In 2007, the Conservative Party leader David Cameron suggested offering school leavers £500 to take part in a six-week programme of charity work and outdoor activities. He hoped such a scheme would take its participants "out of their comfort zones". He has not mentioned the idea lately, probably because it looks like a frivolous way of further increasing government debt.
Yet the idea lives on. Now the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, has suggested the same thing, though in a form adapted to these economic times and to his temperament — that is, he made it unpaid and compulsory. Teenagers will be required to do 50 hours of community work as part of their school curriculum. Newspapers described the idea as "compulsory voluntary work", without the ironic tone that you might expect if they had noticed that the concept is nonsensical. To be fair to Brown, he did not himself describe his proposal as compulsory voluntary work. Instead, he claimed that it is to give all teenagers the "opportunity" to contribute to the community. Which is almost as absurd.
Brown is giving teenagers no opportunity that they do not already have. If teenagers want to pick up rubbish in parks or read to the blind, nothing prevents them — apart from red tape. Most do not do community work simply because they do not want to. You do not give someone an opportunity when you compel her to do something. You rob her of the opportunity of doing anything else. Brown must understand this. He would disagree with a rapist who claimed that by forcing himself upon a woman he was merely giving her an opportunity for sex.
The obfuscatory language used to describe this proposal is unsurprising. The plain English word for forced labour is slavery. Brown would not want to say that he plans to enslave teenagers for 50 hours. Yet that is precisely what he plans.
He may think that this is good for those who will receive the teenagers' services free of charge and good for the moral fibre of the teenagers themselves. But that does not stop it being slavery. An 18th-century cotton plantation owner might have argued with equal plausibility that enslaving Africans to work in his fields was good all round — good for those who could buy cheaper cotton and good for the slaves, who received the moral advantages of living in a Christian society.
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