There Is No Libertarian Case for National Military Service

Cato Unbound is a place to float unusual and contrarian ideas. It’s also a place to shoot down those ideas. That’s what I propose to do here.

There is no libertarian case for national service, whether military or otherwise. Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry is very wrong to find one, and I will now explain where I think he went wrong.

I. What Ever Happened to the Militia?

Once upon a time, the militia held a place of honor in the classical republican tradition. Classical republicanism was a body of political thought stretching back to antiquity and revived in the Renaissance. It talked a lot about liberty, and it emphasized the virtue of independent city-states, while disdaining empires. Classical republicans held that militias—or navies—were the military form of a free people. From Tacitus down to the commonwealthman tradition in England, all agreed: Militias were honorable, and mercenaries were for tyrants.

Now, classical republicanism is interesting—I wrote my master’s thesis about it—but ultimately we libertarians are not classical republicans. To us, classical republicans are like intellectual great-grandfathers: There’s a family resemblance, but we very often disagree. Thus it’s wrong to say, as Gobry does, that libertarians have supported the militia “for literally thousands of years.” Only our relatives did.

Militias may have been militarily effective, though George Washington disagreed. And in the English Civil War, neither side used them much. Tellingly, even the Roundheads betrayed their pro-militia rhetoric to create the highly effective New Model Army—a full-time nation-wide fighting force.

Partly as a result of this development, and partly through the growth of the centralizing state, no one alive today can join an old-style militia. Such militias included all the able-bodied free men of a community. They demanded service only in times of violence. The demand was often loosely enforced, if at all, and—this is key—the central government did not fully control the militia.

The king could call out the militia, but militias could also turn out on their own for emergencies. Sometimes, as in the American Revolution, militias directly defied the king. In an age when the public-private distinction was often obscured, militias were in the middle, and they shaded toward the private.

If militias sound dangerous to the state, that’s because they were. The closest thing we have to a militia nowadays—independent, well-armed, open to all, and dangerous to states—might be something like Anonymous or Wikileaks. Both fail to be militias chiefly because they don’t bear literal arms.

But the old-time militia was already growing moribund by the American Revolution; as an institution, it was arguably dead by the Militia Acts of 1792: Slapping the name “militia” on a centralized, federally conscripted force does not make it so. And what the U.S. government runs today is certainly not a militia. It’s a standing army. Worse, it’s imperial in scope. Conscripting everyone will not revive the militia of old. It will only grow the empire.

The leadership will remain professional. The already colossal institution will grow even bigger. The central government will remain firmly in charge. The positive public choice effects on our foreign policy are speculative at best. And my younger brother, who lives in Ohio, will find it exceptionally implausible that he must go to South Korea, Afghanistan, Germany, Egypt, Japan, Honduras, Greenland, or Kyrgyzstan—to defend his neighborhood, his home, and his family. The militiamen of Lexington and Concord would never see themselves in this.

In short: The militia wasn’t too bad. Then the state came along and killed it. Demanding that we serve the state in the militia’s place is perverse.

II. How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the All-Volunteer Military

If I had to identify the moment when the classical republican tradition finally met its match, it would be with Benjamin Constant’s 1819 essay “The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns.” Constant observed that when the ancients wrote of liberty, they meant something like an obligation to participate actively in government. In the ancient sense, one could have “liberty” even when the government was conquering, enslaving, slaughtering, and extorting—whatever, just so long as you weren’t on the pointy end of the stick.

Constant demurred at this obvious instance of self-dealing. So do I. To us, liberty means something like running one’s own affairs, under the orderly and lawful watch of a representative government. We moderns use commerce, not conquest, to get what we want. As Constant wrote:

War and commerce are only two different means of achieving the same end, that of getting what one wants… [Commerce] is an attempt to conquer, by mutual agreement, what one can no longer hope to obtain through violence… War is all impulse; commerce, calculation. Hence it follows that an age must come in which commerce replaces war. We have reached this age.

The classical republicans were wrong. We libertarians know better, because commerce is morally superior to war.

