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The Most Important Argument against the Draft


As neoconservatives and some “liberals” contemplate bringing back the draft, it is time for all friends of liberty to prepare for a national debate of the utmost importance. Restoring conscription would be a monumental assault on individual liberty in America, one of the worst asaults since the military draft was last used in 1973.

Many Americans fall back on utilitarian arguments against the draft, saying it’s unnecessary or ineffective in defending America or engaging in foreign interventions. These arguments might very well be sound, and have their place.

But the most important, fundamental argument against the draft is moral. The draft is a form of slavery. There is no way around it. Compelling a person to work for the state is involuntary servitude. Forcing a person to fight, kill, and possibly die in a war — and threatening resisters with imprisonment and deserting conscripts with death — is a particularly immoral brand of enslavement, and it is murder for all conscripts who do not survive the war.

That some people are uncomfortable hearing or voicing this argument demonstrates how far we must go before America becomes a truly free society. The greatest triumph for individual liberty in modern times was the abolition of chattel slavery, which occurred throughout the western hemisphere in the 19th century — but which first was advanced as a goal, largely on moral grounds.

The American abolitionists believed that slavery was totally incompatible with human freedom and civilization, and they feared not in saying so. They used unequivocal language to advance their uncompromising principle. As William Lloyd Garrison put it in the first issue of the anti-slavery publication The Liberator in 1831,

I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or to speak, or write, with moderation. No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; — but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present.

That the Constitution sanctioned slavery did not give pause to Garrison in his unwavering words of conviction; instead, it inspired him to condemn the Constitution as a “covenant with Death and an agreement with Hell.” Now that the Constitution has long been amended to forbid slavery and involuntary servitude, we do not need to condemn the Constitution to condemn the immoral institution of conscription. Every major instance of the U.S. government’s implementing the draft since the Civil War — during the world wars, and the Korean and Vietnam wars — has stood in clear violation of the Thirteenth Amendment. The Constitution in its current language leaves little room for interpretation of its prohibition of forced labor.

As compelling as they may be, the constitutional arguments against the draft are secondary in importance to the moral issues involved. Lysander Spooner took the approach that the Constitution actually forbade slavery, and he eventually converted Frederick Douglass to that position. As a rhetorical strategy it never achieved much, however, any more than the constitutional arguments against the draft on Thirteenth-Amendment grounds, presented by anti-war activists during the First World War. Their arguments were quite sound but they landed a number of war dissenters in jail merely for voicing them.

What eventually made people come around on the slavery issue, and what will most likely make them come around on the draft issue, is the moral argument of the abolitionists, who unconditionally championed the rights of individual persons to self-ownership. They succeeded not only in the eventual abolition of slavery in much of the world, but in forever etching in people’s minds everywhere the axiomatic and self-evident truth that slavery is a grave injustice that must be condemned and never defended.

So powerful is this idea that people are afraid to compare anything to slavery. But in the context of military service, the anti-slavery ideal has not yet been completely embraced; otherwise there would be little confusion or shock when one utters that the draft is a form of slavery.

The draft is among the greatest of all crimes the modern western state inflicts upon “its” own people. For all of one’s liberty to be stolen, to have to serve the state even at the cost of one’s own life, is a far greater injustice to face than a tax increase or a new burdensome regulation — as horrible as the latter policies are to one’s liberty and property. If someone cannot own himself, all other property rights become moot. When his liberty is seized for the purpose of killing, wretched insult and injury are only added to the grave injustice of compelled labor.

We need to repeat this idea to ourselves, if we are to successfully prevent the reemergence of conscription in our time. We must dedicate ourselves to the moral cause of opposing the draft as we would dedicate ourselves to opposing the greatest of all totalitarian threats to our freedom.

Conscription is slavery, and if it returns, any arguments over whether America is a free country become obsolete. No nation is free when its government seizes not just the products, but the very means, of labor from its young. A nation that utilizes conscription in the name of freedom suffers under the most perverse of absurdities, for, to the extent that young people can be forced to fight, there is no free society left to defend.

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    Anthony Gregory is research fellow at the Independent Institute, a policy adviser to the Future of Freedom Foundation, author of The Power of Habeas Corpus in America (Cambridge University Press, 2013), and a history graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley.