About this Issue

We have all heard that freedom isn’t free. In an imperfect world, free societies must defend themselves against outside aggressors — somehow. But how can a society defend itself without inflicting severe damage to individual liberty in the process? The libertarian ideal is a society without any man-made compulsion, but how can such a society endure?

In this month’s sure-to-be-controversial lead essay, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry recommends a simple solution: compulsory military service.

It’s clearly not a conventional libertarian answer. But here at Cato Unbound, we entertain, and debate, an exceptionally wide range of policy choices. Gobry argues that libertarians really ought to like national service. At least sometimes.

Is he right? Join us this month for a panel of essayists who will discuss national service, compulsory and otherwise, in a free society. What, if anything, do we owe to the state, to other citizens, and to the future of our society?

Lead Essay

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.

Response Essays

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.

America Needs Universal Civilian National Service

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry and Jason Kuznicki have so far debated different sides of mandatory military service.  I’m going to take the debate in a third direction and argue for another big idea about what we owe and what we should expect of each other: universal civilian national service.

By that I mean a year of full-time service here at home tutoring in schools, responding to natural disasters, working in health clinics, and helping families climb out of poverty.  Universal does not mean mandatory; it means available to everyone who wants to do it.  The target age is 18-30.

While military service is certainly the most laudable type of service, it is already well-resourced, well-staffed, and a vibrant part of our culture.

What we need from our citizens – especially rising generations of young citizens – is to serve here at home and to make a year of service part of what it means to be an American.

Five Arguments for Universal Civilian National Service

1) National service tackles problems.

Right now one million kids are giving up on school each year and dropping out.  One family in ten is living in poverty.  Over 24 percent of Americans, ages 16 to 19, are currently jobless.

A generation of young people serving in struggling schools and communities could make all the difference. A small stipend to pay them is far cheaper than the cost of high school drop-outs, for example.

2) National service unites diverse Americans in common purpose.

As a country we are getting more diverse, yet we are doing less together. A year of serving with Americans of all backgrounds can help each generation appreciate diversity and realize its assets. American history is replete with examples of being unnecessary scared of “the other.” That holds us back as a nation.

3) National service creates leaders.

With baby boomers retiring, there is a growing need for nonprofit leaders, school principles, and government officials. AmeriCorps programs are one of the best pipelines to develop that leadership.

The study “Still Serving: Measuring the Eight-Year Impact of AmeriCorps on Alumni” shows impressive results:

Forty six percent of… [AmeriCorps] members are employed in education, social work, public safety, arts, religion, government, or full-time military service compared to 33 percent of their comparison group. Altogether, about 60 percent of AmeriCorps alumni in this study are employed in either government or nonprofit jobs. At a time when both these sectors are facing serious workforce shortages and the coming retirement of the Baby Boomer generation, this pipeline of new employees who are passionate about making a difference and have experience in the sectors is absolutely critical.

 The leadership of our schools, nonprofits, and community groups is everyone’s problem. Leadership is perhaps the biggest factor if these institutions are to be successful at preparing students, solving local challenges, and helping communities thrive. As such, we all have an interest to ensure they are well led.  Good leaders are not born. More national service means more leaders.  And if you happen to be someone who wants smaller government, you should be clamoring for ways to create a generation of leaders.

4) National service helps veterans reintegrate.

Over the next five years, over one million members of the armed forces will return to civilian life. Although their military service is ending, their desire to serve isn’t. Nine of ten veterans agree that serving their communities is important to them. Many veterans who did civilian national service after their military service say that it helped them reintegrate into civilian life more successfully and helped them determine career and college goals.  We owe it to our veterans to make sure they have this option available.

5) National service is a way to “pay it forward.”

We are lucky to live in America. And as Gobry notes, our rights and freedoms came from generations of sacrifice. Today, with economic and social inequalities at unacceptable levels, we should all be asking how we can do more – we should be asking how we repay our debt to our friends, neighbors, grandparents, and strangers who sacrificed to help build the country.

We cannot pay it back, but we can pay it forward to honor our shared past and help our shared posterity.  Real gratitude is more than voting, paying taxes, occasionally volunteering, and just being a law-abiding citizen. We need more.  Our fellow citizens need more.  America’s future – if it’s to be vibrant and prosperous – needs more.  A year of national service is the answer, and it’s what we should expect of each other.

Common Mistakes about Civilian National Service

Myth #1 — National service is a centralized “big government” program run out of Washington D.C.

This mistake is repeated over and over again by opponents of national service, including recently by one of this institution’s Fellows.

Fact: Our nation’s biggest national service program, AmeriCorps, has a decentralized structure that gives substantial control to states and private nonprofits.

Senator John McCain, an original skeptic himself, set the record straight in a 2001 article:

When Clinton initiated AmeriCorps in 1994, most Republicans in Congress, myself included, opposed it. We feared it would be another “big government program” that would undermine true volunteerism, waste money in “make-work” projects, or be diverted into political activism. We were wrong.

Part of what conservatives admire about AmeriCorps is that it strengthens “civil society”–the rich web of neighborhood, nonprofit, and faith-based groups outside of government that provide services to those in need. This is built into the decentralized design of the program. Most AmeriCorps funding is in the hands of state governors, who give it to their National and Community Service Commissions, who in turn make grants to local nonprofits, who then recruit and hire AmeriCorps members. The vast majority of AmeriCorps members are thus “detailed” to work for organizations like Habitat for Humanity, the Red Cross, or Big Brothers/Big Sisters. They become, in effect, full-time, paid staff members of these often-understaffed organizations.”

Myth #2 — National service is in conflict with traditional volunteerism and charity.

Fact: National service strengthens traditional volunteerism and charity.

One of the biggest returns on the federal investment in service is the fact that national service members recruit, train, and manage millions of traditional volunteers.  Don’t just take my word for it.  This fact is one of the aspects of national service that won over Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah:

We recognize that national service programs give Americans opportunities to serve for a full year or more to tackle tough problems and they, in turn, can leverage the federal investment in them to mobilize more traditional volunteers to help… National service programs have a multiplying effect,” Based on past patterns, the 250,000 AmeriCorps members called for in the 2009 Serve America Act would help recruit or manage seven million unpaid volunteers.

Myth #3 – Federal investment in national service is a government handout that supplants private responsibility.

Fact:  National service embodies principles of both private responsibility and the public good.

Organizations that receive AmeriCorps funding must match it with support from foundations, corporations, and individuals.  Therefore, the public investment leverages a significant amount of non-government support.

How to Grow National Service and Create a Culture of Expectation

More supply will require more money from taxpayers, private philanthropy, and corporate philanthropy.

