One of the hoariest of panaceas is making a comeback. New York Mayor Ed Koch and Ford Foundation president Franklin Thomas, for example, recently joined such people as past Secretary of War and State Elihu Root, the late sociologist Margaret Mead, and former congressman Pete McCloskey in proposing mandatory service for the young.
These would-be social organizers have two major goals. The first is to impose a number of values on the young. Koch speaks of creating a ''spirit of altruism.'' Some talk of inculcating a sense of the ''common good.'' And a century ago Edward Bellamy wrote of teaching the ''habits of obedience, subordination, and devotion to duty.''
The second goal of national-service proponents is to solve society's economic and social problems. For example, the Washington-based Potomac Institute has suggested that national service ''could be an important alternative to unemployment, underemployment, or prolonged schooling.'' Others want to create a large pool of cheap labor to aid education, health services, parks, and even the arts.
The concern of such people over the values learned by the younger generation is understandable, and the desire to enrich the lives of other human beings laudable.
But universal national service is no solution. It won't work, and, indeed, in a free society it should not work.
Compulsory national service would be unlikely to purge the young of ''selfishness,'' or any other disfavored value, since values are more effectively learned than imposed. Compassion cannot be coerced; service ceases to be service once it is involuntary.
The only value national service would teach would be that political might makes right: that those who control the political process can impose their values on everyone else.
Moreover, the cost of such a program would be enormous. The budget outlays alone would be in the tens of billions, and that expense would be dwarfed by the social cost of dislocating the career and educational plans of millions.
Nor would national service solve our problems. Social conscription of the young is no answer to selective youth unemployment. It would be more logical, though equally offensive, to draft all the unemployed, however old. Universal national service would not reduce the cost of providing social services, either; it would merely shift the burden onto America's youth. And forcing a young person who, for example, plans a career in geriatrics to spend two years cleaning bedpans is no bargain.
Even more flawed are the moral underpinnings of national service. Why does simply living create an obligation to spend years doing what someone else thinks is worthy? To the extent that individuals have an obligation to ''do good,'' it is a personal, moral burden, and it should be up to the individual, not the state, to decide the form of service due.
And if service is owed to the government, why are only the young liable for the debt? Fifty-year-old bankers, lawyers, and politicians all benefit from living in the United States. They should be among the first people enrolled in any program.
Finally, what is service? The Potomac Institute says that national service should ''help meet the real economic, social, and educational needs of the nation.'' But young people working in business, psychology, and teaching do precisely that. Such private employment also provides the wealth that people contribute to charity, use to provide for their dependents, and so on. Such private activity is ''service'' to society.
In fact, many national service proponents betray an Orwellian mind-set. In their lexicon servitude is liberty, and liberty servitude. Terrence Cullinan, for example, contends that: ''The United States was founded on a doctrine of freedom for the individual. Yet this very doctrine is a compulsory one.'' Further, they believe that they have been anointed to decide the ''public good, '' who owes service, and in what manner that debt is to be paid. Young people are simply fungible resources for use in ''important'' social projects.
Indeed, the Potomac Institute reported that: ''International comparisons also fire some American imaginations. Millions of young people serve social needs in China as a routine part of growing up.'' Two members of its national service task force traveled to China, and returned ''more determined than before to try to devise a democratic equivalent.''
But there can be no democratic equivalent. In China, the state owns everyone; if our society is to be a free one, it must be built on the opposite premise. Any program of mandatory national service, no matter how well intentioned, would violate the principles and traditions of freedom upon which this nation was founded.