On that note, I must take Gobry to task for citing Milton Friedman without discussing how Friedman was instrumental in ending America’s military draft and implementing an all-volunteer force. As Friedman recalled,

Like almost all military men who testified [before Congress], [General William Westmoreland] testified against a volunteer armed force… he made the statement that he did not want to command an army of mercenaries. I stopped him and said, “General, would you rather command an army of slaves?” He drew himself up and said, “I don’t like to hear our patriotic draftees referred to as slaves.” I replied, “I don’t like to hear our patriotic volunteers referred to as mercenaries… If they are mercenaries, then I, sir, am a mercenary professor, and you, sir, are a mercenary general; we are served by mercenary physicians, we use a mercenary lawyer, and we get our meat from a mercenary butcher.”

Modern liberty means commerce, and we are justly proud to be mercenaries: Commerce is fairer, kinder, more civilized, and more reliable than war. A society that fosters commerce will of course persuade volunteers to defend it. And thus, as Friedman argued, we should use markets for defense, just as we do for so many other things.

Which brings us to taxes.

III. An Interlude on Taxation

Gobry writes that only anarchists disapprove of taxation. Here again, I disagree. Some strong, widely shared moral intuitions tell me that taxation is wrong. Yet without a least a little taxation, it seems that even worse things would come to pass.

It’s as if we were all in a lifeboat, and survial means throwing overboard our precious but heavy artworks: It makes sense in context, but it’s nothing we’re proud of.

That’s what taxation is like. Can we do without it? I don’t know. But it would be pretty embarrassing if we’d chucked the Rodin bronzes—and we never noticed that the lifeboat wasn’t properly inflated. So let’s not get complacent about taxation. We know taxation is evil, but we only presume that it’s necessary.

And what about taxation in kind? Gobry is correct that conscription is a form of in-kind taxation. He errs in concluding that conscription is thus equally permissible. On the contrary, taxation in kind is always worse: Money taxes at least let us earn the money in any lawful way we choose. We can often abstain from taxed products. If we’re saving up to pay the tax, we can pick which luxuries to forego. That’s an important, though small, residuum of liberty.

That remaining liberty vanishes under any kind of conscription. As F.A. Hayek wrote:

[A]n economic gain or economic loss is merely a gain or a loss where it is still in our power to decide which of our needs or desires shall be affected… So long as we can freely dispose over our income and all our possessions, economic loss will always deprive us only of what we regard as the least important of the desires we were able to satisfy.

If I must take one or the other, I pick taxes. Alas.

IV. Gratitude for the Dead?

Gobry further argues that we owe a debt of gratitude: Our ancestors gave their lives, and here we sit, fat and happy. Do we not have a Burkean contract, binding the dead, the living, and those yet to be born? Shall we not honor that contract?

Maybe. Yet even the living can’t agree on national service priorities, and things just get worse when we turn to the dead, who often favored unworkable, foolish, and downright horrifying causes. We can’t serve the past like that. But we also can’t discharge a debt of gratitude merely by doing whatever we were going to do anyway. So what kind of service shall there be?

Perhaps we can ask the American founders.

What would they say about forcing young people to serve the federal government, both in war and in peace? What would they think if we punished our young people for refusing to don a uniform and protect a foreign country?

Suppose we said that we did it in gratitude to them?

No. Virtually all of the founders’ political efforts worked to lessen the exactions of government. They rejected Europe’s heavy taxes, press gangs, corvée labor, and feudal obligations. The founders looked forward to a time when no one had to perform national service. As John Adams wrote,

I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.

Our nation points away from politics and war—and toward science, industry, and art. National service should only be for times as dire as Adams’s own. Even then, there is an overwhelming case that it can and should still be voluntary.

Adams’s old rival Thomas Jefferson was blunter: “The earth belongs in usufruct to the living… the dead have neither powers nor rights over it.” Raise Jefferson from the dead, ask him about national service, and he might say “Don’t ask me. I’m dead.” But if we really insisted, he might say that we should serve by minding our own business and by imposing on no one else. That’s a debt I’d be happy to pay.

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.