To create a culture where a year of service is expected, we should implement a variety of things.  Colleges should show preference to applicants who did a year of service after high school.  Companies should preference to applicants who did a year of service after graduation.

We also need to embed the idea in scripts of TV shows and movies to reach a wider audience.


Gobry wrote, “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.”

Today, with so many battles to fight here at home from education equity to income inequality, we need a citizenship that implies civic leadership.  An expected year of civilian national service is how we will get there.  

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.

The Conversation

What Is Citizenship?

Let me drop the mask. I am not, in fact, a libertarian. You may have guessed that.

I’m not a libertarian, and yet I may be as libertarian as possible without actually being libertarian. I walk right up to that Rubicon, without crossing it. And the reason why I refuse to cross it is ultimately the reason why I am writing here about military service.

The question that is posed to us via the example of military service is: what is citizenship?

What does it mean to be a citizen? Jason Kuznicki hit the nail on the head when he decided to title this issue “What do we owe?” for that is precisely the question that concerns us here. It is one of the key questions of political philosophy, and the answer has a momentous impact on all human life.

If there can be no libertarian case for military service, then it is because libertarianism considers citizenship as, at best, a necessary evil. That no one has duties to one’s countrymen that one does not have to anybody else. That political communities have no value in themselves, and are even inherently evil (even though that evil may, in some very limited cases, be necessary).

Under this reading, then, to be a libertarian is to say “I owe nothing.”

Only one type of obligation is legitimate, and that is obligations that I have explicitly and specifically consented to.[1]

Let us pause for a second to note that nobody believes this. We all believe, for example, that we have obligations to our families, even though nobody signs a contract to that effect. We all also believe, or at least I hope, that we have moral obligations; the Golden Rule is more demanding than “leave him alone,” and yet it is an obligation thrust upon us.[2]

But let us explore what this means. What’s so wrong with saying that man owes nothing? Don’t we all agree that liberty is good? What’s the intrinsic value of citizenship? Why should I owe the state anything?

In this essay, I will argue the following:

    • That social contract theory is the best construct for relations between individuals and the state;
    • That the Modern, liberal-democratic nation-state is the best instrument we have for protecting freedom and ensuring human flourishing and that it is worth defending;
    • That defending the Modern, liberal-democratic nation-state entails holding a “thick” notion of citizenship, not a “thin” one;
    • That political communities are natural communities and therefore desirable;
    • That most people do, in fact, “owe” something to their nation.

1. Yes, the Social Contract Really Works

Mr. Kuznicki gives up the game when, writing that taxation is wrong, he links to an essay arguing that states have no authority whatsoever.

The way we justify the authority of states nowadays is to postulate a “social contract” by which a community of citizens have set out their obligations to each other, obligations that are mediated (at least in part) by the state, which exists to enforce the contract.

The smart-alecky response to this idea is to note that one has never been asked to sign any document labeled “social contract,” and thus that one is not bound by it. Of course, people who tend to say these things also tend to believe strongly in concepts such as natural rights or the non-aggression principle, which prove as elusive to empirical investigation as leprechauns and social contracts. These things are what we might call normative fictions — concepts that we make true by acting as if they were true. Do “universal human rights” actually “exist” in some sort of Platonic sense? I happen to believe they do, but the great thing is that I don’t have to prove it to make them useful. All I have to prove is that we’re all better off if we act as if they do.

The Moderns whom Mr. Kuznicki (rightly) rates so highly originally came up with social contract theory as a way to restrain the state. The state can only do what the contract allows it to do, and if the state breaks the contract, it loses its legitimacy. Moreover, since the state exists only to enforce the contract, it is the writers of the contract — in a democracy, “the people” (another convenient normative fiction, that one!) — who have the ultimate authority and who get to decide what it is the state can and cannot do, and what the contract says. This authority of the people, in turn, is not mere vox populi, nor is it a tyranny of the majority, since this authority is only legitimate insofar as it produces a social contract that protects everyone’s preexisting natural rights. It’s really quite an elegant and useful intellectual edifice. It’s an edifice that rests on an axiom that, by definition, is unprovable, but since that’s true of all intellectual edifices, pointing it out doesn’t actually get you anywhere. Yes, the turtles do go all the way down.

2. Why the Modern State Is Precious

But the social contract is not just a neat philosophical tool. It is also a foundation for one of the most sublime achievements of humanity, which is the liberal-democratic nation-state.

It is important to note the brutality and the horror of the conditions of life that have prevailed for most of human existence on Earth, and that still prevail for far too many today, in which injustice is the norm and justice the exception. Through an arduous process that lasted many centuries, humanity has come up with a form of collective organization that is simply incommensurably better than any other that has been tried.

The liberal-democratic nation-state, powered by the social contract, is by far the best tool we’ve ever designed for safeguarding our natural rights. So far, any alternative that has been tried has led only to violence, destruction, and injustice. It also enables peoples to live by values that they hold in common. Oh, it is true that, like everything else on this Earth, it is far from perfect. But it is still worth fighting for.

It is also worth noting that the liberal-democratic nation-state was birthed by an arduous process of trial and error. Mr. Kuznicki faults me for pressing Milton Friedman into service (pun intended) of my ideas,[3] but I’ll now enlist Hayek. Hayek’s genius was in understanding the role of knowledge in any collective action. The reason why central planning can’t work, and why free markets work, is because no central planner can have or process enough information to make a good decision, whereas individuals and business managers, being much closer to what it is they’re trying to do, can process enough information to make good decisions. But this is true not just for markets, but for many, if not most, areas of human life: hence the spontaneous order that counterintuitively arises from unstructured trial and error processes. The liberal-democratic nation-state emerged out of the chaos and bloodshed of human history as the best framework for human flourishing. Those who understand the wisdom of the trial and error process and the limitations of ideologues tend to have a healthy respect for the outcomes of history, and tend to act by the rule of Chesterton’s Fence:

[L]et us say… a fence or gate [was] erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

The liberal-democratic nation-state is a kludge, but that is why it’s successful. A nation-state is a hybrid. Its national character appeals to our feelings of tribal affiliation: my fellow citizens are my kinsmen. But it is not mere tribe, since this tribal feeling, which is like fire, is channeled via the state into a non-clientelist, legalistic order. The nation state is therefore both abstract, and not. Patriotic Americans love America both because of abstract ideals about freedom and because of deeply personal experiences of belonging. To be American is not defined by race, or creed, or ethnicity, and yet most Americans are born into their country like into a family. The state, in turn, is not a mere instrument of violence if, via the social contract, it respects the liberal democratic order and protects our natural rights. Liberal democracy is also a kludge: respecting individual rights is in tension with majority rule, yet we find that without one the other quickly collapses. The edifice is as complex — and fragile — as it is precious, and those who merely point to the apparent contradictions miss the deeper, underlying order.

