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The Battle over Conscription

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Tags Big GovernmentFree MarketsWar and Foreign PolicyInterventionism

11/22/2010Murray N. Rothbard

[Libertarian Review, 1979]

Ever since Richard Nixon cunningly defused the student antiwar rebellion by getting rid of the draft, we have tended to become complacent and to assume that the draft was gone forever. But we forgot some important things. We forgot that the accursed draft machinery — the Selective Service System itself — was still in place, ready to reactivitate conscription at any time. We forgot that the draft was never defeated with moral arguments, but only with the ultimately trivial arguments of my fellow economists. And we forgot that so long as our foreign policy of global intervention and war continued, the pressure for the draft would return and become irresistible.

We must face the fact, once and for all, that the argument of economists against the draft, though correct as far as it goes, is hopelessly narrow and inadequate. Essentially, the argument holds that the federal government has no more need to draft soldiers than to draft typists. The government suffers no shortage of typists because it is willing to pay them the market wage; it has found it difficult to recruit volunteer soldiers because it has paid them far below the wages they could have earned in private life. Therefore, if the government paid market wages for buck privates — as it obviously does, and more, for officers — there would be no problem in maintaining a purely volunteer army.

This mechanistic argument, so typical of the economics profession, fails to meet a number of important contentions by the Pentagon and other boosters of the draft. For example,

  1. The volunteer army isn't working. We need a pool of trained men at the ready to defend Western Europe (or whatever).

  2. We don't want an all-black or an all-poor army. We want an army that reflects a cross section of America.

  3. America needs an intelligent army; a volunteer army does not recruit educated and intelligent buck privates. Only a draft will force such an army into existence.

These and other arguments cannot adequately be met by parroting the line that all that needs to be done is to raise army pay. For one thing, the taxpayers may well balk at raising the pay sufficiently to bring these aims about. Other goals, such as a trained reserve ready to defend Western Europe at any moment, may simply not be achievable without a draft. We have to meet the draft head-on. We have to attack and eradicate it because it is slavery pure and simple, and because slavery is a moral evil; to use slavery in order defend the "free world" is a grisly joke. We have to point out again and again, as libertarian activist Justin Raimondo does, that there would be no call for a draft if we did not have a foreign policy of global intervention, if we did not feel that we needed to send men to fight in every spot on the globe.

For once, libertarians can seize and have seized the opportunity to take the lead in organizing a popular mass movement on behalf of liberty. In the antidraft movement of a decade ago, we played almost no role. We were far fewer in number; we had no organization in place on or off the campus; and we preferred to sit around quibbling about the prolegomena to the philosophy of the draft rather than plunge into militant antidraft struggle. But now, happy day, things are very different. We are far greater in number; we have our organization in place ready to seize the moment); and we have the will to fight against the draft on the campuses and crossroads of this country.

It is ours to take the lead in combating the slavery and murder of conscription. We are going to do so. We are going to lead the nation's youth into a mighty struggle against the draft and against the prowar foreign policy that sustains it. The powers that be have been smugly congratulating themselves that today's generation of youth is indifferent and apathetic. They shall see how apathetic the New Resistance will be. They shall rue the day they ever provoked it into being.

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