Conscription As Involuntary Servitude
Extracted from For a New Liberty by Murray Rothbard
If there is anything a libertarian must be squarely and totally against, it is involuntary servitude — forced labor — an act which denies the most elemental right of self-ownership. “Liberty” and “slavery” have ever been recognized to be polar opposites. The libertarian, therefore, is totally opposed to slavery. An academic question nowadays, one might object? But is it really? For what is slavery but (a) forcing people to work at tasks the slave-master wishes, and (b) paying them either pure subsistence or, at any rate, less than the slave would have accepted voluntarily. In sort, forced labor at below free-market wages.
Thus, are we really free of “slavery,” of involuntary servitude in present-day America? Is the prohibition against involuntary servitude of the Thirteenth Amendment really being obeyed?
Surely, for one example, there can be no more blatant case of involuntary servitude than our entire system of conscription. Every youth is forced to register with the selective service system when he turns eighteen. He is compelled to carry his draft card at all times, and, at whatever time the federal government deems fit, he is seized by the authorities and inducted into the armed forces. There his body and will are no longer his own; he is subject to the dictates of the government; and he can be forced to kill and to place his own life in jeopardy if the authorities so decree. What else is involuntary servitude if not the draft?
The utilitarian aspect permeates the argument for the conscription system. Thus the government uses the argument: Who will defend us against foreign attack if we do not employ coercion and conscript our defenders? There are several rebuttals for a libertarian to make to this line of reasoning. In the first place, if you and I and our next-door neighbor think that we need defending, we have no moral right to use coercion — the bayonet or the revolver — to force someone else to defend us. This act of conscripting is just as much a deed of unjustifiable aggression — of kidnapping and possibly murder — as the alleged aggression we are trying to guard ourselves against in the first place. If we add that the draftees owe their bodies and their lives, if necessary, to “society” or to “their country,” then we must retort: Who is this “society” or this “country” that is being used as a talisman to justify enslavement? It is simply all individuals in the territorial area except the youths being conscripted. “Society” and “country” are in this case mythical abstractions that are being used to cloak the naked use of coercion to promote the interests of specific individuals.
Secondly, to move to the utilitarian plane, why is it considered necessary to conscript defenders? No one is conscripted on the free market, yet on that market people obtain, through voluntary purchase and sale, every conceivable manner of goods and services, even the most necessary ones. On the market, people can and do obtain food, shelter, clothing, medical care, etc. Why can’t they hire defenders as well? Indeed, there are plenty of people being hired every day to perform dangerous services: forest firefighters, rangers, test pilots, and . . . police and private guards and watchmen. Why can’t soldiers be hired in the same way?
Or, to put it another way, the government employs countless thousands of people for all sorts of services, from truck drivers to scientists to typists; how is it that none of these people have to be conscripted? Why is there no “shortage” of these occupations to supposedly force the government to resort to compulsion to obtain them? To go a step further, even within the army there is no “shortage” of officers and no need to draft them; no one conscripts generals or admirals. The answer to these questions is simple: there is no shortage of government typists because the government goes out on the market and hires them at the market wage; there is no shortage of generals because they are paid handsomely, in salaries, perquisites, and pensions. There is a shortage of buck privates because their pay is — or was, until very recently — abysmally below the market wage. For years, even including the monetary value of the free food, shelter, and other services supplied the GIs, the earnings of the buck private were something like one-half the salary he could have earned in civilian life. Is it any wonder that there has been a chronic shortage of enlistees? For years it has been known that the way to induce people to volunteer for hazardous jobs is to pay them extra as a compensation. But the government has been paying the men half of what they could earn in private life.
There is also the special disgrace of the doctors’ draft, in which physicians are subject to the draft at ages far beyond anyone else. Are doctors, then, to be penalized for their entry into the profession of medicine? What is the moral justification for onerous burdens placed on this particular, and vitally important, profession? Is this the way to cure the shortage of doctors — to put every man on notice that if he becomes a physician he will be sure to be drafted, and at a specially late age? Once again, the armed forces’ need for doctors could easily be satisfied if the government were willing to pay physicians the market salary, plus enough to compensate them for the hazardous labor. If the government wishes to hire nuclear physicists or “think-tank” strategists, it finds ways of doing so at extremely handsome salaries. Are doctors lower forms of humanity?