The European Union is an attempt to build a liberal-democratic state without a nation, and for all its merits, its current disarray is a cautionary tale (thankfully one of the least bloody) of the folly of ignoring the lessons of history. Germans, who were very willing to impoverish themselves to welcome their East German brethren, feel German first and European second, and are therefore reluctant to bail out their southern neighbors. Meanwhile, although New York State is a net funder of federal benefits and Mississippi a net recipient, New Yorkers do not understand themselves to be “bailing out” other states of the Union. If Europe had been a nation, there simply would not have been a Euro crisis.

In other words, we find while it’s possible to imagine in theory structures that could allow us the same flourishing as the liberal-democratic nation-state, we find that in practice they’re not possible, at least for the foreseeable future. And so we find that the liberal-democratic nation-state is extremely precious.

3. “Thick” vs. “Thin” Citizenship

Once we understand this importance of the liberal-democratic nation-state, the question arises of what is needed for its continued success. And to pose this question is to pose the question of citizenship, and how we should understand this concept.

I would postulate that what Mr. Kuznicki proposes is, at most, a “thin” version of citizenship, one where the only thing that can be expected of the citizen is the bare minimum so that society does not collapse, and one where moreover this “thin” citizenship is as best a necessary evil to be endured for as long as the state remains necessary. [4]

My argument is that “thin” citizenship will ultimately lead to the collapse of nations where it is seen as the standard, and that therefore we need a “thick” notion of citizenship, one where citizenship is viewed as a web of obligations—from individual to community as well as from community to individual.

The reason is both intuitively obvious and theoretically tricky. In theory, there doesn’t seem to be any particular reason why a state needs “thick” citizenship, but in practice there is. Here I will quote another writer who agrees with libertarians on most issues, and yet ultimately describes himself as a conservative: Jim Manzi, who writes in his indispensable book Uncontrolled (p. 219):

[A]ll real organizations that succeed over time are held together partially by common assent to ideals, and are not perceived by the participants are merely rational deals between entirely self-interested parties. Whether biochemical illusion or transcendent reality, this belief appears to be important to organizational success.

Any sustainably great collective — IBM, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the Pittsburgh Steelers, the U.S. Marine Corps, the University of Cambridge, or the United States of America—appeals to the rational self-interest of its members but also creates a sense of irrational identification with the enterprise. Individuals within each will, to some extent and in some circumstances, sacrifice narrowly construed perceived self-interest for the good of the whole. When more of the participants do this more of the time than do those in competing collectives, it will tend, all else equal, to lead to competitive advantage, collective success, and greater success for the individuals within it.

Applied to citizenship, this says that without thick citizenship, liberal-democratic nation-states will eventually fail. I will add one thing, which is that any sustainably great collective creates this sense of irrational identification by creating what management curricula refer to as a culture, or a shared set of values, and that in turn this culture only thrives for long if it is made real, that is to say if these values are reflected in the collective’s actions and not simply as nice words on paper and frontispieces.

The best book on the 1940 collapse of France is The Strange Defeat, by the great social historian Marc Bloch, one of the heroes of the nation-state and of liberalism. It should be part of any liberal arts curriculum, because through the collapse of France, we see how just and liberal societies sometimes commit suicide. For the Fall of France was essentially an act of collective suicide: in terms of steel and bullets, the French army and the Wehrmacht were roughly evenly matched, and yet the collapse was stunning and thorough. Beyond the military reasons, which as a decorated military intelligence officer he understood quite well, Bloch points to the divisions of French society, in a context where nobody behaved as though there was a common purpose to the French nation. No component of society emerges unscathed from his terrifying analysis: political parties, unions, the press, elites, and the people at large. Though he does not use those terms, it is clear from Bloch’s analysis that what caused the collapse of France (and, with it, Europe) was a thin citizenship.[5] Think of the millions of lives that would have been saved if France had — as it was perfectly capable — invaded Germany while the Wehrmacht was away in Poland instead of fighting the shameful Phoney War.[6]

To the idea that military service provides for the nation’s defense, both of my libertarian interlocutors have responded that any society worth defending would find enough volunteers to defend itself. Empirically that may or may not be true, but it is interesting that it is essentially an appeal to the right of free-riding. “I don’t have to be a patriot as long as enough people are.” This is true enough. But it’s also easy to see that a society where that is the prevailing incentive would inexorably decline.

A just liberal-democratic nation-state, in other words, is one worth being a citizen of, one worth having obligations to, one worth fighting for, because it ensures great human flourishing and preserves a great nation and culture. For humans to flourish, we need the liberal-democratic nation-state to flourish, and for the liberal-democratic nation-state to flourish, we need thick citizenship.

4. Political Communities Are Natural Communities; Or, Why the Moderns Need the Ancients

In his essay, Mr. Kuznicki is right to take me to task for being guilty of a bit of a sleight-of-hand, which is blurring the distinction between the Ancients’ view of liberty and the Moderns’. I confess to the blurring. First, because I think they are blurred — as much as we try to get rid of them, we can’t seem to be able to; less “great-grandfathers,” the Ancients are more older brothers, or perhaps Jiminy Crickets, to the Moderns.

And second, I think the distinction should be blurred. Mr. Kuznicki writes that “when the ancients wrote of liberty, they meant something like an obligation to participate actively in government.” I certainly agree that they thought it was part of it, but it is not reducible to that. It is perhaps more accurate to say that the Ancients thought of liberty as something like participation in a just moral order.[7]

Here, Aristotle is our best guide. Aristotle thought that a polity should be oriented towards justice, and that therefore men had a duty to participate in it. And what’s so wrong about that?

But why is the polity important, as such? Why is it that we should pursue justice in part through participation in the affairs of the City?

Aristotle answers: because man is a political animal. Ever does man seek to live collectively, and nowhere do we find apolitical communities. Along with the family, political communities are natural communities. By our nature, we humans form political associations (here we see the seed of social contract theory) in order to pursue justice, and fidelity to our best selves entails a participation, ordered towards justice, in our natural communities.

Is this true? Here I am tempted to cite Samuel Johnson’s refutation of Bishop Berkley’s immaterialism. The “proof” that political communities are natural communities is as elusive as the proof that the universe exists. But the record of history seems crystal clear: nowhere do we see examples of apolitical communities, or indeed of apolitical human existence, save perhaps for that of hermits and feral children.

Meanwhile, animals are apolitical. A pack of wolves is a highly complex social organism, but the social order is determined by instinct and is ordered only towards the continued existence of the pack. I don’t think we’ve ever seen wolves debate on whether it would be better to elect the alpha male by a vote, or an omega wolf argue that his treatment violates his natural rights.

