18 May 2011

The Draft and Slavery

EconLog | Bryan Caplan | How Could the Draft Not Be Slavery

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.
I reached the same conclusion when I was reading the 'graph he quoted immediately preceeding this, from White's decision in Arver v US:
[A]s we are unable to conceive upon what theory the exaction by government from the citizen of the performance of his supreme and noble duty of contributing to the defense of the rights and honor of the nation as the result of a war declared by the great representative body of the people can be said to be the imposition of involuntary servitude in violation of the prohibitions of the Thirteenth Amendment, we are constrained to the conclusion that the contention to that effect is refuted by its mere statement.
The key line is "his supreme and noble duty." To White, and most others, conscription isn't something that will require men to kill or face injury and death, it it something which allows him the opportunity to be noble and honorable.

Of course you could define anything as "supreme and noble duty" and reach the same conclusion, treacherous as that might be. It is supreme and noble to help feed your hungry neighbors, so you may be drafted into plowing fields and harvesting crops. It advances "the honors of the nation" to build monuments to our rulers, so you may be drafted to build triumphal arches and funeral pyramids. It is honorable and right to usher in new generations of citizens, so you may be drafted to bear and raise children for the state.

Another important line from the decision is "it may not be doubted that the very conception of a just government in its duty to the citizen includes the reciprocal obligation of the citizen to render military service in case of need and the right to compel." You can do the same flim flam hand-waving there. The government has a duty to its citizens to provide them with safe and efficient roads, so obviously there is a reciprocal duty of citizens to render grading and paving services, and such a duty can be compelled in time of need. Etc.

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PS Semi-related: Fernando Teson on "Analogical Slavery" and whether Cuba is a slave society. Spoiler: it is. I would say any other society in which the rule is "he who does not obey does not eat" is a slave society as well.  Excepting, of course, situations in which people have freely chosen to enter into obedience, such as military volunteers or those taking religious vows of obedience. In those cases the Catholic Church is right: the decision to forgo freedom can itself be an expression of freedom, and servitude, if freely chosen, can be liberating.

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