The Libertarian Case for National Military Service

Let’s think of the ideal libertarian country. It would have an economy based on low taxes and free markets. Its legal system would be tolerant of vices like drugs and prostitution. Its government would be decentralized, with most authority sitting with local communities. Its foreign policy would be scrupulously non-interventionist. Its patriotism—for surely its citizens would be proud to live in such a place—would be low-key instead of jingoistic. Citizens would be armed. We can even fantasize that, in such a country, politics would matter so little that most citizens could not even name the leaders of the government.

In reality, such a country exists: it’s Switzerland. Libertarians often hold up Switzerland as an example, and they are right to. Outside of some microstates, Switzerland is easily the richest country on Earth. It has been at peace for almost all its history. It is a shining example of democracy.

Switzerland also has mandatory military service.

Switzerland’s history shows its freedom is intimately bound up with its centuries-long tradition of military service, just like Switzerland’s prosperity is linked to its low taxes. From the start, all able-bodied men were required not only to hold weapons but to take part in mandatory military exercises and serve in the military. And this is what made Switzerland impregnable. For in Medieval war, where battles could turn on a dime and pressed serfs would flee the field of battle at the first sign of defeat, war-trained free men were the most powerful soldiers. The might of the Duke of Burgundy, in the 15th century the richest and most powerful sovereign of Europe, was broken when he tried to invade Switzerland. His expensive mercenaries were crushed by free men defending their homeland.

Just as Switzerland is known for chocolate and yodeling, so too it is known that every man in the country is a trained soldier with a rifle. This has proved a formidable deterrent: even Hitler would not dare mess with that hornet’s nest. There can be little doubt that without military service, what we know as Switzerland would be provinces of less-free countries like France and Germany, just like the once-proud dominions of Savoy and Bavaria. Without military service, Switzerland would not be free.

A Brief History of Military Service and Freedom

Today most libertarians view military service as the antithesis of freedom. If nothing else, this view is strikingly ahistorical. Up until late in the 20th century, it was seen as self-evident that freedom is ultimately secured by force of arms, and that private citizens’ duty to freedom was to be able to defend that freedom. Standing, professional armies were seen as the tool of tyrants, and people understood that a professional army that can repel a foreign invasion can also oppress a free, unarmed people, while an army of free men is not so easily led on an endeavor of oppression. Ultimately, men are not truly free if they must rely on some other group of people for their defense.

In the civil realm, this is well understood by libertarians. Libertarians understand perfectly that men have a natural right to self-defense, and that to entrust only the police with the means to keep order is to give the state a tool for tyranny. A free man must be able to take his defense in his own hands.

In ancient Athens, one reason why only free men could vote was because only they could afford the expensive armament of the hoplite. Free men were soldiers and soldiers were free men. Athenian freedom created the greatest flowering of civilization in the ancient world. Athenian citizen-soldiers, superior to kings’ slave armies, built and protected what was essentially the world’s first free-trade area, creating the prosperity that enabled Archimedes to invent, Sophocles to write, Phidias to sculpt and Socrates to midwife philosophy.

Medieval monarchs would never allow a conscript military, despite its superiority, as they understood that bearing arms was the privilege of the free man, and to let all men do it, as opposed to an aristocracy of warriors, would quickly undermine their power.

This coeval link between free citizenship and military service did not just exist in the ancient world: the American republic was also founded on it.

In the contemporary American political context, liberals and conservatives squabble over the meaning of the Militia Clause of the Second Amendment. Conservatives think the Clause is essentially decoration, and does not limit an individual right to bear arms. Liberals think the Clause means a right to bear arms can only be exercised within the context of militias (plural), i.e. organized civil defense bodies.

But they’re both wrong—and, nowadays, neither side would probably like to acknowledge what the Second Amendment really says. For in 18th century America, “the militia” (singular) did not refer to any specific organization. Instead it referred to the whole of able-bodied men, presumed ready and willing to bear arms in defense of the nation, as they did in the War of Independence.

Under the Founders-era American constitutional system, Congress would maintain a navy to protect trade, and raise an army when the need arose. This army would be powerful and easy to raise since it would come from the militia, that is to say, the community of citizen-soldiers. The Founding Fathers, full of Enlightenment belief in individual freedom, clearly had in mind a system akin to Switzerland or Athens, where citizenship implied soldierdom. As all other freedom-loving peoples up to then, they saw a standing, professional army as the instrument of tyrants like the British king. The Second Amendment was considered important, then, not so much to protect the right to individual self-defense, but much more so to ensure that America would remain a country of citizen-soldiers—that is to say, of free men.

Service and Legitimacy

An objection sometimes heard from libertarians about military service is that it is illegitimate, i.e. that military service implies a use of a government power that is not within government’s rights. As we’ve seen, for literally thousands of years, most libertarians would have seen this as backwards: only through military service can men truly secure freedom.

But let’s take the argument on its merits and see whether it holds up. What powers of the state do libertarians think are legitimate?

Libertarians think the state should provide for the national defense. They think it’s legitimate for a state to have a military.

Libertarians think it’s legitimate for the state to use violence to take people’s money. If you don’t think taxation is legitimate, you are an anarchist, not a libertarian.

Well, military service is a form of in-kind taxation. Money is time. That’s what it is. When I buy a loaf of bread, I exchange a little bit of my time for a little bit of the baker’s time.

Perhaps it’s only legitimate for the state to take our time in the form of money and not in its original form, but we know that it’s not true.