I am a thoroughgoing Modern. I buy the whole bag: Enlightenment, universal human rights, individual liberty, and all the rest. But I also believe that for this Modern version of liberty to thrive, it needs just a little bit of the Ancient in it, that is to say, a recognition that liberty is not merely the protection of negative rights but also that it entails a positive duty to use this liberty in a way that is ordered towards justice.[8] Between the democratic age and the rivers of blood, the 20th century is a story about the greatness of Modernity, but also the horror that awaits when Modernity is not saved from itself.

If political communities are natural communities, then, the escape from politics that some libertarians sometimes fantasize about is both illusory and immoral.

And here we get to the best statement I’ve come up with of the reason why I am not a libertarian: people form political communities not merely to secure their individual natural rights but also to live by a commonly shared set of values, and this is good.

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.

When libertarians see this and they say that this level of taxation impoverishes everyone, that social democracy hurts the very people it is supposed to help when, for example, labor market regulations make it harder for immigrants and low-skilled workers to find jobs, or when excessive welfare spending creates poverty traps, I am right there with them. When libertarians see this and scream “Theft!” I have to roll my eyes.

Yet I really believe that the natural right of private property “preexists” the state, and that there really is a level where taxation becomes confiscatory, and therefore actual theft, and that there is a moment where we leave considerations of optimality to enter considerations of moral right and wrong. But I also believe that Swedes have a right to live in a society that lives according to their values, and to collectively, democratically decide on a certain level of redistribution. I believe that as long as it does not shade into confiscation this is perfectly legitimate, and that a “suboptimal” level of taxation is not actually illegitimate.

And why should it be any other way? I wouldn’t want to live in Sweden, and I combat politically those who would remake America in Sweden’s image, but it would be churlish not to recognize that Swedish society has a lot to recommend for itself and that it has accomplished many admirable things for its citizens. The world is better for Sweden existing as Sweden, and I would no more remake the world in Sweden’s image than I would remake it in Hong Kong’s.

As a Christian and a classical liberal, I intensely dislike the French notion of laïcité, which too often seeks to reduce our natural rights to free exercise of religion to a mere private right of “conscience,” which is really no right at all: Forcing you to believe or not believe something is, at least for now, the only thing the state cannot do, so granting you a right to conscience alone is meaningless. But I also recognize that striking the proper balance between religious expression and toleration is a complex issue, which has been working itself out in the politics of many countries for centuries now. And while I think America strikes a better balance than France, I should be ashamed of myself if I compared France’s treatment of religion belief to, say, Pol Pot’s, and I infinitely prefer laïcité to a theocracy, even (especially!) one run for the benefit of my own denomination.

Meanwhile, if your society’s idea of “living according to shared values” entails buying and selling human beings as property, I say that this is illegitimate, that it violates fundamental human rights, and that your society really needs to get new values.

There is an obvious tension between the notion of individual rights and the notion of living according to shared values, but this tension is not an invention of proto-fascist statists. It is a tension that arises as a result of human nature, because all humans desire both liberty and justice. Resolving this tension is the work of politics in the liberal-democratic nation-state, and it is highly imperfect, but it is also highly superior to any others that have been tried.

One reason why America is such a great nation is because it has found a trick that helps tremendously ease this tension, which is subsidiarity. Residents of San Francisco’s Castro District live according to different values than the Amish, who live according to different values than residents of Las Vegas’s strip, and yet they still share an underlying set of values that makes them all Americans. And yet this system is not perfect either: it took much too long for Americans to realize that subsidiarity cannot protect slavery and racial discrimination and remain compatible with American values.


[1] This idea that private contractual obligations are the only legitimate ones naturally leads to the thorny, classic problem of “Are people allowed to sell themselves into slavery? Why/why not?”

[2] To be clear, I am not arguing that the Golden Rule creates obligations to the state. I am simply making the point that we accept that there are some obligations that are thrust upon us simply for our existing.

[3] My cat’s name is Milton Friedman. I have made “Free to Choose” mandatory (!) viewing for my children. I am well aware of Friedman’s stance on military service. But I also believe he had more respect for the state as guarantor of freedom than many libertarians realize, and that he was right to.

[4] I hate to bring this up, but it’s hard not to see parallels between this notion and the Marxist vision of the socialist state as merely a transition point to stateless communism.

[5] Some may detect a whiff of perhaps quasi-fascism with these ideas of “uniting the nation in a common purpose”, but not here. Bloch was a liberal through and through. As a French Jew who lived through the Dreyfus Affair, he understood full well that the state can be used as a tool of oppression.

[6] Some will doubtless point out that 1930s France did have military conscription. But I am not arguing that conscription creates thick citizenship. I am arguing that thick citizenship is desirable, and that in turn it justifies military service.

[7] Or, perhaps, the Ancients filtered through Christianity, which is totally fine with me.

[8] Yes, there are some ways in which such a formulation could be used to justify illiberal outcomes. Let’s agree that that would be wrong.

Suppose I Changed My Mind

Bear with me, my fellow libertarians, for a short few paragraphs. Imagine I decided that universal military conscription was a wonderful idea. (Bear with me, I said…)

Suppose I also decided that universal civilian service was a great idea. (Ahem…)

And, not to sound too smug, but I want to do better. I want to serve not just for a year, but for my entire working life. I know: It’s not a contest. But I really, really care!

Immediately there’s a problem: I don’t know where to start. I love children, old folks, sick folks, and puppies. And I care about disaster relief. I want to end human trafficking and I want to end homelessness. I want everyone to have a decent education. And I want no one to go hungry.

I don’t have time for it all.

I also don’t know what I’m good at. It would be a terrible shame if I spent my whole life selflessly serving food, when it turned out that I should have been selflessly processing signals intelligence for the navy. Or if I’d been a halfway decent advocate for the homeless, when I could have been an outstanding elementary school teacher.

It gets worse. I don’t know what other people are good at, either. That matters a lot more than one might think: It might be that I’m an excellent teacher, but others are better, and the place where I have the largest comparative advantage is in ditch-digging. 

If only I had some kind of signal to let me know that this was the case! If only we could all coordinate our needs and talents over space and time! If only we knew what other people’s efforts were worth in different lines of work, in light of the resources, plans, and needs of others!

This of course is exactly what the free market does. As a result, the vast majority of “community service” is performed efficiently, through markets, for pay and even for profit.

That brings me to one thing I find rather grating about discussions of national service — the implication that people who work for profit are not as good as people who don’t: If I work for profit rather than allowing myself to be conscripted, I am, in Gobry’s words, not a patriot. Likewise, in Zach Maurin’s vision, I’m not a complete American.

