A “Libertarian” Case for Conscription?

There are a number of standard arguments for military conscription. But Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry’s recent essay for Cato Unbound is unusual for claiming that conscription can be justified on libertarian grounds. With the possible exception of strict pacifism, it’s difficult to imagine an ideology more antithetical to conscription than libertarianism.

As it turns out, most of Gobry’s “libertarian” arguments for conscription are fairly conventional rationales for the draft dressed up in libertarian terminology. And the sheep’s clothing doesn’t make the wolves any more convincing than they are in their usual garb.

I. Conscription as a Threat to Liberty.

The most fundamental flaw in Gobry’s argument is that he ignores the extent to which conscription is not just any restriction on liberty but a very severe one. Subjecting millions of people to forced labor and harsh discipline for two to three years or longer is a very high level of coercion. It can be justified, if at all, only by strong evidence that the draft produces some great good that cannot be achieved by less oppressive means. You don’t have to be a libertarian to see this. A great many conservatives and liberals also understand this point, which is one of the reasons why the vast majority of Americans (most of whom are not libertarians) oppose the reintroduction of conscription. Libertarians set a higher value on liberty than adherents of other ideologies, and thus should require an even higher burden of proof before endorsing conscription. Libertarians should be the last people to accept a form of coercion that even most non-libertarians now reject.

Gobry tries to sidestep this issue by comparing conscription to taxation, mandatory jury service, and mandatory education for children, all of which he claims libertarians accept. But taxation and jury service are much less severe impositions than conscription. There is a big difference between having to give up some portion of your income to the government, but otherwise retaining control over your time and your body, and giving government near-total control over your life for years on end. Similarly, there is a big difference between serving on a jury for a week or two (which, as a practical matter, is easy to avoid in most states), and the burdens imposed by conscription. That said, Gobry errs in assuming that libertarians necessarily accept either taxation or mandatory jury service. Most libertarians contend that taxation is either inherently unjust or should be kept strictly limited to low levels that are far less coercive than what exists in the United States today. Many also reject the idea of mandatory jury service, as I do. Juries, like armies, should be manned by volunteers who are paid for their time. If that is infeasible, I am more than willing to live with bench trials.

As for mandatory education for children, there is a big difference between paternalistic impositions on children, who are assumed to be incapable of running their own lives, and similar impositions on adults. Libertarians (and most non-libertarians) would surely reject forcing adults to endure all of the many restrictions on freedom that we accept in the case of children, because of their immaturity. That said, libertarians are highly critical of the present public school system. Most prefer to greatly reduce the role of government mandates in education, and some would privatize schooling completely.

II. Do we Need Conscription to Protect Our Freedom?

Gobry’s most important argument for conscription is that it is necessary to protect “freedom” against both external and internal threats. This simply ignores extensive evidence that volunteer soldiers can defend us against foreign enemies at least as well as conscripts can, most likely better given the higher quality of professional soldiers. Most defense policy specialists and military officers recognize that the switch to an all-volunteer force after 1973 increased the quality of US military personnel. In addition, volunteer armies tend to perform better than draftees because conscription incentivizes governments to waste lives on the battlefield.

As for internal threats, the last several hundred years of history invalidate the traditional argument, reiterated by Gobry, that volunteer armies pose more of a threat to liberty than conscripts do. Established liberal democracies have little to fear from military coups, which usually occur only in newly established democracies or under authoritarian regimes. And in such nations, there is no evidence that coups are less frequent in countries with conscript armies. Russia, Italy, Spain, and numerous Third World nations all had conscription when brutal authoritarians or totalitarians seized power by force. It did nothing to save them.

There may be extreme cases where conscription really is the only way to preserve freedom, for example if it is the only way to raise enough manpower to prevent conquest by a brutal totalitarian state. Gobry cites the case of Switzerland, during the era when it was surrounded by much larger authoritarian powers. But such scenarios are highly unlikely in the modern world, especially for relatively powerful democratic states, such as the US. This is especially true in an era where the role of technology in warfare has increased and wealthy nations can often use technological superiority and personnel quality to offset numerical inferiority.

III. Does Conscription Promote Peace?

Like Charles Rangel, Gobry argues that conscription leads the public to be more opposed to war. But empirical public opinion data refutes this conjecture. People subject to military service are not more likely to oppose war than those who aren’t. And public opinion overall did not become more bellicose in periods after conscription ended in 1918, 1946, and in the early 1970s. Looking internationally, there is little evidence that public opinion in democracies with volunteer armies (e.g. – Canada, Australia, and Britain) is on average more belligerent than those with conscript armies (e.g. – Israel, South Korea, France until 2001).

IV. Conscription as Gratitude.

Gobry also argues that we should accept conscription as a way to express “gratitude” to the nation and our ancestors for protecting our freedom. But our ancestors – most of whom are now dead – cannot possibly benefit from the institution of a system of forced labor in the here and now. As for gratitude to the nation, it is not clear why we owe any to an institution that is ultimately a tool created to serve us. The United States exists for the benefit of its people, not the other way around. At the very least, the argument that debts of gratitude to the nation justify forced labor is highly unlibertarian. It is also ironic that Gobry tries to use Milton Friedman to bolster this part of his case, even though Friedman was one of the leading opponents of conscription, and played a key role in its abolition. As Friedman put it in his book Capitalism and Freedom, “To the free man, the country is the collection of individuals who compose it, not something over and above them… [H]e regards government as a means, an instrumentality, neither a grantor of favors and gifts, nor a master or god to be blindly worshipped and served.”

If we do owe a debt of gratitude to the nation, it is not clear why conscription is necessary to discharge it. Why isn’t it enough that we pay taxes to support the government’s expenses and live as free, productive citizens who contribute to society in various ways? There is no other context where anyone seriously claims that a debt of gratitude can only be repaid by a system of forced labor. For most of us, the greatest debt of gratitude we owe is to our parents. Yet no one claims that parents should have a legal right to compel their adult children to submit to two or three years of forced labor in order to repay that debt.

The “libertarian” case for conscription actually isn’t particularly libertarian at all. More importantly, it also isn’t particularly persuasive.