Destroying Freedom to Protect Freedom

The ultimate issue for those who advocate government programs that involve the initiation of force is: Are you personally willing to support the government’s killing of those people who choose to violently resist when the government initiates force against them?

In his endorsement of mandatory military service for the American people, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, while touching on the issue of coercion, does not directly confront that central issue. So permit me to address the critical question to him directly.

Let’s assume that the Cato Institute has just hired an 18-year-old intern named Stephanie Jones, a young woman who is passionately committed to libertarianism. A couple of months after she’s hired, Stephanie receives a notice from the Department of Defense saying that she’ll have to resign her position at Cato to fulfill her mandatory commitment to the U.S. military.

Stephanie politely refuses, saying that as a free person she has decided to stay at Cato, not because she has any conscientious objection to serving in the military but simply because she doesn’t want to. She prefers staying at Cato serving the cause of freedom. Oh, one more thing: As the proud owner of an AR-15, Stephanie announces that she intends to resist with all the force necessary if anyone from the government tries to take her away to work for the military.

A team of well-armed U.S. Marshals and U.S. soldiers is dispatched to take her into custody. When they enter onto her property, she fires at them.

So the big question arises for Gobry. Does he say, “Shoot her!” or does he say that the gendarmes should just retreat and leave her alone? If he says that Stephanie should be left free (and alive) to make her own choice, then what purpose does his mandatory military service law serve?

It’s interesting that Gobry compares his mandatory military service idea to public (i.e., government) schooling. He makes the shocking suggestion that “it’s legitimate for the state to mandate children to be educated for approximately twelve years of their life.” He says that “few libertarians have a problem with the idea that it should be mandatory to educate children” and that “supporting mandatory schooling is hardly libertarian heresy.”

Is he kidding? What libertarians is he hanging out with? With the exception of the military itself, it would be difficult to find a better example of a socialistic program than government schooling, especially considering its top-down central-planning system, its funding by taxation, its government-approved textbooks and curricula, its government schoolteachers, and its compulsory-attendance laws. In fact, government schooling can easily be considered “army-lite,” given how both systems are committed to inculcating people with a mindset of obedience, conformity, and deference to authority.

Is Gobry really telling us that educational socialism is consistent with libertarian principles? I would respectfully refer him to Sheldon Richman’s great book, Separating School & State: How to Liberate America’s Families, along with all the articles on education that The Future of Freedom Foundation has published since its inception in 1989, all of which correctly hold that compulsory education is, to use Gobry’s term, as “heretical” to libertarianism as, say, compulsory religion is.

Given Gobry’s belief in educational socialism, however, another question naturally arises: Why not mandatory educational service at the state and local level? After all, doesn’t he say that education is as important and beneficial to a society as military service is? Under his reasoning, why shouldn’t the state governments and local governments wield the legal authority to force everyone to undergo mandatory education service as teachers, principals, janitors, clerks, librarians, bus drivers, or teachers’ aides?

Gobry spends a large part of his essay arguing the importance and benefits of military service. But that’s not the critical issue. We can concede his arguments in favor of military service. The real issues, however, are whether people should be forced to work in government programs no matter how their important and beneficial they are, and whether a society can be considered truly free when people are forced to do so.

For anyone who places a high value on freedom, there can be only one answer: Freedom entails the right of one to live his life any way he chooses so long as he doesn’t forcibly or fraudulently interfere with the right of other people to do the same. If people aren’t free to make their own peaceful choices in life, then there is no way that that they can be considered genuinely free.

Thus Cato’s 18-year-old intern, Stephanie Jones, has the moral right to say no when the military comes calling, regardless of her reasons, just as others have the right to say yes. That’s what freedom is ultimately all about. Neither the military nor Gobry has the moral authority to kill Stephanie for refusing to work for the military and instead choosing to remain employed at Cato.

The issue of mandatory military service — or, for that matter, mandatory service of any kind — ultimately involves the issue of sovereignty. Either the individual is sovereign over his life or the state is. Under what moral authority does a government seize a free person and compel him to serve the government or to serve others? How can people living in a society in which the state wields that sort of sovereignty over them be considered truly free? Indeed, isn’t that what slavery is all about — the legal authority of some to force others to serve them?