While conscription into the armed forces is a blatant and aggravated form of involuntary servitude, there is another, far more subtle and therefore less detectable form: the structure of the army itself. Consider this: in what other occupation in the country are there severe penalties, including prison and in some cases execution, for “desertion,” i.e., for quitting the particular employment? If someone quits General Motors, is he shot at sunrise?
It might be objected that, in the case of enlistees, the soldier or officer has voluntarily agreed to serve for a certain term, and he is therefore obligated to continue in service for that term of years. But the whole concept of “term of service” is part of the problem. Suppose, for example, that an engineer signs a contract with ARAMCO to serve for three years in Saudi Arabia. After a few months he decides that the life is not for him and he quits. This may well be a moral default on his part — a breach of moral obligation. But is it a legally enforceable obligation? In short, can he or should he be forced by the monopoly of weaponry of government to keep working for the remainder of his term? If so, that would be forced labor and enslavement. For while it is true that he made a promise of future work, his body continues, in a free society, to be owned by himself alone. In practice and in libertarian theory as well, then, the engineer might be morally criticized for the breach, he may be blacklisted by other oil firms, he may be forced to return any advance pay tendered to him by the company, but he will not be enslaved to ARAMCO for the three-year period.
But if this is true of ARAMCO, or of any other occupation or job in private life, why should it be different in the army? If a man signs up for seven years and then quits, he should be allowed to leave. He will lose pension rights, he will be morally criticized, he may be blacklisted from similar occupations, but he cannot, as a self-owner, be enslaved against his will.
It may be protested that the armed forces is a peculiarly important occupation that needs this sort of coercive sanction that other jobs do not have. Setting aside the importance of such occupations as medicine, agriculture and transportation that need not resort to such methods, let us consider a comparable defense occupation in civilian life — the police. Surely the police perform an equally, and perhaps more vital, service — and yet every year people join the police and quit the force, and there is no coercive attempt to bind their labor through years of enlistment. In addition to demanding the end of conscription, then, the libertarian also proposes to do away with the entire concept of a term of enlistment and the practice of slavery this implies. Let the armed forces operate in ways similar to police, firemen, rangers, private guards, etc. — free of the blight and the moral crime of involuntary servitude.
But there is more to be said about the army as an institution, even if it were made completely voluntary. Americans have almost totally forgotten one of the noblest and strongest elements in the original American heritage: determined opposition to the entire institution of a “standing army.” A government that has a permanent standing army at its disposal will always be tempted to use it, and to use it in an aggressive, interventionist, and warlike manner. While foreign policy will be dealt with below, it is clear that a permanent army is a standing temptation to the State to enlarge its power, to push around other people as well as other countries, and to dominate the internal life of the nation. The original aim of the Jeffersonian movement — a largely libertarian factor in American political life — was to abolish the standing army and navy altogether. The original American principle was that if the nation was attacked, then the citizens would hasten to join to repell the invader. A standing armed force, then, could only lead to trouble and to the aggrandizement of State power. In the course of his trenchant and prophetic attack on the proposed Constitution in the Virginia ratifying convention, Patrick Henry warned of a standing army: “Congress, by the power of taxation, by that of raising an army, and by their control over the militia, have the sword in one hand, and the purse in the other. Shall we be safe without either?”
Any standing army, then, poses a standing threat to liberty. Its monopoly of coercive weapons, its modern tendency toward creating and supporting a “military-industrial complex” to supply that army, and last, but not least, as Patrick Henry notes, the taxing power to finance that army, pose a continuing threat of the army’s perpetual expansion in size and power. Any tax-supported institution, of course, is opposed by the libertarian as coercive, but an army is uniquely menacing for its amassing and collecting into one set of hands the massive power of modern weaponry.