Draft and Slavery

I have a hard time seeing how anyone can deny that drafted soldiers are slaves of the state.  They are giving their time and labor only under compulsion, and while they may be better off than ante-bellum slaves in that they may eventually get freed after their term is over, to some extent they may be worse off as their time in servitude is a) more dangerous and b) involves taking morally more questionable actions (e.g. killing people).

I have assumed that those who supported the draft either were arguing that that threats in wartime justified this awful step or they were statists that already saw all the rest of us as slaves anyway.

However, Bryan Caplan had a useful observation on this:

It's tempting to dismiss all this as doublethink, but after many years of reflection I think I finally figured out what most people are thinking.  Namely: They implicitly regard slavery not as mere involuntary servitude, but as low-status involuntary servitude.  Since most of us honor, respect, and even adore all our soldiers, conscripts have high status - and therefore can't be slaves.  From this point of view, saying "conscription is slavery" isn't righteously standing up for the rights of conscripts; it's wickedly denying them their high status.  Sigh.

This rings true to me, but offers another avenue for those of us who oppose the draft -- the draft reduces the perceived status of those who serve voluntarily, something I certainly think happened in the Vietnam War.  In a way, it is reminiscent of how the existence of affirmative action tends to undermine the perceived accomplishments of successful minorities.


  1. James B.:

    Friedman and Westmoreland on the draft:

    In his testimony before the commission, Mr. Westmoreland said he did not want to command an army of mercenaries. Mr. Friedman interrupted, "General, would you rather command an army of slaves?" Mr. Westmoreland replied, "I don't like to hear our patriotic draftees referred to as slaves." Mr. Friedman then retorted, "I don't like to hear our patriotic volunteers referred to as mercenaries. If they are mercenaries, then I, sir, am a mercenary professor, and you, sir, are a mercenary general; we are served by mercenary physicians, we use a mercenary lawyer, and we get our meat from a mercenary butcher."</i?

  2. Kevin Jackson:

    I think that when faced with an existential threat, the draft is justified. This doesn't really answer the question, I realize, but it's a situation that needs to be considered.

    Also worth considering is that taxation is theft by the same reasoning. Arguments made to justify taxation can likely be applied to the draft.

  3. Che is dead:

    "It may be laid down as a primary position, and the basis of our system, that every Citizen who enjoys the protection of a Free Government, owes not only a proportion of his property, but even of his personal services to the defense of it." -- George Washington

  4. Foxfier:

    You might compare draftees during the world wars to those during Nam-- the slight social mashup going on during Nam may have been involved a bit.

    Looking at the folks who attacked my uncles when they came back, there seems to be a big dose of jealousy, mixed with the fact that they're fairly safe targets. (see also, why little old ladies in fur are PETA targets, but biker conventions are not)

  5. Che is dead:

    The Second Militia Act of 1792 "conscripted every "free able-bodied white male citizen" between the ages of 18 and 45 into a local militia company overseen by the state." So, following your logic, this Act written and passed by the founding generation established a "slave state". Of course, many of the founders viewed a standing army - presumably comprised of volunteers - as a greater threat to liberty, feeling that an army comprised of the people would be loyal to the people, while a professional army sustained by the state would be loyal to the state.

    I'm wondering, do you consider the coerced payment of taxes to be "slavery" as well? And what if the purpose of this taxation is to support the military, have you not been "drafted" and forced surrender your time and labor under compulsion? In effect, made a "slave". Do you not have a responsibility to rise to the defense of your country?

  6. Don:

    So, I wonder what Mr. Caplins take is when the people proposing it DON'T hold the military in high regard. For instance, when our CIC made the comment that uneducated people get stuck in the military (and I was wondering how many military personnel he'd met face to face at the time, I'm betting very few). If his argument is correct, then he and his liberal buddies that agreed with that point of view, could not use such a defense.

    Che is dead: Taxes aren't slavery, because nobody forces you to work (in fact, many lefties appear to be perfectly happy if we're ALL on the dole). It's theft, taking the fruits of your labor after you've legally earned them.

  7. Alex:

    Caplan makes a good point, but I think the real perceived difference in the eyes of the statists is that cotton-picking slavery only benefits individual slaveholders, while conscription slavery benefits the state. This way of non-thinking is the apex of collectivism: Anything that's good for the mythical "commonwealth" is good and cannot even be considered in real world moral terms.

    @Kevin Jackson: A threat to whose existence, that of the individual or that of the state?

    @Che is dead: It ain't true just because Washington said it. And what if one wants to opt out of the protection racket of that government, "free" or otherwise? And how dares such a government call itself free, if it forces people to murder and be murdered? So it's more or less free, except in wartime?

