"You gotta serve yourself," John Lennon sang. "Nobody gonna do it for you." But if a leading presidential hopeful has his way, we'll all be serving the government before we ever get around to ourselves - although the route to his conscription scheme is a bit roundabout.

Both Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain support some sort of "national service" under which Americans labor in projects approved by politicians. That may mean working in clinics, teaching, or patrolling the border, so long as you set aside personal preferences for, as McCain puts it, "a cause greater than yourself."

Obama devotes a section of his Web site to national service, as does McCain, who also penned a Washington Monthly column in 2001 praising AmeriCorps. McCain and Obama alike praise volunteers, but seem to think that donating your time to a soup kitchen or a church is inferior to participation in a government scheme. Tellingly, Obama was quoted in a 1995 Chicago Reader article saying, "individual actions, individual dreams, are not sufficient. We must unite in collective action, build collective institutions and organizations."

So the two major presidential candidates favor "service" under state control. But does that mean "conscripted" service, with draftees stuffed into hospital scrubs and denim as well as camouflage?

McCain once advocated the draft, though he's dropped the issue since he adopted White House ambitions. His Web site is full of talk of opportunities and incentives - lots of carrot, but no stick. He seems to understand that draft boards are no longer compatible with presidential ambitions.

Obama's scheme looks similar. His proposal specifically refers to "universal 'voluntary' citizen service." But, as Michael Kinsley put it in the pages of Time: "Problem number one with grand schemes for universal voluntary public service is that they can't be both universal and voluntary. If everybody has to do it, then it's not voluntary, is it? And if it's truly up to the individual, then it won't be universal."

Of course, Obama could be playing the usual politician's game with empty words. But he has put forward a detailed plan for national service that, on close inspection, makes it clear that he really does mean "universal." While his plan doesn't closely resemble an old-fashioned draft, it introduces plenty of compulsion.

Obama's plan is "voluntary" in a technical sense - nobody gets arrested for opting out. But non-participants also won't be allowed to graduate from high school, and without those diplomas, life could get a bit rough.

The plan says: "Schools that require service as part of the educational experience create improved learning environments and serve as resources for their communities. The Obama-Biden plan sets a goal for all students to engage in service, with middle and high school students performing 50 hours of service each year ..."

But schools set their own policies, don't they? Well ... sort of.

You see, most public schools depend on federal dollars. And, as Obama elaborated in a speech last December, "At the middle and high school level, we'll make federal assistance conditional on school districts developing service programs, and give schools resources to offer new service opportunities."

Refusal to participate in a national service program touted at the federal level will be punished by withholding high school diplomas. The federal government won't force your kids into government service, it'll be the local schools - but that requirement will be a string attached to federal money. And without that diploma, few colleges or employers will give your kid a second look.

This is a very modern way of imposing federal mandates. The drinking age of 21, for instance, is nominally the choice of each state government.

But the states set the age at 21 as a condition of continuing to receive a full measure of federal highway funds. The same went for the late, unlamented 55-mph speed limit.

State and local agencies could choose to give up the checks from D.C., but they almost never do. And so, violations of federal policies get punished by state and local authorities.

It's a softer sort of authoritarianism which requires no draft boards and produces no martyrs in handcuffs for the evening news. You just can't get a job if you don't do as you're told.

Softer? Well, private schools will still set their own criteria for graduation, as will homeschoolers. At least they will so long as they can resist social pressure to conform to the requirements imposed on public schools.

And 50 hours of service is no tour in the rice paddies. Most people will just roll their eyes and do what it takes to get that diploma.

But make no mistake: Barack Obama wants your kids. And he's willing to draft them, in a very modern way.

J.D. Tuccille of Cornville writes about civil liberties issues for Examiner.com. Read his blog at www.tuccille.com/blog.

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