To both, what for-profit workers do is selfish — and thus morally suspect. But I don’t understand why this should be. Among the many things that for-profit, for-pay work creates is income for the worker. My assessment of these people is that they are independent, and independence is wonderful.

Markets aren’t perfect, of course, and I will never tell you that they are. But the advocates of removing goods and services from the market process and transferring them to the political process first have to make two related arguments:

1. There is a genuine market failure.


2. My proposal improves on this less-than-optimal but still-functioning market.

To Gobry’s credit, national defense is a textbook case of market failure. Those who do neither pay taxes nor perform service will nonetheless reap all the benefits of having a national defense force. National defense is a non-excludable service; it makes free riders everywhere.

But our society has already solved this free rider problem, with the heavy hammer of taxation. If I pay taxes, I am not a free rider. Claiming to resurrect the free rider problem will not suffice to make the case for conscription on top of taxation, not as long as other people willingly enlist.

Things are still less developed when it comes to Maurin’s proposal for universal civilian service, because Maurin hasn’t asserted a market failure at all. Identifying a need that has gone unmet isn’t enough: In a world of scarce resources, needs will always go unmet, even if markets are optimally efficient.

Without identifying a market failure, and without articulating how a given program will solve it efficiently, we should not legislate. Untethering a great deal of paid nonprofit labor from the market, subsidizing it at the federal level, and removing the price signals that guide individuals toward better career choices seems like a terrible idea to me — more likely to hurt than to help. If we managed food production that way, we’d go hungry. It’s been tried, and it happens.

Further, I am skeptical of the neatness of the proposal, when our very best stab at efficiency in the real world is so often messy, provisional, and flexible. How on earth does it just so happen that exactly one year of service is the appropriate, market-clearing amount, year after year? How does it just so happen that efficiency coincides with this much labor, at the given wage, whatever that wage may prove to be?

To the ears of this capitalist pig — for so I will surely be called — Maurin’s proposal sounds narrowly selfish: It makes much use of others’ resources. It makes his heart seem to be in the right place (which of course it has been all along). But it’s very doubtful that the proposal creates value on net. Even giving cash to nonprofits would be more efficient than supplying them in-kind with labor. And a better, still less coercive proposal would be to end the minimum wage for the nonprofit sector.

We might then also consider leaving the taxpayers’ money in their pockets. Perish the thought.

What Is Citizenship? Continued

I have argued for what I’ve called “thick citizenship” from a 30,000 feet view of history, and on chiefly utilitarian grounds: thick citizenship is desirable because it makes us better off. As I’ve said, I think it should be sufficient to ground a political philosophy. But let us nevertheless ask: is it right?

Let us tackle the question posed by this Cato Unbound issue: what do we owe?

The best way to understand why we owe things to our nation is to analogize it to the family. This instantly sets off alarm bells in libertarian minds, and quite rightly so: it is demeaning to think of citizens as children, wholly dependent on, and subservient to, the state. But we can proceed nonetheless if we remember that it is merely an analogy, and also when we decide to analogize the relationship between nations and citizens not as the relationship between a parent and an underage child, but between a parent and an adult, independent child.

The analogy is also appropriate because we can, along with Aristotle, see that the family and the polity are both natural communities, and therefore they share characteristics.

Indeed, it’s easy to see how many things the family and the nation have in common:

They can be awful. Let us first grant that, like nations, some families can be awful. Abusive, cruel, criminal. Most of us think that in general people have moral duties to their families, yet we would not begrudge a child for disowning egregiously, cruelly abusive parents. We might also think that before disowning them, we would first have a duty to try to change them.

They are not chosen, yet chosen. Nobody chooses which family they are born into, or which nation. And yet we choose our family, and our nation, every day. I didn’t ask to be born of my parents, but I still willingly participate in the life of my family. We accept that merely by being born I received some obligations towards my family, but at the same time these obligations are not absolute, and not merely by blood. My mother is my mother because she bore me and birthed me, but also because I “make” her my mother, by accepting her as such and by respecting and honoring her.

We can leave; we can join. Practically no societies, and certainly none of the advanced ones, see families as being defined exclusively by blood ties. The man whom I call my father is not related to me by blood, and there are people who are related to me by blood with whom I refuse to associate. For most citizens, they are citizens simply by virtue of being born where they are. But, thank God, we have a natural right to leave our homelands and to not only join another polity but make it our homeland.

They have values. Polities like to solemnly inscribe their values in documents and on the front of buildings, and this is good. Just because families rarely, if ever, do so, does not mean that they do not live according to certain values. Each family has its own distinct set of mores-—whether it be a language, or a culture, or moral values, or traditions, or a certain way of looking at the world—that sets it apart from every other family (even happy families are not all alike), and in turn we are both shaped by those values and able to understand them and live by them in our own individual way (or, exceptionally, reject them altogether).

Attachment is justified by self-interest, and yet by more than self-interest. Why should I take care of my parents in retirement and in sickness? Is it because by taking care of me when I was a child they implicitly enrolled me in a “contract” whereby I owe obligations to them in return for their expense on me? In some sense, certainly. Is it because, in some Kantian way, the world would be worse off if nobody took care of their elders, and so I shouldn’t do that? Well, sure. But that’s not the reason, is it? The reason is that it’s the right thing to do. In some sense, the family only persists as an institution because it is congruent with our best self-interests as members of a species, and as I have said, a family which actively undermines its members’ best self-interests justly sees the members’ obligations toward it weakened, and even abolished. And yet, if we are to understand human beings as moral beings, we have to see ourselves as having duties toward our families that are not just defined by self-interest, even in the broadest sense of that word.

Duty to them is not viewed as exclusive of universal duties. It is often postulated that patriotism is contrary to universal human rights because it is exclusionary and because it elevates some class of people over the rest. But we see that in the case of the family, this just isn’t true. We all agree that we have stronger duties to our family than to the rest of the human fellowship, and yet we do not view this as being contradictory to our duties to all members of the human family. If some person I like, but only vaguely know, says “I’m in some financial trouble at the moment, can I crash on your couch for the next three months?” it is morally acceptable for me to say thanks, but no thanks.[1]

If my mother asks the same, it would be morally reprehensible for me not to say yes. In the case of the family, we see no contradictions. I have moral duties to all members of the human family, and yet we understand that in practice and in every day life, the discharge of our universal moral duties is first (but not exclusively) channeled through our natural communities.

Ultimately, then, we see that families are natural communities that justify attachment through both gratitude and shared values. You have duties to your family because without them you wouldn’t be alive, because they nourished you and helped you prosper, and because they provide succor even in your independence. But at the same time, our duty to family is not merely a self-interested deal between parties. We see that the institution would collapse if it were actively opposed to the self-interest of its members, but we also see that not only for it to thrive but as a matter of moral duty, we need to go beyond our immediate self-interest in our service to the family. We also see that we are attached to our family because its members share certain values, however ill-defined they may be. We see that in this attachment, in a mysterious way, kinship ties are bound up with more abstract notions of justice.

