Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry Argues For Compulsory Military Service (from a Libertarian Perspective)

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry

Not sure if you like to check out Cato Unbound, which is project of the Cato Institute where a lead essay is presented and response essays follow, but this month’s lead essay is entitled, “The Libertarian Case for National Military Service,” written by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry.

Predictably, many readers found such an idea ridiculous. On its face, I agree with them: what could be more antithetical to libertarians than combining the injustice of forced servitude with the atrocity of war? Indeed, many of the commenters took issue with Gobry’s definition of a libertarian, which he sharply distinguished from being anarchist. (Which seems a bit pretentious since in a comment to Kuznicki’s response, Gobry claims that he is not a libertarian.)

However, I seriously attempted to overcome the obvious points of contention about what a libertarian is and is not, and focused on the main point being made: that an ideal libertarian society would have a compulsory national military service.

Thus, I left the following comment, which is currently still awaiting a response:

Despite finding myriad problems with the points made on this essay, I want to focus on three.

One is that I don’t find the case made for conscription being a bulwark against jingoism all that convincing. Is there an example outside of Switzerland that this is the case (assuming that universal conscription is, in fact, a major contributing factor)? Is it not the case that totalitarian regimes won’t hesitate to conscript unwilling civilians? I’m ignorant of which nations do what, but would be surprised if there is a correlation between countries that use conscription and how free they are generally.

The war in Vietnam is contrasted with the war in Iraq as having more protestation due to the draft. But this is hardly a comfort; unwilling men were sent to kill and die in southeast Asia, nonetheless. Conscription did not keep the US out of WWI or WWII or the Korean War.

Secondly, it seems that the argument that universal conscription will make Americans more dovish towards foreign policy because they bear the costs is contradicted earlier in the essay, when it’s said that only a small minority will ever see combat and for most, military service is playing in the mud while being yelled at. So, universal military service isn’t so bad because it’s probably the case you won’t be shot at, but it’s important to have because everyone bears the costs?

Lastly, if the goal is really to have the costs be widespread so that people are less anxious to go to war, I think a measure much more acceptable to libertarians would be to restore a hard money standard and force the government to fund these wars through direct taxation rather than through credit and inflation. If the financial costs of foreign wars were not hidden from taxpayers and put on future generations, there would be a revolt before the wars could last as long as they have.

If anything, Gobry demonstrates what a slippery slope accepting expanded roles for the State can be. Here are the implications Gobry gets from what he thinks libertarians believe:

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.

Perhaps this way of thinking will turn more minarchists into anarchists. Why, if we allow a role for the State to coerce at all, then we have to accept its ability to force people to kill and die in its name, mandate compulsory schooling, and that being forced to become a soldier is a prerequisite for freedom!

I think David D’Amato summed it up best in his response to Gobry’s essay:

I’ve never had much interest in attempting to decide who is or isn’t allowed to call himself a libertarian…Instead, I would want to make it very plain that if we assume, arguendo, libertarianism actually can countenance military conscription, then I no longer wish to identify myself as a libertarian. If libertarianism can tolerate something as odious and authoritarian as legally enforced enslavement to a war machine, it’s really not something I want to have even the remotest association with.


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