Bryan Caplan  

How Could the Draft Not Be Slavery?

The Methodology is Flawed... Macaulay on Southey...
From the Free Dictionary:
slav·er·y  1. The state of one bound in servitude as the property of a slaveholder or household.

con·scrip·tion 1. Compulsory enrollment, especially for the armed forces; draft.
To me, you'd have to be blind to deny the libertarian truism that "conscription is slavery."  Slavery is involuntary servitude; conscription is involuntary military servitude; therefore not only is conscription slavery; it's a particularly heinous form of slavery that often ends in maiming and death.  Yet most people disagree - and so did the U.S. Supreme Court back in 1918:
[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.
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.

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The author at Speaking Liberty in a related article titled Bryan Caplan: ‘How Could the Draft Not Be Slavery?’ writes:
    He comes to an interesting conclusion: 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... [Tracked on May 15, 2011 4:38 PM]
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Alex Godofsky writes:

You conveniently ignored the word "property" in the first definition.

Jack writes:

To play devil's advocate, the key difference is the idea of "servitude for another's private benefit" as opposed to "servitude for the public benefit". Because military service is considered to be in the public interest, it is acceptable to many.

Adam writes:

Hayek at The Constitution of Liberty gives this expample, the soldier is not free even though he has food, shelter, etc. On the other hand a poor who has nothing to eat nor shelter it is free.

neal writes:

Just wondering, if conscription is slavery, is income tax also slavery? Is there a conceptual difference between:

paying a part of one's lifetime earnings involuntarily to the state

paying part of one's lifetime labour involuntarily to the state?

Gabriel rossman writes:

> Namely: They implicitly regard slavery not as
> mere involuntary servitude, but as low-status
> involuntary servitude.

Yes, and this is a bit more obvious if you think about it historically. In most societies military service was a duty of citizenship and is often limited to classes that owned property and/or exercised some form of political franchise. For instance, consider the "equals" of classical Sparta, the exclusion of the capita censii from the Roman legions (until 107 BC), and the land-owning knights of medieval Europe. There was often a practical purpose to such property qualifications in that only high status men could afford to supply their own arms at times when states were too weak to provide arms. (And indeed, centralized state provision of arms often results in a transition from aristocracy to monarchy, as in 1st c BC Rome). In this historical sense, being eligible for conscription was the opposite of slavery in terms of social status.

Vince Skolny writes:

That's a good point, Bryan; also, there is the cultic American collectivism masked under the "God, Family, Country" rubric that assumes conscription is merely the way of administering what is a duty.

That's the root of why soldiers are honored, respected, and even adored.

Noah Yetter writes:

You conveniently ignored the word "property" in the first definition.

And what is property? If something is my property, I own it, and that means I am free to determine how it is used and disposed of.

A state in command of conscripts can order them to and fro, force them to do anything it wishes, even unto their certain deaths. It can release them from their bond, or hold them to it indefinitely.

In what way then are they not the state's property?

Joseph K writes:

Though I agree that conscription is analogous to slavery and is morally wrong, they are not the same, since a conscript is not property. A country has some property-like powers over conscripted soldiers, but not others. A country cannot sell its conscripted soldiers; usually it cannot kill them without due process; conscription offers pay and opportunity for advancement, which is not a feature of slavery. Conscription is more like serfdom in medieval feudalism: it's much like slavery, but with a bit more freedom. That doesn't make it somehow less morally wrong than slavery, since a person is being conscripted to involuntarily kill and be killed, which is much worse than just, for example, being conscripted to build bridges or plow crops.

Doug writes:

Nice job channelling your inner Robin Hanson. Like Robin says people have a very strong innate bias for government over firms, not for profit over for profit, etc. Conscription vs. slavery fits perfectly into this framework.

Looking at this from a different direction, the reason that slavery is so abhorred as a practice in the modern era is the status perspective, not the use of compulsion. The issue is that treating a human as property is an assault on their dignity. To put it more bluntly, the average man on the street doesn't see slavery as wrong because it constricts freedom but rather because it restricts status. To most, dignity trumps freedom as a moral issue.

mtraven writes:

Conscription is slavery in exactly the same way that taxation is theft: that is, it isn't really, except in the most superficial form of analysis. And just as your precious bank account is not really yours in some cosmic, absolute, and unqualified way, neither is your body or self, it turns out. The government gets to take a slice of both. Why? Because it's the government.

The way people around here and Hanson's blog use the idea of status is fairly obtuse. Instead of saying "people have a very strong innate bias for government over firms", maybe you should enquire as to why that is.

If you are an anarchist, then OK, you can complain about government all you want. If not, then you really can't whine when it comes around to collect the bill.

Alex Godofsky writes:

Noah Yetter:

Your description of property excludes one of its most important characteristics, viz. the ability to sell it. The draft in the United States would not survive a constitutional challenge if the conscripts were being sold; nor would popular opinion support it.

Moreover, I think that the moral distinction between forced servitude and slavery isn't superficial; slavery as an institution appears to cause a lot more social harm than limited conscription powers.

