Doublethink at New Heights: Libertarians for Conscription?

A few days ago, US Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) recycled his familiar contention that “[w]hat enables [the United States’] war-friendly philosophy is the fact that there is no military draft to dodge.” Yoking ordinary people to the decisions of the political class, he argues, would somehow disincentivize U.S. bellicosity abroad.

In tandem with Rangel’s proposal comes Pascal-Emmanual Gobry’s essay at Cato Unbound, attempting to reconcile libertarianism and compulsory national military service. Yes, you read that right. Using Switzerland as an example of libertarianism in practice, Gobry writes, “Switzerland’s history shows its freedom is intimately bound up with its centuries-long tradition of military service.”

It’s difficult to imagine anything less libertarian than military conscription — compelled servitude in the state’s ultimate instrument of murder and domination. I’ve never had much interest in attempting to decide who is or isn’t allowed to call himself a libertarian, preferring to address issues of substance, to sort out with polite argument the boundaries of a social philosophy consistent with the values of free people in a free society. So I won’t state that anyone arguing for forced military thralldom can’t consider 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.

Gobry draws an odd, ahistorical distinction between libertarianism and anarchism, ignoring the fact that the two are often used interchangeably and synonymously. “Libertarians,” he fancies, “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.” He asserts that “libertarians are actually fine with the state taking people’s money and time and work if there is a sufficiently compelling interest.” It has long been the charge of intellectuals like Gobry to conjure those “sufficiently compelling interest[s].”

Libertarianism as an apology for forced conscription and taxation is certainly not the sort advocated by my intellectual heroes, redoubtable champions of individual liberty such as Benjamin Tucker and Lysander Spooner. But now that I know, thanks to Mr. Gobry, that libertarianism is something quite different from the anarchism of Tucker and Spooner, I’m happy to run as far from libertarianism as I can, as fast as I can. Others who formerly self-identified as libertarian ought to join me, again, at least assuming libertarianism really has become this, an all-embracing public religion that sermonizes about duty, about what was “bequeathed to us” and the “debt of gratitude” that is supposed to make us feel fine when presented with forced military service. At last, ignorance is strength, freedom is slavery, and war is peace.

We ought to regard the state as an invading force of war and conquest, a foreign usurper of the sovereignty and governing power that can only vest legitimately in individuals. The libertarianism I’ve defended for years in hundreds of essays does just that, demonstrating the criminality and intellectual hypocrisy of Gobry’s “Libertarianism as Gratitude” society of taxation, forced civil and military service, and state schooling. Libertarians of my ilk will fight tooth and nail against every attempt to place human beings in bondage as blood sacrifices to the gods of war. Superstitions of debt and gratitude are familiar to us; they have been leveraged by apologists of class rule for centuries, all attempts to hoodwink ordinary people into not only accepting political mastership, but thinking that it is morally and conceptually legitimate.

That such court intellectuals are active even in ostensibly libertarian circles may come as a surprise, but it shouldn’t. Without our accession to the claims of the state cult, the entire paradigm of political and economic rule — of which war is arguably the nucleus — would go to rack and ruin. It becomes important, then, to reframe militarism and statism in more appealing language. Fortunately I’ve enough faith in fellow libertarians (ahem, anarchists) that I don’t think many are going to swallow Gobry’s strange shot at tying the philosophy of liberty to forced conscription.

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