounts to a violation of citizens’ right to free occupational choice?

This does not strike me as a very promising line of reasoning given that it involves only a one-year restriction on citizens’ occupational choice. The restriction on occupational choice sanctioned by this proposal is surely no greater than the restriction on the many citizens facing frequent unemployment or only dull, meaningless work.

The second objection argues that the proposal will fail to meet the ends that it sets itself. There are three versions of this objection, corresponding to the three benefits that the proposal hopes to bring about. The strongest version of this objection claims that the proposal will not benefit those on the receiving end of the nursing and social care provided. This is because those performing the work may be unfit to carry out the work.

This point is valid but it simply forces us to take care when implementing the proposal. In particular, it draws our attention to the need to provide proper training, and to select work that can appropriately be carried out by those on civilian service. There are many other complications that must be taken into account, but none of these challenge the attractiveness of the idea of a compulsory national civilian service as such. They are problems that we must attend to when it comes to implementation.

Tom Parr

Tom is a Lecturer in Political Theory at the University of Essex. He is interested in all areas of value theory, as well as playing darts and drinking Carling.



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  1. Tom, interesting topic! Can you say a bit more about the notion of freedom you presuppose in your post? You talk about autonomy, and about occupational choice, and it sounds like you have a preference for the former as a normative principle (without giving up the latter as a valuable principle). The reason why I am raising this question is the following: if such a service enhances autonomy, why don’t people choose it for themselves? In fact, many do, in Germany we now have a state-run scheme for people of all ages who want to do a year of voluntary service. My sense is that you have to say more about the reasons for making this service obligatory, rather than a) leaving it completely up to people’s choice, or b) nudge them towards it, which might be another option. I have some ideas about possible answers, but I’d be interested to hear yours!

  2. Thanks Lisa. I suppose my answer is two-fold. First, if the proposal was voluntary then there is a risk that it would fail to secure the first benefit. That is, perhaps it would not do such a good job at meeting the social and nursing needs of vulnerable people. This is because (i) there may be fewer people taking part (because it is not compulsory), and (ii) people may simply refuse to do the most socially useful work if that work turns out not to be work that they expect to enjoy. Thus, in so far as our concern is with the first benefit, compulsion looks to be an attractive route.

    Second, I'm not convinced that people tend to act in autonomy-enhancing ways and so, sometimes, it is necessary to compel them to act in autonomy-enhancing ways. This provides one explanation for why we force people to go to school, even though it is autonomy-enhancing. My more general thought is that many people have very illiberal upbringings; parents, friends, and culture several limit peoples horizons. This is one mechanism that can be used to fight against this.

    What are your thoughts on the matter, Lisa?

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  4. Anca, I agree that a strong justification for the proposal comes from citizens' right to sufficient care. This tracks the first benefit of the proposal. (Here, I follow ch. 3 of Fabre's Whose Body Is It Anyway?)

    I'm afraid, though, that I don't see the force of your second point. I am tempted to say that the proposal may well indeed be on a par with forced labour, but I don't see that as in itself a decisive objection. Just as we require citizens to pay tax, so too we can require citizens to labour. If you think that the two cases are very different, then we need a plausible explanation of why this is so. I'm not sure that they are so different, and for that reason I'm more than happy with the conclusion that the state should support forced labour under certain conditions. What do you make of this, Anca?

  5. It's a shame this is a neglected topic, if it is, Tom! I find it very important and I agree there ought to be such a service. But I think that the strongest justification of the service must point to citizen's right to (sufficient) care. Several people working on the ethics of care think there is such a right (for instance, because without some care the young cannot become gents, and adults cannot achieve and keep autonomy.) And Diemut Bubeck has defended precisely this kind of service some 20 years ago. (And Ingrid Robeys more recently, I think.)

    If you don't believe that justice demands that we all get (sufficient) care, I don't see how you can avoid the objection that such a service would be on a par with forced labour. That it only takes one year of people's lives is little consolation, isn't it?

  6. I don't see the 'forced labour' criticism as convincing either, for the same reason as you and Cecile Fabre. But you mention, in your post, that critics of the proposal could think that it 'amounts to a violation of citizens' right to free occupational choice'. Saying 'it's only one year of their lives' doesn't quiet the objection – rather one must show that citizens don't have an unqualified right to free occupational choice in the first place. And this will be very contentious, although, as it happens, you and I will not disagree.

  7. Very quickly on this point, I wondered, Tom, whether you could strengthen your position by highlighting that the civilian service requirement will fall, in a sense, 'evenly across a population'. So, one thought about voting age restrictions is that although they deprive a certain group of a vote, they do so in a way that affects each life in a roughly similar way over time. We might say something similar about your proposal – although it will restrict opportunities in some sense, the restriction will affect a population in a roughly similar way over time. There is no unequal treatment involved in it.

  8. Hi Tom, well the first point you make sounds plausible, but in the end it is an empirical one about the relative numbers (One might also ask whether there could be an *over*supply of people from a mandatory civil service, which would crowd out regular employment in these areas, but that's largely a question of how such a scheme would be designed…).
    On the second point: this is basically a paternalistic argument, but one which I would maybe endorse, because it is autonomy-enhancing paternalism. (And as it's impossible to judge from the state's perspective who "needs" this autonomy-enhancing experience and who doesn't, the only way in which you could put this into practice is to make it mandatory for everyone).
    There could be a certain tension between this autonomy argument and the justice argument (providing care that others have a right to receive). If it's about autonomy, it should happen early in people's lives, and there should be no way out of it. If it is about providing care that is called for by justice, you could also allow for people doing it later in life (say at some point before they reach retirement age), and you might even consider the possibility of buying oneself out of it, at a fair price.
    Let me throw in another point: someone might say: there are *so* many people in the worldwide labor force who would be eager to do carework in Western societies (and lets assume, maybe counterfactually, that this could be done with a fair wage and fair conditions, e.g. allowing them to bring over family members). Why not give these job to these people, and have others find themselves productive jobs in other parts of the economy? There are various ways how you could respond to this proposal (at various levels of ideal/non-ideal), one of which would be to emphasize autonomy again…

  9. Thanks, Lisa. I'm not sure that I agree that there is any 'tension' between the two mentioned arguments in support of the proposal. Isn't it simply that they each yield a set of reasons that should have some force in our final evaluation of the policy? To say that there is a tension misleadingly implies that we have to give something up when we favour any given version of the proposal.

    On the other points: Yes, as you say, I think we are in agreement.

  10. Thanks, both. Andrew's suggestion is helpful. I take it, though, that there would still be something objectionable about a state that conscripted it citizens to work in certain jobs for thirty years, even if this requirement fell evenly across the entire population. The thought is that the requirements of the proposal may be thought to render it impermissible even if it falls on everyone.

    Thanks, Anca. As you say, my argument relies upon the rejection of an unqualified right to freedom of occupational choice. I'm not at all worried by this fact as I think that its plainly true. Like you say, perhaps there is no disagreement here.

  11. Hi Tom, I think you bring up a topic that is indeed overlooked but has recently made an indirect appearance in some of the literature on solidarity coming more from a radical participative democratic approach. Here the idea is that solidarity can only be built on a participative praxis and no longer on any essential fixed idea of identity, values etc. If this one-year civil service were to be a required part of secondary school, a form of internship, in which perhaps several different parts of civil society were explored, such as government, prisons etc in order to better learn more about all the different parts of society function, etc, it could be justified as politically necessary for solidarity formation.

  12. Andrew, I'm not sure it does fall 'evenly across a population' since only current and future 18 year old's will be affected by it and everyone older than that will skip the required service. There's also a democratic problem in that the people making the decision (older than 18) are not affected by it, and those affected (18 and younger) don't get a say.

  13. Tom, I'm fairly sympathetic to the idea but since you want to make it obligatory I wonder what punishment you envisage for young people who don't want to do it? Are you thinking of prison, fines, or even reduced civic rights (as in Starship Troopers)?

  14. Tom, yes, I did not mean that it would stand alone; only that you could strengthen the your position with it.

    Bruno, I perhaps should have laid a little more stress on the 'over time' part of my point. That is, the idea that a population group over their lives will be similarly affected. Only a currently post-18 generation would not feel this affect, but I imagine we could tinker with the policy to accommodate for that, through, e.g., transition periods and compensation mechanisms.