We also see that even though our nature imposes on us obligations towards these natural communities, these obligations can be dissolved if the community fails to make itself worthy of them. It would be the height of cruelty to berate a North Korean exile for failing to uphold her patriotic duty to her state.[2] But you’ll forgive me for seeing Americans who make money in America and then expatriate and give up their citizenship to pay lower taxes as, well, not morally righteous people, even if I agree that American taxes are too high.

What we see, in other words, is that our human nature places on us certain moral obligations towards our natural communities—the family and the nation—just as these communities have obligations to us, and that this is good.

I will end with a sort of philosophically unrigorous appeal to intuition and common sense. It is just not true that we as human beings owe nothing. It is just true that kinship ties are part of us, and that they are good when they are ordered toward justice.

It is true that if you are born in an advanced, prosperous, liberal country, you have been granted positively enormous privilege by mere birthright. It is true that this birthright is not free, that it was built as an edifice, for you, by your elders, and that the morally correct response to this is to feel gratitude to them, just like the morally correct response to membership in a natural community is service to it ordered toward justice. It is true that your forefathers gave their lives so that you may prosper, and that this blood is a debt.

What do we owe? Plenty, and we can see that this is good.


[1] You can postulate a morality where that also would be wrong, and as a Christian I can’t really say that it is wrong. But I will say that it’s awfully hard to base a political philosophy on it.

[2] In fact, I would argue that there is no North Korean state (except in the Westphalian sense), since North Korea is a totalitarian country, and totalitarianism properly understood is the negation of the state.

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?

A Military Service That Serves All Of Us

There is a lot to like about Zach Maurin’s proposal for civil national service. He is correct that there is a great need for volunteers, and also that a lot of young Americans want to volunteer but often fail to, either for financial considerations or for failing to find the right organization. He is also right that the government can play a productive role in this if it acts as a “platform,” not doing the worthy work itself but partnering with organizations and funding positions.[1]

In essence, Mr Maurin’s proposal for non-mandatory service is less for a “universal civilian national service” and more for simply greatly expanding, and perhaps reforming, existing service platforms such as AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps. The key idea, which is that by expanding the number of people who serve we can create a social expectation that we will, is certainly important and commendable.

That being said, I want to take this opportunity to explore why universal military service might be a good idea.

I’ve become interested in the idea of military service because it is orthogonal to so many of our contemporary debates and allows me to explore some issues in a way that most people don’t. I’ve found that exploring this idea leads to viewing things in a different light and highlights problems with current society in an interesting way.

One consistent problem with putting forward ideas in the political realm is failure of imagination. Don’t we need prisons? Don’t we need prisons for kids factory-style public schools? Aren’t children unqualified to vote? Don’t we need the government to tell us which medicines are safe and which aren’t? To all these questions I say no. But I’ve found that while critiquing is easy; it is much harder to show why alternatives are not just desirable, but actually possible.

In this spirit of expanding imagination, I want to noodle briefly on what a good regime of military service would look like and would entail. You should read this less as a policy white paper and more as a rumination on contemporary society and an exercise in imagination.

1. The Problem of the Rite of Passage

A persistent feature of every culture I’m aware of is a rite of passage into adulthood. For whatever reason, it seems that we humans need this rite of passage, both socially and personally.

In most ancient societies, this rite of passage was explicit: there was an actual rite, most often religious and with legal implications.

What we see in many Modern societies is that where there are no legal social rites of passage, the society creates them anyway, and soon enlists the state to enshrine these rites of passage.

Today in America, our culture has instituted the four-year residential college as the universal rite of passage.

Alongside economic anxiety brought about by globalization/technological change/macroeconomic mismanagement, (and perhaps a need to legitimize the imposition of class privilege), I would argue that this social need of a rite of passage is the main reason we have ended up with the grotesque monster that is the current American higher-education system, or at least a very underrated reason.

Only if we understand that our culture sees the four-year residential college as a quasi-religious rite of passage do we understand the insistence that attending it is not only desirable but necessary.

And it is worth noting what a monstrosity the American higher-education system has become.

Let us postulate that most people don’t learn much in college, and certainly that there could be much more efficient and effective ways of learning what is supposed to be learned in college. Let us postulate that most of the assumed economic benefits of college are due to signaling effects and selection bias, and only a minority to human capital.

We find ourselves staring at a system which is just staggering in the amount of waste it involves. Not only the waste of money, though it is gigantic, but also the waste of countless precious man-hours of young people, and the waste of opportunity for those countless students saddled with undischargeable debt. The waste of human capital, as students receive useless degrees when they could have learned useful trades, or started businesses, or volunteered, or actually learned the discipline stated on their parchment through apprenticeships and MOOCs, or pursued higher education to actually enrich their minds and not pursue a zero-sum status competition with China/Skynet/the Joneses. The waste in endlessly delayed adulthood, as student debt prevents citizens from establishing households, and as the now-worthless BA leads to a new zero-sum arms race in higher degrees (as we plainly see in Europe, where education has been thoroughly statized).

Libertarians will be quick to note that it is government that created this monster, and that is precisely my point. In a democracy, government is responsive to the public. Government created the monster because we want the monster, and the reason we want the monster is because we need rites of passage.

In order to both restore higher education to its proper and highly important place as a fount of knowledge (and not as a merchant of dreams), and to remediate the enormous, tragic waste that we currently have, we need to invent a new rite of passage.

This rite of passage needs to have a few elements:

  • It must be widely seen as a rite of passage—as ferrying people from childhood to adulthood.
  • It must be widely seen as preparing people for adulthood.
  • It must be the province of a widely respected institution.
  • It must be seen as demanding.
  • It must be widely seen as conferring various skills that enable people to step confidently into adulthood, both in market terms (i.e., get a job) and in more abstract terms. It would be even better if it actually did do those things.

I’ve wracked my brain for a while, and I can’t think of an institution other than military service that has even a chance of meeting these criteria.

You see inklings of this in societies like Israel and South Korea, where military service is widely seen as preparation for adult life. In the particular case of Israel, the vast majority of observers of its entrepreneurial miracle have pointed to its military service as one source of the miracle, since it often confers professional skills (a modern military needs engineers as well as mechanics) and also leadership skills and a certain comfort with risk-taking. Which brings us to…

2. The Problem of Risk

Here is another speculation about modern society. It’s not one that I’m sure to be convinced by, but it’s one that perhaps makes some sense. It would be a narrative that would go something like this: as the material prosperity of a society rises, the risk-aversion of its members proportionally increases. You could say that for a species that evolved with scarcity, the abundance society is a superstimulus.

