The State Serves Us, Not the Other Way Around

In his rejoinder entitled “What is Citizenship?” Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry repeats and expands upon his original thesis — that people must be forced to fulfill their duty to serve the state, only this time Gobry emphasizes the concept of citizenship to buttress his argument. With citizenship, he says, come duties and obligations to the state.

Interestingly, Gobry doesn’t explain the specific terms of this obligation. Presumably it is an open-ended construct, one that the state no doubt should have the omnipotent power to decide. If the state decides that four years of military service is satisfactory, so be it. If the state instead decides that a lifetime of service shall be necessary, well, that’s just the way life goes sometimes.

Or maybe the majority decides. Since we live in a representative democracy, why not let Congress make the call? After all, they’re Americans too, right?  What’s wrong with Congress voting on how each citizen shall fulfill his obligation to the state by determining how each person is going to best serve the collective?

It’s good that Gobry has clarified that he is not, in fact, a libertarian, because his two articles now help draw clear distinctions between the way that libertarians think and the way that statists think.

As we can see from Gobry’s two articles and, for that matter, Zach Maurin’s article, “America Needs Universal National Service,” statists see society as a great big bee hive, one in which everyone exists to serve the greater good of the hive. We regular people, needless to say, are the workers. Our duty to the collective is to do what we’re told, stay healthy, produce “growth,” and work for the greater good of the hive.

Libertarians look at society totally differently. We believe that every person has the right to live his life the way he wants, so long as his conduct is peaceful. You exist for your own sake and for the sake of your own happiness, as you yourself perceive it. Thus, so long as a person doesn’t initiate force or fraud against others, he is free to make whatever choices he wants as he proceeds from birth to death, even if those choices meet with the disapproval of everyone else in society. For us, that’s what freedom is all about.

Within the libertarian paradigm, people have their own individual set of values. One might, like Gobry, feel a moral duty to serve the state in some capacity. Another might feel a moral duty to serve God. Another might feel the same way about serving others. Some might not feel any sense of moral duty to serve anyone.

But notice that there is one big difference between the libertarian paradigm and the statist paradigm subscribed to by Gobry: force. Under Gobry’s system, it is legitimate for the state to initiate force — even deadly force — against people who do not share the same concept of duty that he has and who refuse to participate in his concept of duty. Under libertarianism, people have the absolute right to determine and pursue their own values without being interfered with by state gendarmes.

The idea that people should be free to decide moral issues for themselves bothers Gobry because of the so-called free-rider problem. He thinks that a society in which people are free to make the “wrong” choices is one that will inevitably decline.

Oh? Really? In my church, there are many people who make donations on a purely voluntary basis. Some of them are extremely large donations. Some people, I would assume, don’t make any donations at all. I don’t know of one donor who has threatened to withhold his support until everyone has been made to fork over a donation. In fact, the minister doesn’t even make financial support a condition of participating in church services. I’m confident the same applies to all other churches in America.

The same holds true, of course, with any charitable endeavor. People choose to support what’s important to them, even if everyone else is choosing otherwise. Very few people structure their charitable giving based on the so-called free-rider problem.

It is difficult to understand where Gobry draws the line with respect to his concept of state-enforced duty. He obviously thinks that military service is a mandatory duty of citizenship. But what if most other people think that educational or religious service is a much more important duty of a citizen? How does Gobry propose to resolve the problem? Surely he wouldn’t say that he himself should be the final arbiter of what duties come with citizenship, would he?

One can only assume that given his devotion to citizenship and the state that Gobry would say, “Let the majority decide. Let Congress vote on the matter.”

So, let’s say that Congress reaches one of its famous compromises. Every American will now be required to serve two years in the military, another two years in a government-approved church, and another two years in a public school, for a total of six years of national service.

Do you see a problem with that type of system? Libertarians sure do. It destroys the concept of freedom in the pursuit of national service.

Where Gobry goes wrong is with his assumption that the state, not the individual, is sovereign. He forgets that we the people have called the government into existence, not the other way around. Federal officials work for us. They have a duty to serve us. They are our servants. They should be grateful to us for having the privilege of serving us.

Citizenship does not change one iota the fundamental relationship of master and servant between the individual and the state. That relationship’s primary function is to identify those people who have the right to vote, a right that enables people to peacefully change administrations. But the right to vote doesn’t entail the right to enslave others by forcing them to serve the state or anyone else.

Gobry cites Sweden as an example of where “shared values” justify forcing people to serve others within the context of a welfare state. Gobry’s statement about Sweden is revealing:

I am fairly confident that if you were to run opinion polls in Sweden  and ask the citizens of that country whether they would be willing to trade higher economic growth for higher inequality, the vast majority of respondents would say “no.” Swedes have decided that they want to live by a certain set of values, and one of these values is  a relatively strong egalitarianism, and to have the kind of society that they want, it is necessary to have the state redistribute a lot of money.

Notice the phrase I have emphasized — “the vast majority of respondents.” What Gobry is saying is that the commitment to the welfare-state way of life isn’t shared by all Swedes, only a majority of them.

What about the minority — those who have a different set of values, perhaps believing that people should be free to accumulate wealth and decide for themselves what to do with it, as libertarians do?

Gobry says, too bad. People with different values need to be forced to surrender them to the will of the majority.

That’s not the way libertarians see it. We believe in fundamental, God-given, natural rights that preexist government, rights that are immune from the will of the majority. Our philosophy is embodied in the Bill of Rights, which expressly protects fundamental rights from majority rule — and not only for citizens but also non-citizens.

What happens when a person says “no” to mandatory military service, mandatory church service, mandatory educational service, or mandatory welfare-state service?

That’s the question that I originally posed to Gobry, a question that he obviously finds very discomforting given his silence on the matter. But the question of coercion goes to the heart of the statist system and every statist should be made to confront it. So I will repeat it: How about it, Gobry: Should the federal gendarmes kill people who forcibly defend their natural, God-given right to live freely or should they instead walk away and leave them alone. What say ye?

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.

  • Destroying Freedom to Protect Freedom by Jacob Hornberger

    Jacob Hornberger asks what the advocates of compulsory national service would do with determined resisters: Are they prepared to use force? If resistance continues, are they prepared to kill? Hornberger insists on the moral right to resist coercion, regardless of the nobility of the cause for which it is deployed. To him, it is a question of trust: Can free people be trusted to take care of themselves and their society? Or do they require some coercion? If they are coerced, they are not free, he concludes.

The Conversation