    Yes, it established a slave state. And you will recall it was a slave state in the cotton-picking sense, too.

    You have an interest in rising to your own defense, and maybe of your family and friends. That may or may not best be served by defending the state you live under.

  8. Dr. T:

    Forced military conscription: another benefit from our "greatest" President, Abraham Lincoln. Not content with destroying the principles of federalism and state sovereignty (by deciding that secession is an act of war), he initiated a military draft (that well-to-do men could buy out of), and rescinded habeas corpus. Lincoln, and his supporters, believed that the existing union of states was more important than the Constitution, individual rights and freedoms, and the lives of tens of thousands of people. We reestablished habeas corpus, but federalism died and the draft remains a century-and-a-half later.

  9. smurfy:

    I think people bristle at a comparison of the draft (or pretty much whatever topic we are talking about today) with slavery is for exactly the reason Popehat nailed last week: "Just as only Hitler is Hitler, only slavery is slavery."

  10. Che is dead:

    "It ain’t true just because Washington said it. And what if one wants to opt out of the protection racket of that government, “free” or otherwise?"

    Obviously, Washington's point is that a Free Government has, by virtue of the people's consent, legitimacy. And those that live under such a system enjoy not just the rights and privileges of free men, but also the responsibilities. Those would include rising to the state's defense. But, hey, who is Washington compared to a sage like you, "Alex". Of course, if you are unhappy living in a society where the laws are written by the duly elected representatives of the people, and you feel that the only consideration that counts is the one you make for yourself, you are free to leave this "slave state" and move to whatever other country will have you.

  11. smurfy:

    Kinda like how you can't have a discussion about some generic holocaust because the field has been occupied by "The Holocaust". Too easy to lose by Godwin.

  12. Eric Hammer:

    If I may paraphrase Che is dead here:

    "Everyone is doing it, that makes it right. We have no obligation, or even benefit to be gained, from doing things better than anyone else."

    While I am sympathetic to arguments along the line of "People are people, and can only act as such," your argument implies that no country can be improved ever except by moving towards the average. We are currently more free than everywhere else, so it is unreasonable to want more freedom. I can't say I find such arguments convincing.

  13. Hunt Johnsen:

    A draft is by definition "involuntary servitude". You can try to justify it, but it is still "involuntary servitude". A nation worthy of it's citizen's support will not need a draft, and messed up as the USA is right now, this seems to be the case at this time.

    Personally, I conscientiously object to someone else telling me who to kill.

    And yes, taxation by the government, backed up by government force is theft. If the government provides a valid service, I will pay for it, but it is both theft and slavery to force me to pay for something I don't want under threat of imprisonment or death.

  14. R:

    When I was drafted (#35) , I truly did feel I had been sold into slavery , I quickly realized that that attitute was wrong and that million of others had been there before me and had give more or as much as I was going too. That their service had given me all the freedom , benefits ,and opportunities that I had enjoyed on my journey to adulthood. The change in attitude was a double whammy for me , doing something I truly did not want to do and trying very hard to do my best. I was surprised how easy it became and how sucessful That I was in the U.S. ARMY , and it has given me the power to take advantage of many opportunities since, The US ARMY took good care of me , my draft board can kiss my ass.(my mom may read this)

  15. R:

    "Those who expect to receive the blessing of freedom , must like men* , fight to defend it ." Thomas Paine
    *The Above quote includes all Service members , My hat is off To the "Women in Service to our country", Thank You.

  16. Gil:

    I believe John T. Reed's support for a draft makes three good points:

    1. No one should eager to be a soldier. It should a dirty job that needs to be done when required.

    2. Draftees are more likely to do a good job because they understand that soldiering is unpleasant business so they want to get the job done so they go home as quickly as possible. Not to mention draftees are going part of mainstream society as opposed to the dregs of society and misty-eyed adventure-seekers.

    3. If everyone had to do compulsory military service then they'd pay more attention to when the government is planning more military ventures and make people more vocal during deemed unnecessary wars. Right now, since people don't have to military service they can blank out of what the government is up to when it gets too unpleasant. In fact, that's pretty much the primary reason anti-military protests are nowhere near the level of the Vietnam War days.


  17. Hunt Johnsen:

    Re "R" and "Gill", you make good points but involuntary servitude is still involuntary servitude, and even though you may benefit from it and grow to enjoy it, it still looks and sounds like servitude/slavery. I have the highest respect for our current military as they are volunteers rather than the product of press gangs. I think that it is possible that the relatively low levels of casualties in the current conflicts are in part due to the fact that volunteers won't tolerate being used as cannon fodder and the brass know it. This has forced some restructuring in the chain of command and encouraged more initiative in the ranks.
    Re Gil's point 3 - maybe after 9/11 people feel that the war is justified to a degree not felt about Vietnam. Strangely, it seems there was a lot more protest a couple of years ago when Bush was in charge.