You see signs of this everywhere you look. You see this in finance, where the entire apparatus of finance theory is designed to transform something that is inherently the domain of Knightian uncertainty into quantifiable risk, with disastrous consequences.[2] You see this in the seemingly unstoppable rise of government, as people seek protection from various ills, real or imagined.[3] You see this in the ever-shrinking birthrates and the gap between desired and actual fertility. You see this in our ever-expanding adolescence and our ever-receding horizon of adulthood. You see this in the atomization of society and the rise of narcissism. You see this in the continuing fear of free markets and their creative destruction, despite their demonstrated success.

Of course, the problem is that the continuation of our material prosperity—and more generally the vibrancy of our civilization—requires a society-wide comfort with risk-taking. And libertarians will be quick to see how society-wide comfort with risk-taking is related to society-wide comfort with individual liberty.

If I am right about this idea of abundance superstimulus leading to irrational risk-aversion, we have a serious problem on our hands.

One idea that might have merit would be to have some sort of controlled environment where people could be shown—could experience by themselves—that risk-taking is the salt of life, and that most of us can be more comfortable with risk, and thrive more, than we would tend to believe ahead of time.

Meanwhile, the military art necessitates the understanding of judicious risk-taking. You could envision a curriculum of military service that would, with the right kind of exercises, teach people about risk-taking and leadership. People would learn by doing, and they would feel it in their bones.

I am an entrepreneur, and many of my friends are entrepreneurs. I can report, and all of us can report, that taking the leap into starting our own business, taking this risk, while scary, was a lot more scary beforehand than after. I often ask this question to entrepreneurs I know: if they had known before starting their business what they now know, would they have started it? The answer I get is almost always the same: if I had known what I know now, I would have started sooner, because I now realize the only reason I didn’t do it was because I was scared, and I was wrong to be scared.

3. Military Service As Education

When people advocate for military service they often point to the virtues that it is supposed to inculcate. This often takes the form of fuzzy hand-waving, which is in turn easy to exaggerate, and to mock.

Military service teaches virtue, or else it teaches endurance, or else it teaches how to live together, or… something. I can’t say that I’m not guilty of this.

I think one reason for this vagueness is probably that we haven’t thought of military service properly as a kind of curriculum. When modern military service was established in most large countries, the military priorities were evident and immediate, for it was the era of mass warfare, and the first necessity of military service was to produce soldiers, in sufficient numbers and hopefully sufficiently trained.

Today we still need militaries, but (hopefully) the era of mass warfare is over for advanced nations and (probably) the era of completely automated robot warfare is still a long ways off.[4]

This allows us to consciously think of the military as a part of the school curriculum. This allows us to think of a training program that would, first, obviously, teach people to be soldiers, but also consciously be designed to teach them virtues applicable for the rest of their lives.

There are the things that soldiers should know and that everybody else should know, such as physical fitness, self-defense, weapons handling, first aid and emergency medicine, backpacking, sewing, cleaning, and so on.

Then there what we might call “virtues,” the fuzzy things that military service is supposed to inculcate. Instead of puffing and postulating that military service teaches virtues, let us instead think of how it can teach them. Can we imagine exercises that put people in leadership roles? Can we imagine exercises that are designed so that the proper response is to question a superior’s commands? We already know that military boot camp is in fact not just designed to inculcate physical fitness and obedience, but also to subtly teach certain values, such as comradeship.

Then there are the professional skills. Here the opportunity is enormous to create a new kind of credential, one that would work on both the signaling plane and that of human capital. A military needs people who can actually do a job, not people who just checked boxes on an exam, because if people don’t do their job, other people die, which is why military training in a certain professional skill is (or should be) highly regarded. A military also needs people of every vocational field, from highly skilled engineers to tradesmen and manual workers to accountants, to painters and writers (really). This means that these certifications would obliterate the artificial and elitist separation between the trades and the desk-bound, valorized vocations. We should certainly not mandate that people “graduate” from military service with a skill, since it would destroy the selectivity and thus value of these credentials, but we should certainly set ambitious targets. We can imagine that over time half of the people would leave military service with a marketable skill, and thus be able at a young age to step fully and confidently into an independent, adult life. They would be numerous enough to suck the blood out of the college-industrial complex.

We should imagine a flexible, algorithmic system that would allow the military to offer positions and training commensurate with both the military’s internal demands and the market’s demands. We should also demand experimentation and rigorous, public testing in how every aspect of service is designed, so that service keeps being useful to recruits instead of devolving into mere bureaucracy.

Finally, we should make the inducement for pursuing military service not that fake currency, educational scholarships (which would make service an arm of the college-industrial complex), but instead cash. Lots of it. Why shouldn’t someone who performs outstandingly and earns a difficult certification receive several tens of thousands of dollars upon leaving the military? Given the money currently incinerated by the current higher-education system, it would be a bargain[5]. If that person wants to apply that money towards further education, let them (and if the college-industrial complex is tamed, the price of education will fall like a rock). But if they want to start a business, or save for the future, or for that matter travel around the world, as many young Israelis do after military service, wouldn’t that be great too?

Instead of building a nation of over-indebted 22-year old teenagers, we would be building a nation of independent, 19-year-old adults.


I can see certain problems with my ideas: All the reasons why it wouldn’t work, and all the reasons why it’s not acceptable to try to do this. But I hope I can’t say that I’ve failed for lack of imagination.


[1] Another, and highly desirable, way the government could expand civil society and volunteerism would be to increase the tax deduction for charitable giving.

[2] In short, Nassim Nicholas Taleb is right.

[3] It is often noted that many self-described conservatives want small government in theory but don’t want it when shrinking the government might affect them. This is a convincing reason.

[4] And even then—what does Country A do when Country B’s robots destroy its robots?

[5] This might also be a way to reconcile my vision with libertarians’: let’s just raise the reward of military service until it’s market-clearing.

More National Service Means More Individual Freedom

I’m confused: why do Jacob Hornberger and others from the libertarian camp so often think that civilian national service serves the state? (Whatever is meant by the “state.”)

These arguments often make me think they view national service as a state takeover of the individual – that some government official is going to pick you up in an unmarked van in the dark of night, drive you to an unknown destination, put you in a government uniform, and then brainwash you so you’ll dutifully serve the state. For the record, I’d be against that too.

Fortunately, that is not at all how our modern day national service programs work. Or anything close to that. Perhaps the combination of the words “national” and “service” are the issue. What if we called it a “year of charity to your community”? That’s what most of us national service advocates are asking for, and that’s what exists today.

