Archive | Conscription

A “Libertarian” Case for Conscription?

There are a number of standard arguments for military conscription. But Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry’s recent essay for Cato Unbound is unusual for claiming that conscription can be justified on libertarian grounds. With the possible exception of strict pacifism, it’s difficult to imagine an ideology more antithetical to conscription than libertarianism.

As it turns out, most of Gobry’s “libertarian” arguments for conscription are fairly conventional rationales for the draft dressed up in libertarian terminology. And the sheep’s clothing doesn’t make the wolves any more convincing than they are in their usual garb.

I. Conscription as a Threat to Liberty.

The most fundamental flaw in Gobry’s argument is that he ignores the extent to which conscription is not just any restriction on liberty but a very severe one. Subjecting millions of people to forced labor and harsh discipline for two to three years or longer is a very high level of coercion. It can be justified, if at all, only by strong evidence that the draft produces some great good that cannot be achieved by less oppressive means. You don’t have to be a libertarian to see this. A great many conservatives and liberals also understand this point, which is one of the reasons why the vast majority of Americans (most of whom are not libertarians) oppose the reintroduction of conscription. Libertarians set a higher value on liberty than adherents of other ideologies, and thus should require an even higher burden of proof before endorsing conscription. Libertarians should be the last people to accept a form of coercion that even most non-libertarians now reject.

Gobry tries to sidestep this issue by comparing conscription to taxation, mandatory jury service, and mandatory education for children, all of which he claims libertarians accept. But taxation and jury service are much less severe impositions than conscription. There […]

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Rep. Charles Rangel Cites Possible Intervention in Syria as a Justification for his Call for Reinstating the Draft

Democratic Representative Charles Rangel cites the possibility of intervention in Syria as a justification for reinstating the draft, a cause he has long advocated:

America seems increasingly inclined to engage in a new military conflict every few years, faced with a new populace to defend, a new democracy to design, and a new dictator to dethrone. We intend to wage a so-called “limited war,” when there is, in fact, no such thing. It is unfortunate that we don’t give enough thought on why and how we decide to get involved, and who we send into harm’s way when we do….

What enables this war-friendly philosophy is the fact that there is no military draft to dodge. Our soldiers are signed up and ready to go, so there’s no American public to convince because so few have any skin in the game.

I discussed some of the flaws in Rangel’s argument here. Public opinion data undercuts the notion that people who can’t be drafted are more likely to support war. In addition, the lack of a draft has not prevented majority public opinion from consistently opposing military intervention in Syria.

It’s also worth noting that Rangel is simply wrong in his assertion that there is “no such thing” as limited war. The US has in fact conducted numerous tightly limited wars over the years, including military interventions in Grenada, Panama, Libya, and Kosovo, among others. It’s certainly true that not all wars can be kept limited in this way, and that some military interventions are unwise or unjust even if they are limited. But Rangel’s rejection of the very possibility of limited war is incorrect.

I largely agree with Rangel’s bottom line position on Syria. Like him, I think the US should probably stay out. But not all arguments […]

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Women in Combat and the Constitutionality of Male-Only Draft Registration

The Pentagon’s recent decision to open up combat roles to women has led legal scholar Gerard Magliocca wonder whether our current system of male-only draft registration is still constitutional. Conservative commentator Dave Carter predicts that the courts will rule that it is not, and women will be made subject to the draft.

In the 1981 case of Rostker v. Goldberg, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of male-only draft registration in part because women were barred from combat roles, and female draftees are therefore less valuable to the military than male ones would be. In the thirty years since then, more and more combat roles have been opened up to women, and the Pentagon’s most recent decision is likely to eliminate most if not all remaining gender-based restrictions. So that rationale for a male-only draft is undercut.

But then-Justice William Rehnquist’s majority opinion also relied heavily the courts’ “lack of competence” on national security issues and the consequent need for “healthy deference to legislative and executive judgments in the area of military affairs.” That deference might justify upholding male-only draft registration even if all or most combat positions are open to women. The federal government could argue that, in the expert judgment of the military, few women have the strength and endurance needed for many combat positions, even if they are not categorically barred from them. Thus, female draftees might still be less useful to the military than male ones. A court applying “healthy deference” might choose not to contest that assertion.

