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 […]