  18. NormD:

    Ahh, Bryan Caplan, who says that the Jews were not justified in fighting the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising...

    Coyote likes to align himself with some oddballs.

  19. commieBob:

    I absolutely support the draft ... for the children of congress critters. If the children of GWB had to serve in Afghanistan and Iraq, I would bet a large number of donuts that those wars wouldn't have happened.

    Even though they give lip service to the fact that they are elected to serve us, they usually think of themselves as our 'betters'. Those who we elect to serve us should absolutely bear the brunt of their decisions. I guarantee that we would quickly get a kinder, gentler government.

  20. Phil:

    If the draft is slavery so is jury duty.

  21. John Moore:

    Who was it that said "the Constitution is not a suicide pact?" Not a Libertarian, I guess.

    There have been times in the nation's history when the draft was necessary to preserve the freedoms and existence of the state.

    As a Vietnam Vet who volunteered (but would have been drafted otherwise), I felt I was doing my part for the country. I still feel that way. But, yes, it was involuntary servitude - suck it up, dude - sometimes that's necessary for a free society to survive.

    We are fortunate today in that technology as greatly reduced the number of troops required, and we can afford a professional army. But I fear the separation of civilian and military society - it is ultimately dangerous to end up with a professional military caste.

    A draft prevents that.

    BTW, isn't it involuntary servitude to be required to attend school? That took a lot more time out of my life than the military, and probably produced somewhat less benefit per year of service.

  22. Hunt Johnsen:

    "There have been times in the nation’s history when the draft was necessary to preserve the freedoms and existence of the state."

    Really? Prove it. This is one of those canards that always get dragged out. I don't see "Draft" anywhere in the Constitution.

    And yes, forced public education meets the criteria for involuntary servitude.

  23. John Moore:

    HJ: Civil War, World War II

  24. Hunt Johnsen:

    Make your case - Korea? WW1? Vietnam? Why was a draft necessary? the Civil War? Before that I think everyone knew what a press gang was.
    What you are arguing is that slavery is required to protect the existence of a free state.

  25. Che is dead:

    "I don’t see “Draft” anywhere in the Constitution." - Hunt Johnsen

    It's right there, next to "abortion".

  26. caseyboy:

    Those who have never served should butt out. The men and women who put their lives on the line for our freedoms have the final say as far as I'm concerned. "R", thank you for your insight and your service. May we always find men and women who love their country enough to lay it on the line. More importantly may we find leaders who can discern when our TRUE national security interests are in jeopardy. No more wars of choice please.

  27. sweta:

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  28. epobirs:

    CommieBob: It should please you to learn that the last time I saw the numbers compiled, the members of Congress were overrepresented compared to the general population for having children serving in the military. That aside, it's a nonsense argument. In many other situations a person would be expected to recuse themselves from making a critical policy decision because their own children were potentially affected. It would be disastrous if the lawmakers couldn't bring themselves to apply military power when needed because their own relatives might be among the casualties. Further, it could be argued that those children of Congress serving in the military would form a special interest group with undue influence.

    The fact is, everybody is somebody's kid. Being in a position of power requires you to both appreciate that and ignore it as needed.


    The problem with pointing to moments of existential threat in our nation's history as a justification for the draft is that recruitment was frequently overwhelmed during that period. During WWII it was a rare member of my father generation who didn't show up at the local recruitment center as part of celebrating their 18th birthday. My father got in just in time be among the occupation forces in Austria, operating a very early portable X-ray machine and waiting to see if he'd be redeployed for the expected big Pacific push. (I may owe my very existence to the A-bomb.) An uncle on my mother's side was so determined to serve he hid a childhood leg injury and was nearly crippled in basic training before they told him to go home. He managed to wrangle a Coast Guard post as a compromise.

    There were those determined to avoid any participation in the war but they were hardly worth pursuing.

    The post-war history would likely be very, very different if we hadn't had a draft. It is notable that the turn-out at anti-war rallies severely diminished after the draft was ended. It turned out that a pretty big portion of those people hadn't been anti-war so much as anti-their-ass-getting-sent-into-it. The leftest provocateurs had a far lesser ability to engage youths who had no personal stake and were frequently quite down on communism. They could only get enthused in that opposition locally rather than at a great distance.