The biggest national service program, AmeriCorps, is a government agency that makes grants to private nonprofits that want to support young people in a term of service with their organizations. The host organization such as Habitat for Humanity, Montana Conservation Corps, or thousands of others, then have to match the AmeriCorps dollars (that is, taxpayer money) with non-federal funds.

When serving with these organizations you work for them, at their direction – not for the government. (Though in the words of Jerry Seinfeld, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”)

In Hornberger’s latest piece he talks about the voluntary donations to one’s church. There’s a request, but no expectation to give, and no consequence if you don’t. That’s exactly how national service works and what I’m advocating for. Political leaders, community leaders, church leaders, teachers, parents, and friends should ask – not require – young people to serve a year to their community to help others.

The work they do – mentoring struggling students so they pass their classes, helping families rebuild after floods, and working with the elderly to live independently – will help more Americans live more freely. Isn’t that what Hornberger and libertarians want?

More National Service Means More Waste, More Deadweight Loss, and More Coercion

Earlier I asked Zach Maurin to name the market failure that would justify his proposed new federal program, namely one year of funding (at some unspecified salary level, which is not a negligible consideration!) for all who those who wished to work at a nonprofit.

It would have to be a pretty remarkable market failure if it just so happened to have such a precise, tidy little solution: Somehow Maurin would have to argue that the market for labor in the nonprofit sector was continuously failing to clear by exactly this much: In good economic times and in bad, through terrible tragedies and also through ordinary life, he’d have to say that there was always just this much value being left on the table.

I knew it was very unlikely that he could do this. Personally, I can’t even make up a market failure with those characteristics. And, in his most recent piece, Maurin appears not to have triedInstead, he writes about how volunteers do good work.

That’s nice, and I certainly believe it, but it’s not what I’m looking for. It surely is a good work to “mentor struggling students so they pass their classes, help families rebuild after floods, and work with the elderly to live independently.” I hope that many will continue to do exactly these things. I also hope that our economy will grow vigorously, giving many more the resources to care not just for themselves and their families, but for a wider and wider community. That would be wonderful.

But I do not agree that adding one year of paid labor for all who desire it will solve all our various social ills the most efficiently, given the resources otherwise at hand. That’s not solving a market failure. That’s magical thinking.

The fact that we can imagine a person doing good does not mean that we should ask the government to pay for him. When we reach for the government, we must remember to think both of what is seen and of what is unseen. Politicians tend to prefer the seen, and it’s very rare indeed that they even think about the unseen. But economic actions always have effects of both types.

In Maurin’s most recent essay, and indeed in his earlier piece, he neglects to mention the unseen costs of volunteer work. In a way I can’t blame him. Such costs are impossible to calculate. But as I alluded to earlier, it would be startling to tamper so crudely with a labor market and produce no significant negative effects. It is also very unclear that nonprofit work is precisely where all these people can do the most good for society — but only for one additional year. To make that argument, you’d need a coherent theory of a market failure, which we still don’t have.

And then there is the deadweight cost of taxation: Workers’ salaries have to be paid for with taxes, either now or in the future, and the deadweight loss that results is a good reason all by itself to keep tax rates low. 

Now I’m going to take off my economist hat, which I only wear when I must. It simply is not true that allowing individuals to choose their nonprofit activities makes Maurin’s program voluntary. It is no such thing. Taxpayer money comes from taxpayers, after all, and taxation is not voluntary. Maurin is thus wrong when he writes:

In Hornberger’s latest piece he talks about the voluntary donations to one’s church. There’s a request, but no expectation to give, and no consequence if you don’t. That’s exactly how national service works and what I’m advocating for. Political leaders, community leaders, church leaders, teachers, parents, and friends should ask – not require – young people to serve a year to their community to help others.

Maurin would not request that anyone give their money. He would command them, through the power of the Internal Revenue Service. That’s a power that churches do not have — thank goodness — and one I do not think his program should have either. 

Seeing Red

A popular expression for being angry is “to see red.” It gets at an important truth, which is that anger causes a sort of partial blindness. When you put on red-colored glasses, you start to miss important details; grey turns into black.

I would advise Jacob Hornberger to take off those glasses, take a deep breath, and read my essays again. Perhaps then he would stop attributing to me views that I cannot be said to hold, and perhaps then his blows would land on me, and not on the air, or on strawmen.

The idea of military service sends Mr. Hornberger into ludicrous fantasies of armed resistance against the state’s jack-booted thugs, as if such a hypothetical would teach anybody anything; as if that is any sort of defensible response to a democratic law deemed unjust. (Don’t get to close to Mr. Hornberger’s house around tax day, you might catch a stray bullet.)

Mr. Hornberger writes that “no doubt” I believe the state has “omnipotent power” to decide the citizen’s obligations, while linking to the essay where I specifically write that the state loses its legitimacy once it infringes on the citizens’ natural rights. He faults me for not explaining the specific terms of these obligations. The reason, as I wrote, is that it is up to each nation to do so for itself. He takes me to endorse unfettered majority rule when I write that the social contract theory I uphold cannot be held as an open-ended writ for it.

Is Mr. Hornberger really serious when he writes that I “see society as a great big bee hive, one in which everyone exists to serve the greater good of the hive”?

He writes “Where Gobry goes wrong is with his assumption that the state, not the individual, is sovereign.” He could have written “Gobry is a 250 pound woman from Montana” and his readers would be equally well informed.

Through Mr. Hornberger’s monochromatic vision, we see that there are only two kinds of people in the world: libertarians and “statists.”

Either the individual is sovereign, or else the state is. If you are not a libertarian, why, you must believe that society is just a “great big bee hive” and that “slavery” to the state is legitimate. No middle ground! No grey areas! All or nothing!

Libertarians “believe in fundamental, God-given, natural rights that preexist government, rights that are immune from the will of the majority.” That’s very good for them, because so do I. (Would it blow Mr. Hornberger’s mind if I told him most quasi-socialists do, too?)

In the end, Mr. Hornberger has written something that I never could: a very convincing reductio ad absurdum of libertarianism. If libertarianism were really this stunted, Manichean worldview, it would have nothing to recommend in itself.

The libertarianism I admire and learn from is the one of Milton Friedman, empirical, nuanced and uplifting; and of F. A. Hayek, whose starting point is the recognition of the inherent complexity of human affairs and limitations of human beings, one that leads not just to rejecting central planning, but to a fundamental epistemic humility. This humility leads to a belief in the justice of limited government, but also to respect for the institutions that have for so long sustained human flourishing, including community and nation.

Of course, that’s what I would say. After all, I’m a conservative. Maybe I’m wrong. But Mr. Hornberger hasn’t convinced me, nor, I suspect, anybody else who wasn’t already convinced.