We think it’s legitimate for the state to mandate children to be educated for approximately twelve years of their life. Twelve years! Not the one or two years of conscription in most countries. Libertarians are very rightly adamant about defending choice in how and where children may be educated, but few libertarians have a problem with the idea that it should be mandatory to educate children. Some libertarians oppose mandatory schooling, but supporting mandatory schooling is hardly libertarian heresy. And the reason why schooling is mandatory is very much the logic for military service: it was thought in the Enlightenment era that education is a prerequisite for freedom just as soldierdom is.

Another instance of mandatory work that libertarians are fine with is jury duty. Libertarians, at least in the Anglophone world, very much like the institution of the trial by jury, and this institution couldn’t endure without jury duty. Even if there were enough volunteers to man all juries, volunteer juries would not be a “jury of one’s peers” due to selection effects. It is the random (and, therefore, mandatory) selection of the members of the jury that is thought, under the institution’s logic, to ensure its neutrality.

In other words, libertarians are actually fine with the state taking people’s money and time and work if there is a sufficiently compelling interest. Even under the libertarian worldview, if we think carefully, military service might well be unadvisable, but it is not illegitimate.

Myths about Service

In any discussion about military service, a set of objections are brought up which should be tackled.

The first is about coercion. Just like mandatory schooling is only legitimate if there are exceptions for people to opt-out, such as by homeschooling, military service would not be legitimate without proper allowances for conscientious objectors. It’s easy to come up with mechanisms that allow conscientious objectors to opt-out from religious service. In Israel, religious students are exempted. In Germany, young people are given the option of military or civil service.

Another one is the idea that military service means everyone will have to fight in a war. This is just untrue. In most militaries, frontline infantry are only a small minority of total military personnel, and those are usually picked among volunteers. A modern military requires an enormous apparatus for logistics and support, done by soldiers who are never shot at. Nowadays it’s quite possible, and even easy, to spend an entire military career without ever seeing battle. At the height of the Vietnam War, there were eight support soldiers for each frontline soldier. Even in Israel, a country which is in a perpetual state of low-level warfare, only a minority of conscripts ever see battle. For most people, military service merely involves wearing ugly green and running around in the muck while a guy yells at you.

Military Service and Peace

We also have to talk about the impact of military service on foreign policy. Does military service make a country more hawkish or more dovish? It seems obvious that having a conscript military will give a dovish bias to a country’s military stance.

The case of Switzerland here is crystal clear. We can also look at the United States, and the difference between the Vietnam War and the Iraq War. During Vietnam, the antiwar movement only gained steam once conscripts were shipped in large numbers to Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, the United States stayed in Iraq for much longer than in Vietnam, and the antiwar movement was much more subdued. America elected a President who had opposed the war, but this President chose to unwind the war on basically the same timetable as the Bush Administration, while strengthening the U.S. presence in Afghanistan and embarking in more foreign adventures. The adventurism of the current U.S. administration is hardly surprising, given that the vast majority of U.S. families will never have to bear a price for it.

The reason why military service gives a dovish bias to a country’s foreign policy is obvious: the entire country bears the cost of military action. Everyone has a child or at least knows someone who is in the military. Those who have seen firsthand the cost of war are all around, instead of confined to a subculture.

That is, in short, how it should be: what it means for a nation to decide to go to war is not to send some other entity, apart from the society, whose members we do not know, to go fight somewhere for something, but it’s okay because we have miniature flags and two days out of the year where we don’t work and remember how swell they are. When the nation decides to go to war, the nation decides to go to war: every word in that sentence matters.

Libertarianism as Gratitude

Today more people than at any point in history live in freedom. Yes, the freedom in countries like the United States, or the UK, or France is not perfect. Yes, American police forces overreach, yes, the drug war is atrocious, yes, the taxes are too high. But on balance Americans are more free than the citizens of all the nations of the past, and most, if not all, nations today. Free to say whatever they want, free to vote for whomever they want, free to start a school or a business. For all that the work of freedom in America is yet to be done, America is a very free country, and this is something American libertarians should ponder.

Because—sorry for the cliché—freedom isn’t free. This freedom that we enjoy was bequeathed to us. It was built by others, who left us to continue their work. They were our forefathers, whether literal or spiritual. And because they built this freedom, we get to enjoy it, and stand on their shoulders. Forefathers who marched and agitated and invented and built—and forefathers who fought and died.

This kind of talk makes libertarians instinctually recoil, but they shouldn’t. If you live in a country that is a prosperous democracy, don’t you owe at least a little bit of a debt of gratitude to those who came before to build it?

It is often said that libertarianism is an ideology of avarice and egocentrism. That to be a libertarian is to be only considered with oneself, and to have no sympathy for others. I know very well that that’s not true. But if libertarianism gets this bad rap, it might be in part because it too often lacks a certain feeling of gratitude. Gratitude for all the freedoms that we do have, despite those that we don’t have.

Milton Friedman supported President Reagan’s military buildup not because he suddenly became enamored with government spending or the military-industrial complex, but because he recognized that the greatest threat to freedom in the world in the 1980s was the Soviet Union, and its greatest ally was American strength. Our governments are very often enemies of freedom, but freedom also has enemies from without. It is a stubborn, sad fact of human life on this Earth that for any country that is free, that freedom was built by ancestors and is ultimately secured by force of arms.

And in turn, we owe these ancestors to serve their memory and to serve our future generations by protecting and expanding this freedom. And this sort of citizenship, which is the right one, could have a requirement of military service.

For in a country of free citizens, military service need not be an institution of unjust oppression. It can be a pillar of freedom.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.