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Libertarian Lessons: Conscription

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Authoritarians love conscription because it turns human beings into resources, for the factory or the battlefield. The idea receives support from across the political spectrum, either (a) to fight wars abroad, or (b) for the development of a “youth corps” providing “free” services at home. Neither excuse justifies enslaving young people to serve the interests of the political class.

At the core of a free society must lie a belief in the value of each individual, and the right of everyone to shape his destiny without forceful interference from others. We are not the means to others’ ends; we are not tools to be used and discarded in pursuit of some grand design. The morality behind conscription in any form is therefore corrupt and malign.

The promise of the Enlightenment, which so greatly influenced America’s Founding Fathers, was that each person requires freedom in order that he might fully realize his potential. The existence of slavery within the Republic was a moral crisis for those who promised “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” to all. Ten years after the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.”

Another eight decades would pass before the issue was finally resolved. The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1865, reads, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” That wretched vestige of Old World elitism was finally eradicated by the highest law of the land.

Unfortunately, judges and legislators carved out an exception for conscription because they elevated the sentimental notion of “service to country” above the sanctity of each person’s life. Mandatory service to a private interest – a slave plantation, for example – was correctly deemed an untenable violation of human dignity, yet bowing to the diktats of flag-waving politicians somehow became a prime virtue. Writing during the Vietnam War, Ayn Rand called the military draft “the most blatantly statist violation of a man’s right to his own life” and noted its corrosive effect on the relationship between government and citizen:

“If the state may force a man to risk death or hideous maiming and crippling, in a war declared at the state’s discretion, for a cause he may neither approve of nor even understand, if his consent is not required to send him into unspeakable martyrdom – then, in principle, all rights are negated in that state, and its government is not man’s protector any longer.”

Nor does the issue take on a different character when domestic bliss is the intended goal. Converting young people – against their will – into a cadre of social workers, day laborers, or child-minders sacrifices the individual’s dreams to the government’s whims. It does no good to tell someone he may pursue happiness at a later date; an opportunity missed today may be lost forever.

Forcing an individual into the service of the government or others is slavery. Those running the meat-grinder may have been elected to their position, but that only demonstrates the threat that public officials pose to freedom, even in a democracy. Would the slave-owner gain legitimacy if chosen by a majority? Young people should never be forced to put their lives on hold – or give them up altogether – for lofty notions of the “common good.” Libertarians rightly reject involuntary servitude in every form, and for any cause.

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