It always sounded like a good idea, and now a no greater authority than Prince Harry himself has advocated it – national service!

Here are a smattering of inanities you might hear from national service proponents:

“If we brought back national service, these kids will learn something about discipline and hard work”

“National service would give us a sense of national pride again”

“I was in the army and it was good for my career”

“National service will teach young people new skills toughen them up”

“National service will keep kids out of trouble”

We could take issue with some of that, but that’s not the purpose of this piece.

No, for the single explanation as to why we must resist compulsory national service, let us consult Wikipedia:

“Involuntary servitude is a United States legal and constitutional term for a person laboring against that person’s will to benefit another, under some form of coercion other than the worker’s financial needs”

The thirteenth amendment of the U.S. constitution, prohibiting involuntary servitude, makes an exception for conscription or any other service to the state, but us more civilised Brits need not succumb to such moral inconsistency, for it is inarguable that compulsory national service is involuntary servitude. ‘Compulsory’ implies ‘involuntary’, and ‘service’ is a synonym for ‘servitude’. If it was voluntary, a law compelling national service would be purposeless. Compulsory national service implies that against those who do not sign up, the state will use force.

Now arguments in favour of national service sound a bit stranger:

“Involuntary servitude will teach these kids something about discipline and hard work”

“Involuntary servitude would give us a sense of national pride again”

“I served someone else involuntarily and it was good for my career”

“Involuntary servitude will teach young people new skills and toughen them up”

“Involuntary servitude will keep kids out of trouble”

They are also made moot.

It doesn’t matter how much discipline and hard work you teach, it’s still not OK to threaten people with force.

It doesn’t matter how necessary national pride is, it’s still not OK to threaten people with force.

Even if the result would be good for their careers, It’s still not OK to threaten people with force.

New skills and having a tough constitution are wonderful, but it really is not OK to threaten people with force. Got it?

Modern society should resist compulsory national service. With the prohibition of slavery we took a leap forward, recognising that no matter the practical concerns, every human has the right to be free from compulsion. It mattered little that cotton farmers now had to shell out extra for voluntary labour; slavery was wrong and it had to stop. In the liberal world, rights trump expediency.

Involuntary servitude doesn’t necessarily imply chattel slavery, but it is ethically similar. Employing individuals to pick cotton is not wrong, per se; the only issue arises if someone compels them to under threat of force. In turn, employing individuals to clean streets, build bridges, or any other non-aggressive work that may be implied by national service, is not inherently unethical, but there is a problem when you coerce. Slavery is wrong precisely because of its coerciveness, and it is just as wrong when you call it ‘national service’.

Arguments for national service are mostly practical, seeing the sorry state youth is in and proposing a kick-start in the form of rigorous service for some supposedly noble aim. The diagnosis is personal, that young people suffer a failure of motivation and discipline that can only be rectified by older individuals telling them what to do. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it is productive.

It is involuntary servitude, however, so compulsory national service should be out of the question; no more argument required. No “yeah buts” – you might have the most exalted principles and best intentions, but you do not have the right to impose them on others. Violent imposition is the way of the barbarian.

Harry feels like he benefitted from his time in the military, and that’s good for him, but his folly lies in his lack of proper distinction between voluntary and involuntary. He joined the army freely and willingly. Anyone who has not volunteered is unlikely to embrace the process as much as one who has, and thereby benefit from it. This is corroborated by veterans who complain about ill-motivated and resentful conscripts. We automatically resist that which we have not chosen.

There are less violent ways of fixing the situation, namely repealing interventions that have caused it. Get the young people to work: repeal the minimum wage, child labour laws and compulsory schooling. Relieve the burden on their finances: cut taxes, and stop inflating the money supply. Make studying worthwhile: re-build the student loan system and promote school choice. Get them out of prison: legalise cannabis and other mild drugs. It’s easy, just don’t advocate involuntary servitude.

Nobody is arguing that there aren’t issues with the younger generation, but we must think before we advocate. Knee-jerk reactions to systemic problems never turn out well. If put into effect, this policy would further alienate youth. Let’s hope the powers that be don’t take Prince Harry and his ilk seriously.