Lower courts applying Rostker could therefore still conclude that male-only draft registration is constitutional, though Rostker is ambiguous enough on the amount of deference due that the issue is not a slam dunk. If the issue gets to the Supreme Court however, I’m far from certain that […]

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Charles Rangel’s Case for Conscription

If the Pentagon’s recent decision to open up combat positions to women leads conservative Dave Carter to worry that women will be drafted, liberal Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel embraces the idea and calls for the establishment of a draft that applies to both men and women:

Since January 2003, at the height of the debate on the possible unilateral strike against Iraq, I have advocated for a reinstatement of the military draft to ensure a more equitable representation of people making sacrifices in wars in which the United States is engaged….

Currently the burden of defending our nation is carried by less than 1% of the American population. The 2.2 million members of the armed forces in active duty, the National Guard and the Reserve have become a virtual military class that makes the ultimate sacrifice of laying down life and limb for our country….

Since we replaced the compulsory military draft with an all-volunteer force in 1973, our nation has been making decisions about wars without worry over who fights them. I sincerely believe that reinstating the draft would compel the American public to have a stake in the wars we fight as a nation. That is why I wrote the Universal National Service Act, known as the “draft” bill, which requires all men and women between ages 18 and 25 to give two years of service in any capacity that promotes our national defense.

Rangel’s equality argument for the draft is dubious. If we reinstate the draft, it would still be true that only a small percentage of Americans would ever actually serve in combat during wartime and take the risk of “making the ultimate sacrifice.” Even during World War II, only about 16 million Americans served in the armed forces out of a population of 132 million […]

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Women and the Draft

The Pentagon’s recent decision to abolish most restrictions on women serving in combat leads conservative commentator Dave Carter to worry that women will now be subject to the military draft:

It was 22 or 23 years ago, I think, that I wrote in the Air Force Times a cautionary article on the combat exclusion that prohibited women from joining front line combat units. My concern then, as now, was that lifting the combat exclusion would removed the only remaining barrier to our daughters, wives, moms, and sisters being eligible for a military draft….

In 1982, the Supreme Court ruled in Rostker v. Goldberg, that the requirement for males to sign up for Selective Service was constitutional precisely because women were excluded from serving in front line combat units. “The court ruled that the Selective Service process is designed to assemble combat-ready people, and right now women are excluded from combat arms,” said Professor Anne Coughlin, of the University of Virginia School of Law in Charlottesville. “Therefore,” she said, “they can’t participate in the very thing that the draft is for.” But that was then. Now, retired Colonel Peter Mansoor, a former US Army brigade commander and veteran of two tours of duty in Iraq, currently a professor of military history at Ohio State, says, “If women are acceptable to serve in combat, they are acceptable to serve whether they volunteer or not. You can’t have the frosting on the cake and not the cake underneath….”

It speaks volumes that the party of young men who once gleefully burned their draft cards has degenerated into the party of old men who declare their daughters and granddaughters eligible for the draft. But to do so in Orwellian tones of, “…moving forward with a plan to eliminate all gender-based barriers to service,”

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The Decline of Conscription

Economist Joshua Hall has an interesting article describing an oft-ignored, but very important expansion of freedom over the last several decades: the declining use of military conscription. He notes that, as of 1970, some 80% of the world’s governments used conscription, including the US and many of the democratic nations of Western Europe. By 2009, that had declined to 45%, and many of those nation that still have conscription have reduced the length of conscript’s terms and made it easier to escape the draft. Even France, the nation that first pioneered conscription in the 1790s, abolished it in 2001.

Hall also gives a good summary of the economic case against conscription. Most knowledgeable people are aware of the standard points that conscription reduces the quality of the military because professionals are, on average, better soldiers than short-term conscripts, and that conscription creates major social costs by forcing people to serve who would be more productive in other occupations. Hall notes two other ways in which conscription is inefficient that are less well-known – that it creates deadweight losses by diverting people from their preferred occupations to those which have draft exemptions, and that it encourages governments to underinvest in military equipment and instead sacrifice more lives in battle rather than capital:

Like all taxes, conscription has distortionary effects that create deadweight losses. During the Vietnam War, for example, draft dodging and college enrollment motivated by draft avoidance created deadweight losses. More recently, World Bank economists Michael Loshkin and Ruslin Yemtsov estimated that 90 percent of eligible men are able to avoid Russia’s draft through a variety of means.

In his 1967 article making the case for a volunteer army, Milton Friedman argued that a volunteer army would lead the military to use more and better equipment. One consequence of an

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