  15. Well, there could be a tension in the sense that what justice requires and what best enhances autonomy (or solidarity, which Anya mentions below, and which is a third value) might not be identical. One example might be that in order to best enhance autonomy and solidarity, you might want to have a rotating scheme in which those who do this service spend their time in different jobs, seeing different parts of society and being exposed to different forms of experiences (3 months in a prison, 3 months care of the elderly, 3 months childcare, 3 months cleaning up parks?). For the sake of justice, however, it might be best to have people stay in jobs longer because that might be better for those who have claims of justice (for example because having new people come in every three months is too stressful for them). So one would have to need into more detail (what exactly do you mean by autonomy? What exactly are the claims of justice?) and then look at the empirical conditions for thinking about how best to design such a service.

  16. It's a good point Bruno, but it is also worth stressing that (if it is a problem at all) it is no more a problem for this policy than for any policy that affects those under the age of 18, which I take it is almost any law.

  17. Thanks for the comment, Anya. I think this further supports my claims about how the proposal is likely to benefit society through its production of better, more civically-engaged citizens.

    More generally, I am quite surprised at how uncontroversial the rest of the bloggers on here have found this proposal. I expected to have to deal with much greater resistance!

  18. Well just for the record let me note that I think I am not yet entirely convinced 🙂
    The claims-of-justice-argument only works if you can show that there are no other (maybe even better) ways of meeting these claims. My favorite option would be to facilitate such a service for those who want to take it, maybe even to nudge them via an opt-out system, or provide incentives (for example it could give you additional "points" when you apply for universities or specific programs). This would not only increase overall freedom in comparison to a mandatory system, it would maybe also lead to a self-selection process in which those who are completely unsuited for such a service, and would maybe do more harm than good to those they are supposed to serve, would opt out. I'd have to hear more arguments about why this solution is inferior to a mandatory year of service.

  19. Tom, allow me to add a little to Lisa’s point here. Broadly I am quite sympathetic to your ideas and I guess many people will see the benefits to the proposal, hence the lack of stark opposition. But it might be that the real devil lies in the detail, particularly in terms of why *this* proposal, not others. One thought that occurred to me was the two-birds principle. A common expression of this principle in economics is that it is a mistake to try to address a number of different problems with the same policy, because it is rare to find policies that match up nicely with the different ends in mind. Lisa mentions above that the civilian service approach might have over-supply problems (presumably, it may also have over-demand problems – still not enough people to fill the necessary spaces). There is also the possibility that, rather than benefiting those who undertake it (either experientially or in terms of their views), it will alienate them from these issues (e.g., because they have been ‘forced’ to respond to them in certain kinds of, perhaps unenjoyable, ways). Perhaps, following the two-birds principle, it will not have over-supply or over-demand problems at the expense of alienating people, whereas operationalising it in a non-alienating way would result in the over-supply/over-demand problems. Whereas, it is plausible to think there may be alternatives on both accounts – responding to issue one in your proposal with government subsidies (presumably no more costly or perfectionist than your own proposal) and responding to issues two and three with better conducted citizenship classes. (None of which would incur the objection that they interfere with occupational choice, no matter how slight this objection.) In a way, an obvious reply to all the above is to say that it rests on the likely consequences of each proposal, which is an empirical question, but it is not clear whether that response is totally open to you insofar as some of the burden of proof on it seems to lie with you. So, perhaps I can put to you the following: do you think there are solid grounds for believing your suggestion for meeting these ends will be preferable to many other proposals for meeting them?

  20. Thanks, Lisa and Andrew. You both make good points, and given the technical and empirical nature of the questions, I have no adequate response. I should add, though, that the virtue of the proposal as I describe it is that it seems (perhaps better than other, similar proposals) to do a good job at meeting all three ends. An optional system would seem to score much less highly with respect to the second two benefits, and I am fairly sceptical about efficacy of other measures (such as citizenship classes) to meet these ends.

    More generally, Andrew, it seems that we designing institutions we have to take into account the relevance of multiple factors. To focus single-mindedly on the achievement of one goal is surely short-sighted and enhances the risk that we'll fail to spot Pareto-optimal proposals.

  21. This is something that I've not thought about, Bruno. I have to say, though, that I like the idea of denying the vote to anyone who refuses to conform.

  22. Isn’t that a bit dangerous? Some people might have time-inconsistent preferences (or not genuine interest in voting at all) and see this as a convenient way to buy themselves out. Which would leave you with a growing part of the population that isn’t allowed to vote….

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