What’s Wrong with Conscription

It isn’t enough just to be on the right side of an argument. We should have a good foundation, and well thought out reasoning as to why we hold the positions we do. For almost every issue raised there is an ethical, as well as a utilitarian (or economic) case, to be made one way or the other. It’s rarely ever possible to argue effectively for a position from an ethical standpoint if the person you’re debating is only concerned with the justice of their cause. The reverse is also true, to an extent, if a person has a utilitarian complaint, all the moralizing, about people being entitled to make their own choices and having a right to control their own bodies. Therefore, it’s always good to be brushed up on both, and sometimes you need both. A great example is in debating neo-cons on the matter of drug legalizations, where they argue both that it is immoral, and that it leads to high crime and more accidents.

So what is our case against conscription?  Is it so obvious that we are at a loss of words?

Let’s start with the economic concerns. By conscripting people to be in the military, we are diverting labor away from more urgently needed tasks. Instead of marching around on a field somewhere those men could be busy producing goods people want and need. Thus conscription increases the amount the rest of us have to pay for goods and services.


The main argument is on ethical grounds. I make a distinction between morality and ethics where most people use the two terms interchangeably. There are two different concepts out there that are blurred, and we float back and forth from one to the other using either of the two words. These two ideas quite often overlap. Theft is both immoral and unethical. Two unmarried people having sex is immoral, but is not unethical.  When I think of morality I think, “That which is pleasing to God, or a person’s God.” So another example might be drinking, or smoking, or even lying that is unrelated to a property transaction. These are all immoral but ethically neutral. Ethics is that sphere of conduct with relation to other men. It’s unethical to initiate physical aggression against another man, and it is unethical to defraud him. Ethics is about the point where it becomes justifiable to use violence to stop a behavior. It is, I believe, immoral to hate someone just for being different, but we can’t throw someone in jail for it. But it is unethical to initiative violence against a person for any reason. So if Bob is a hater and hates Ted, puts up signs denouncing Ted and makes mean faces at him, he is, according to most people, behaving immorally. However, he hasn’t hurt anyone. Once he does, if he does, now it becomes justifiable to lock him up. In addition, I just remembered Block’s book “Defending the Undefendable,” prostitution is immoral, not unethical.  I can’t think of anything unethical that isn’t also immoral, but there is plenty of morality unrelated to ethics. Morality is also much more subjective. One may consider homosexuality immoral, while others might not. The rule for ethics is transgression against another person, so as long as the engagement is consensual, it is ethically neutral.


With that out of the way, let’s look at the ethical arguments against conscription. We presume that each individual is a self-owner, that he owns his own body. The only other options would be some people own others, or each of us own 1/6 billionth of every other person and is, in turn, owned by everyone else on the planet. The former violates the principle of homesteading, wherein the first user of something is held to be its owner. As does the second scenario, but the second case is also entirely ridiculous seeing we would never be able to act in even the smallest capacity if we were beholden to everyone else on the planet before we acted.

So conscription involves depriving the person of his rights in the ownership of his own body. He is either jailed, or sent abroad to kill and be killed.

I suppose this might have something to do with why most people oppose conscription, that little part about killing and being killed. But that really is beside the point. We wouldn’t tolerate slavery if the slave shack was a 1,500 square foot 3 bedroom home and the slave were able to keep 60% of what he produced. The issue with slavery is the expropriation of labor, or the product of the labor, and the deprivation of the individual’s choice.   The same is true in the case of conscription, from an ethical standpoint; there is very little difference in slavery and conscription, the only difference being the term of service and the extent to which it is taken.

Let’s consider work conscription. Suppose a scenario where war hasn’t yet erupted, but it seems very probable. The government pulls draft cards, not to send the men off to fight and die, but just to work in a relatively safe setting, for good pay. Nevertheless, there is no choice in the matter for the individuals; they must begin work now towards building planes and tanks and bombs. Would this type of conscription be okay? I can still see some purists who are so opposed to war they would object to this merely on the grounds these men would be contributing indirectly to war.

What if, in our war on global hunger, the government drafted 5,000 men and women including you? They insist you must travel to some far flung third world country and help the locals plant crops and you are “obligated” for a 2 year tour. Would this be acceptable? As long as it is all other people who are selected, it might be seen as tolerable, but when it’s you without a choice, there will be few to give joyfully.

One might argue compulsory schooling is acceptable since they are children. Here we are talking about adults, and adults can decide for themselves.

We face the same argument for conscription we do for minimum wage laws. “You are not smart enough or capable enough to decide for yourself. If you were, you would choose to volunteer to protect your freedom. Likewise, you are not smart enough not to work for less than $7.25 an hour, so we will make it impossible for you to do so.” Never mind what the individual who might evaluate the threat or asses the opportunity costs for themselves.

In the end, conscription is the denial of self-ownership. Without self-ownership, what liberties can we have at all?


This isn’t related to the show but something I thought would be worth covering while the show is offline until the 4th.

I don’t know of any books or articles that specifically govern conscription, but “Conceived in Liberty,” a 4 volume collection of the history of colonial America from 1607 until the peace treaty of Paris, by Rothbard, has some significant insights into the way war is and should be conducted by a people seeking freedom from an oppressive government.

On a more foundational level, I’m almost certain the concepts are addressed in “The Ethics of Liberty” by Rothbard. Both books are free in audio format on iTunes, and on pdf at mises.org.

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