Throughout his piece, Gobry exudes a lack of faith in free men and women. It’s clear that he honestly believes that in a free society, people must be compelled by force to come to the defense of their freedom. You especially see this in his analysis regarding Switzerland. He’s convinced that if the Swiss weren’t forced to join the military, they would never voluntarily come to the defense of their country in the event of an attack.

As an aside, we of course hear that argument all the time from welfare-statists — that the state needs to provide people with their retirement, health care, education, food, and other essentials because free people and a free market simply cannot be trusted to provide them on a voluntary basis.

As Gobry points out, the Swiss have a centuries-old tradition of fiercely opposing invasions of their homeland. The notion that they need to be forced to do so is ridiculous. The problem is that, like Gobry, the Swiss have convinced themselves that they need to be forced to do so. But the truth is that if Switzerland’s mandatory military service laws were repealed today, most Swiss citizens would maintain their fierce allegiance to freedom and independence and be willing to volunteer to defend them in times of peril.

It’s no different with Americans or anyone living in a genuinely free society. If the United States were actually invaded by a foreign army seeking to subjugate the American people, who really doubts that most American men and women would eagerly volunteer to defend their homes, their families, their communities, and their country?

In addition to government schooling, Gobry points to two other examples of government coercion to justify his mandatory military-service proposal — taxation and compulsory jury service.

He suggests that since libertarians support at least some level of taxation, they cannot in principle oppose some level of mandatory military service. The problem lies, once again, in his incorrect understanding of libertarianism, a philosophy that is guided by the nonaggression principle — the principle that holds that it is morally wrong to initiate force against another person.

Since taxation at any level necessarily involves the initiation of force against others, it cannot be reconciled with the principles of a free society. Does opposition to taxation necessarily mean that a person is an anarchist, as Gobry says? Of course not. There is no inherent reason that people can’t have a government of limited powers that is voluntarily funded — that is, one whose expenditures are limited to the monies that are voluntarily sent in to the government by people who believe that government is an essential and important institution in society. Of course, the concept of voluntary funding does become a problem for those who lack faith in free men and women.

With respect to mandatory jury service, a simple solution would be to eliminate the coercion and raise the rate of pay from the nominal amount that is paid today to a much higher level, to the point where a sufficiently large number of people from across society are induced to add their names to the jury pool.

Ultimately, the issue of mandatory military service — or mandatory service for anything — involves freedom. Because he’s convinced that free people cannot be trusted to do the right thing, Gobry believes they must be forced to do the right thing. What he fails to recognize is that in forcing people to do the right thing, he destroys the very freedom he claims to want to protect.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • The Libertarian Case for National Military Service by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry

    Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry argues that libertarians ought to support compulsory military service, at least in principle, as a means of defending a free society. While it is true that such service entails compulsion, it is also true that the freest peoples in all of history have relied upon it.

    Compulsory service would have some good public choice effects as well. In particular, it would change the incentives in the decision to go to war: When all must bear the sacrifice, wars will be fewer and less deadly. Finally, Gobry notes that our ancestors commonly bore similar burdens, and we owe them a debt of gratitude – one he believes is best discharged by following in their footsteps.

Response Essays

  • There Is No Libertarian Case for National Military Service by Jason Kuznicki

    In a vehement dissent, Jason Kuznicki argues that the so-called libertarian case for compulsory military service is an illusion. To the ancients, liberty meant something very different, and we should reject their definition, which rests on militarism and compulsion. Our liberty rests on commerce, not on conquest. Taxes are at best a necessary evil, and conscription is always worse than taxation. Moreover, it is not at all apparent how we might settle a debt of gratitude with the past. If we even have one.

  • America Needs Universal Civilian National Service by Zach Maurin

    Zach Maurin argues that what we need now is not universal military service, but universal civilian service. In his proposal, this service will not be legally required, but it will be federally subsidized and available to all who want it. He argues that there are many ways the United States could be made better, and he suggests that civilian service is the way to accomplish these goals, from feeding the hungry, to education, to health care.

The Conversation