Fralupo writes:
Namely: They implicitly regard slavery not as mere involuntary servitude, but as low-status involuntary servitude

I think its much more likely that people hate slavery because it is malicious and exploitative. Given especially that people are mostly opposed to slavery as they encounter it in school and in the media - a system of agricultural production that where "management" takes pleasure in working captive workers to death. The problems with slavery, in this view, are not only legal but also moral and economic.

Seen this way military conscription is very different from "slavery".

Yancey Ward writes:


So, if the US had passed laws that said slave owners couldn't sell their slaves, nor kill them, then you would say that wasn't slavery?

rsquire writes:

In the pre-Civil War South it was illegal for a slaveowner to kill a slave without cause, such as self-defense. The right to kill is NOT a component of slavery.

On the other hand, whether or not the worker is paid makes a difference that I think Bryan is ignoring. I seriously doubt that the draft would have survived a constitutional challenge if conscripts were not paid.

rsquire writes:

Also: A slave is generally understood to be a form of private property. Conscripted soldiers are not owned by a private person. This is the same reason that we don't consider taxes theft. The sovereign can do things that private parties cannot.

I agree that conscription is wrong. But it only muddies the issue to equate it to slavery.

Robert writes:

Boy this whole thesis is a stretch..Firstly, all conscripts still have civil rights, slaves did not. Conscripts were paid, slaves were not. Conscripts could own property, especially real property,and wait for it, conscripts could VOTE, the most effective way to change one's government if the majority decides to. But to take the author's point to the extreme, NONE of us are free; freedom is a myth as the needs of the many ALWAYS outweigh the needs of the few. Liberty is never "free."

John writes:

And we might also recall that the last time we had conscription, the draft, the military did not have such high esteem in society. Viet Nam was a low point in the status of the average military person.

Historically, I don't think the conscripted soldiers were all that highly respected.

Alex Godofsky writes:

Yancey Ward:

If the 'slaves' could neither be bought nor sold, then they would just be serfs. The institution would still be bad, but it would also be different in important ways.

As you continue to modify the institution to make it more like the draft - involuntary servitude for a limited time on an egalitarian basis to a democratically decided end - then it becomes much less bad and also much less slavery-like.

blink writes:

Yes, the insight about status seems correct. Apparently, this is the same reason we forbid children from working for money (low status) yet compel them to go to school (high status).

fralupo writes:


Are you serious? Do you honestly see no difference between a child working on a factory and going to a government school?

Matt Skene writes:

Mill made basically the same point in "The Subjection of Women." He describes the argument for conscription and his reply as follows:

"Sailors must absolutely be had to defend the country. It often happens that they will not voluntarily enlist. Therefore there must be the power of forcing them. How often has this logic been used! and, but for one flaw in it, without doubt it would have been successful up to this day. But it is open to the retort — First pay the sailors the honest value of their labour. When you have made it as well worth their while to serve you, as to work for other employers, you will have no more difficulty than others have in obtaining their services. To this there is no logical answer except "I will not"..."

Chris K. writes:

I'm amazed at the defenses and semantic arguments being made to refute conscription as a form of slavery.

In either case, man's freedom, his liberty, is denied. Whether it be at the behest of an individual or a collective does not alter its morality.

Even in the U.S., as a soldier you are the property of the government. What difference does drawing pay and being allowed to own property make when your owner can consign you to death?

Conscription in a democracy is especially perverse. If a cause is truly embraced by "the people", then there should be no problem filling the ranks with volunteers. If you can find no volunteers, then I guess the people don't really will it, do they?

Phil writes:

Bryan, Is jury duty also a form of slavery?

Alex Godofsky writes:

Chris K.:

You've made a wonderful case that conscription is bad. You haven't made one that conscription is slavery. Not all bad things, even bad things that involve denying some measure of liberty, are slavery.

This is the same sort of lame rhetorical trope that makes words like "fascism" meaningless, because they end up meaning "something the speaker thinks is bad".

Philo writes:

I second Joseph K and Alex Godofsky: a slave may be bought/sold, which need not be true of one consigned to involuntary servitude. A military draftee, while forced to serve, may not be bought/sold and so is not a "slave."

The same is true of a criminal sentenced to a prison term "at hard labor," but for some reason imprisonment at hard labor has not been treated as falling afoul of the Thirteenth Amendment. Perhaps it is clear from legislative debates that those who framed and those who passed the Thirteenth Amendment intended that it not cover either criminal imprisonment or the military draft.

Evan writes:
The same is true of a criminal sentenced to a prison term "at hard labor," but for some reason imprisonment at hard labor has not been treated as falling afoul of the Thirteenth Amendment.
The Thirteenth Amendment specifically states it does not apply to people who have been convicted and sentenced to hard labor in a fair trial. I don't believe it has any such loopholes for conscription, however.

I agree that arguing "X is slavery" is a semantic argument, and that pushing this argument too far will just lead to people redefining words to exclude or include what they're arguing about. But in practice saying that the Draft is slavery, or at least that it is very similar to slavery, can shock people who have previously accepted it complacently out of their complacency.

