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A Puzzle about Mises and Conscription

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Tags War and Foreign PolicyPhilosophy and Methodology

04/10/2020

Some remarks in Ludwig von Mises’s Socialism shed light on a puzzling passage in Human Action. The passage is puzzling because it goes counter to what one would expect Mises to say. Mises, although not an anarchist, was an extremely strict classical liberal. No reader of his Liberalism can doubt his full commitment to liberty.

Conscription into the military is one of the greatest possible interferences with liberty. Not only are conscripts enslaved, often under brutal conditions, they can be sent to die in battle. You would thus anticipate that Mises, the supreme classical liberal, would oppose conscription.

And you would be right. In a short book written in 1940 but published only in 1998, Mises condemns conscription in World War I.

The first step which led from the soldiers’ war back to total war was the introduction of compulsory military service….The war was no longer to be only a matter of mercenaries—it was to include everyone who had the necessary physical ability….But when it is realized that a part of the able-bodied must be used on the industrial front…then there is no reason to differentiate in compulsory service between the able-bodied and the physically unfit. Compulsory military service thus leads to compulsory labor service of all citizens who are able to work, male and female. (Interventionism: An Economic Analysis, [1940] 1998, p. 69)

In the same book, he ascribes the fall of France to anticapitalist views. Because of campaigns in the 1930s against "war profiteering," the French (and to a lesser extent the British) refused to rely on the market to provide them with the arms they needed to withstand the German onslaught. "On the basis of such [anticapitalist] reasoning the [Léon] Blum government nationalized the French armament industry. When the war broke out and it became imperative to place the productive power of all French plants into the service of the rearmament effort, the French authorities considered it more important to block war profits than to win the war" (p. 72).

Now we get to the puzzle. In a passage included in the second and later editions of Human Action, Mises supports conscription. He says: “He who wants to remain free, must fight unto death those who are intent upon depriving him of his freedom. As isolated attempts on the part of each individual to resist are doomed to failure, the only workable way is to organize resistance by the government. The essential task of government is defense of the social system not only against domestic gangsters but also against external foes. He who in our age opposes armaments and conscription is, perhaps unbeknown to himself, an abettor of those aiming at the enslavement of all” (Human Action, 3d ed. (Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1966), p. 282. This passage is not in the 1949 edition.)

How is this possible? How can Mises, a strict classical liberal who argued against conscription, have changed his mind? The answer is simple. He didn’t support conscription as a general policy, and he didn’t change his mind.

He thinks that conscription is usually wrong, but there is one case in which it is allowable. He mentioned this exception in Socialism, published in 1922, and gives an argument for this:

Nothing is gained when the teacher of morals constructs an absolute ethic without reference to the nature of man and his life. The declamations of philosophers cannot alter the fact that life strives to live itself out, that the living being seeks pleasure and avoids pain. All one's scruples against acknowledging this as the basic law of human actions fall away as soon as the fundamental principle of social co-operation is recognized. That everyone lives and wishes to live primarily for himself does not disturb social life but promotes it, for the higher fulfilment of the individual’s life is possible only in and through society. This is the true meaning of the doctrine that egoism is the basic law of society. The highest demand that Society makes of the individual is the sacrifice of his life. Though all other restrictions of his action which the individual has to accept from society may be considered ultimately in his own interests, this, says the anti-eudemonistic ethic, can be explained by no method which smooths over the opposition between individual and general interests. The hero's death may be useful to the community, but that is no great consolation to him. Only an ethic based on duty could help one over this difficulty. On closer considerations we see that this objection may be easily disproved. When society's existence is threatened, each individual must risk his best to avoid destruction. Even the prospect of perishing in the attempt can no longer deter him. For there is then no choice between either living on as one formerly lived or sacrificing oneself for one's country, for society, or for one's convictions. Rather, must the certainty of death, servitude, or insufferable poverty be set against the chance of returning victorious from the struggle. War carried on pro aris et focis [for hearth and home] demands no sacrifice from the individual. One does not engage in it merely to reap benefits for others, but to preserve one's own existence. This of course, is only true of wars in which individuals fight for their very existence. lt is not true of wars which are merely a means of enrichment, such as the quarrels of feudal lords or the cabinet wars of princes. Thus Imperialism, ever covetous of conquests, cannot do without an ethic which demands from the individual “sacrifices” for the “good of the State.” (p. 402)

Thus, Mises is consistent. If you are fighting for hearth and home, you aren’t in his opinion giving up anything by fighting, since you face destruction if your society is destroyed. The state, in conscripting you in these conditions, isn’t worsening your position. If the war isn’t for hearth and home, then this argument doesn’t apply and conscription isn’t allowable.

I don’t think that this argument works. For one thing, shouldn’t it be up to each individual to decide whether conditions would be “insufferable” if the enemy won? Why should the state decide this? But it isn’t my purpose here to assess Mises’s argument but rather to bring it to people’s attention.

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Contact David Gordon

David Gordon is Senior Fellow at the Mises Institute, and editor of The Mises Review.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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