Conscription of individuals for civil or military service has been practiced since the dawn of statism, and has expanded to include almost all men since the French Revolution. The practice goes by many names: levying, impressment, national service, call-up, and the draft, to name a few. Though many states no longer use it, relying instead upon professional soldiers that enlist voluntarily, most claim a right to resume conscription if they cannot preserve themselves or achieve their foreign policy goals otherwise. This policy is controversial on religious, political, and philosophical grounds. Libertarians object to conscription as a violation of self-ownership, the root of all libertarian philosophy. As Ayn Rand explains,
“It negates man’s fundamental right—the right to life—and establishes the fundamental principle of statism: that a man’s life belongs to the state, and the state may claim it by compelling him to sacrifice it in battle.”
According to Ron Paul,
“Conscription is wrongly associated with patriotism, when it really represents slavery and involuntary servitude.”
The philosophical libertarian case against conscription is beyond reproach, but the perverse nature of statist systems of governance can make almost any deontologically indefensible policy into a useful strategy for libertarians. Let us see how conscription can backfire on the states that make use of it, and thus why one might agree with statists for the wrong reasons.
By forcing people to engage in an activity, the state provokes feelings of resentment and rebellion. With regard to conscription, this has a variety of effects that undermine the state. First, conscription fuels anti-war movements. Look at the unrest in America during the Vietnam War. Resistance to the draft played a major part in the protest movement, as people burned draft cards, evaded conscription by fleeing to Canada, and attacked draft board offices. Similar examples go all the way back to the time of Hammurabi (r. 1791–1750 BC), when people avoided ilkum (the ancient Babylonian conscription system) by hiring substitutes to fight in their stead, leaving town, or selling property that had ilkum obligations attached to its ownership. These behaviors were outlawed by the Code of Hammurabi, but were widely practiced regardless.
When Milton Friedman convinced the Nixon administration to end the draft in 1973, it knocked the bottom out of the anti-war movement, showing it to really be an anti-draft movement. The deep, unpleasant truth here is that many people do not care that the state is prosecuting a murderous war of aggression unless they feel personally inconvenienced by it. Thanks to central banking, fiat currency, and the monetary policies they enable, governments are able to hide the true cost of war from their citizens. Although the post-war recession always comes eventually, many people lack the economic literacy to connect the dots. A sufficiently strong military can keep the enemy from causing damage at home, and anyone who suggests that whatever terrorist attacks do get through are a retaliation for military misadventures overseas can be labeled a kook and run out of polite society by establishment politicians and pundits. But few things will inconvenience the citizenry more than receiving notice that they are to drop everything and report for basic training, after which they will get a one-way ticket to a war zone.
The feelings of resentment toward conscription also have an impact on performance. An unwilling workforce is very inefficient, as they lack the passion and work ethic for work that one enjoys or at least finds voluntarily acceptable. This has the effect of making the state’s forces less capable, which libertarians should seek to do, especially if those forces are deployed in wars of aggression abroad or suppressing dissidents at home. If the state is going to do such things, it is better that they be done by people who do not want to be doing them. They will lack the barbaric enthusiasm necessary to commit the worst atrocities. Some may even sabotage such efforts, raising the cost of imperialist expansion and domestic oppression so that they may become unfeasible.
Speaking of raising costs, conscription increases the number of soldiers, so it necessarily increases the number of future veterans. Since most governments have programs which are designed especially for veterans, to either take care of injuries sustained while in service or help them transition to a civilian life, these programs have to expand to meet the needs of more people. This has a similar effect on the national budget to growing the welfare state, and while libertarians should be trying to do the opposite at face value, any realistic assessment of political reality will find this to be impossible. The more practical strategy is to overload and collapse such programs, and using veterans programs instead of the welfare state for this purpose will be more effective. Welfare parasites are likely to engage in aimless riots if their programs are cut, as they will simply switch to direct theft of resources to fuel their unproductive lifestyle if the indirect theft of the state ceases to supply them. Veterans, on the other hand, will have an ax to grind with the state in particular, as they will feel that the state is in breach of a contract with them after they risked their lives to defend it. As happened with the Bonus Army incident in 1932, this can lead to civil unrest. A large movement of disgruntled former military personnel is one of the most dangerous domestic challenges that a ruling elite can face. Opposing such a movement will contradict their own propaganda and promises about military service. Cutting veterans benefits will turn the youth against serving the state. Using the current state forces to suppress the former state forces has the potential to foment rebellion. There are no good answers for the elite if they cannot keep their promises to military veterans.
On the subject of revolution, the aspect of conscription that undermines the state the most is that it gives training, experience, camaraderie, and organizational skills to potential rivals. This cannot be avoided because the alternative is to have inept conscripts, which defeats the purpose. A famous example of this dynamic is the Mamluks, children who were kidnapped from non-Muslim Iranian and Turkish families to serve as soldiers in Muslim caliphates and sultanates beginning in the 9th century. They became a powerful warrior caste over time, eventually seizing power for themselves in Egypt in 1250, forming the Bahri and Burji dynasties that ruled until 1517. Though modern conscripts are not generally imported slaves or child soldiers, they still have the potential to become the paramilitary wing of a political movement capable of seizing power.
Finally, let us make use of the neoreactionary concept of formalism. This is the idea that in human affairs, official reality should match actual reality, the underlying power dynamics should be brought into the open, and accounting practices should be honest. The actual reality is that any state would conscript its citizens if the alternative were a collapse of the regime and/or conquest by a foreign power. Official reality should therefore refrain from denying this fact, so let us stop the deceit of saying that conscription is abolished.
To conclude, conscription is a terrible policy for any state to implement, full of perverse incentives and rights violations. But because those harm the state while breeding resistance to it, one may agree with statists for the wrong reasons when they advocate for conscription.
- Rand, Ayn (1967). Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. Signet. p. 226.
- Paul, Ron (2003, Jan. 14). “Conscription Is Slavery”. Antiwar.com
- Zinn, Howard (2003). A People’s History of the United States. HarperCollins Publishers. p. 483–501.
- Postgate, J.N. (1992). Early Mesopotamia Society and Economy at the Dawn of History. Routledge. p. 242–43.
- McGregor, Andrew James (2006). A Military History of Modern Egypt: From the Ottoman Conquest to the Ramadan War. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 15.