The libertarian argument Bryan's using doesn't really say "the draft is identical to plantation chattel slavery in the Antebellum South," what it says is "The Draft is similar to that institution in several important ways, and has many of the same characteristics that we all agree are what made slavery bad."

Andy writes:

Could not disagree more with this post. Slavery and conscription are not remotely the same. That they share one feature (loss of liberty) does not mean they are equal anymore that I am equal to a dog because we both have legs.

The differences between slavery and conscription should be pretty obvious. One is a permanent condition and the other is not. One can apply to anyone, the other only to a specific cohort. You can't get a college deferment for slavery. You can't conscript a baby, but a baby can be a slave. You can't be a "conscientious objector" as a slave. If you defy the draft you potentially face 5 years in prison. Slaves don't go to prison since slaves are property. Etc., etc.

Apple writes:

[I think if there was ever a loaded question that this would certainly be next to it as an example in a phrase dictionary.]

As an person raised and educated in the US -- slavery for the general American public equates to the slavery that happened in the South, that picture of slavery comes first, all other historical or current situations comes after.
That particular picture of slavery is not pretty and rather a dark time in US history.

There are various reasons for people to not agree that the draft is similar that have been brought up by others.

The summary of differences seems to be: paid/non-paid, can be beaten to death/can be sent to fight-defend to the death, owner's property/govt's property, no rights what so ever/limited rights as an active enlistee..etc etc

So if that's the case, then what about those working in sweatshops? Or those who were interned in the Japanese/Japanese-American internment/concentration camps during WWII?

The aforementioned people have/had limited rights and were subjected to poor treatment/environment, which they did not deserve. (Unlike prisoners in jails -- as they have been deemed by the judicial system that their limited rights and confinement is justified.)

I don't think its that simple...a list of similarities and differences between slavery and conscription -- then you can just do a simple venn-diagram and be done with this question.

While there are similarities and differences between conscription and slavery and obviously different viewpoints due to different value systems -- what remains true is the connotation attached to conscription and slavery evokes different emotions and generally the response is: positive for conscription and negative for slavery.

Perhaps if you replaced "conscription" with "draft" the emotions evoked would then be different. As "draft" generally has a more negative connotation than "conscription".

Pandaemoni writes:

I think this debate is too easily bogged down in semantics. Slavery is not just "chattel slavery" of course, but still one can argue over whether a slave that is paid and that will be manumitted after a date certain is "really" a slave.

Roman slaves in late imperial Rome were clearly (at least I have never heard anyone dispute that they were) slaves, but they did have certain rights. European serfs are frequently referred to as a kind of slave, though some do dispute that.

The truth is that slavery is not defined in the exacting detail needed to answer the question, in part because the institution of slavery has existed in many formed over many millennia. Certainly conscription is not the chattel slavery that most Americans think of when they hear the word "slavery" used.

That said, the more fundamental question isn't the label. The label has power, especially in America, because of the legacy of slavery in recent centuries, but what really matters are the moral and ethical considerations of the state conscripting men to serve in the armed forces of a nation. If we all agree that is an evil, would identifying it as "slavery" make it any more evil?

Brian with an i writes:

The 13th amendment conveniently bypasses many of these trivial objections by prohibiting 'involuntary servitude.' Denying that conscription is involuntary servitude is pretty hard.

Andy: conscription is pretty permanent if you're killed in the process. Happens to a lot of conscripts, in fact. Also, if some form of slavery were temporary (as some historically were), would it stop being slavery?

What if you could get a college deferment for slavery? What if you couldn't get a college deferment for conscription? Speaking of irrelevant features.

Certainly there is nothing logically preventing babies from being conscripted. It's simply a not very effective policy. If babies were able to form an effective fighting force, they'd be conscripted as well. Also, this reminds me of the Heavy in Team Fortress 2 who says "WHAT SICK MAN SENDS BABIES TO FIGHT ME?"

You may certainly conscientiously object to being a slave. Governments and other slaveowners may sanction or ignore that objection at their leisure, however.

If slaves were eligible for imprisonment, would that make them slaves any less? If a slaveowner wanted to put his slave in a prison cell, couldn't he do that?

None of your objections refute the idea that conscription is a kind of slavery.

A conscript is the property of the state in every meaningful sense of the term. Stolen property, to be sure. And if a slave could not be legally bought or sold, would he not still be a slave?

Sorry guys - like Professor Caplan mentioned, what you're doing is called 'doublethink.'

Randy writes:

Considering the extent of propaganda in support of the various forms of exploitation imposed on the productive class by the political class, I see no reason to complain about a bit of minor counter propaganda - and especially not when it takes the form of stating the facts.

texx writes:

I have been conscripted to jury duty next month. Is that slavery as well?

Alex Godofsky writes:

Biran with an i:

A conscript is the property of the state in every meaningful sense of the term. Stolen property, to be sure. And if a slave could not be legally bought or sold, would he not still be a slave?

I guess you wouldn't see it as meaningful if you weren't allowed to sell anything you own? Yes, the ability to buy or sell something is (as stated dozens of times over by multiple people here) the operative distinction. It is a very meaningful "sense of the term" that distinguishes them.

Why are so many people so deeply attached to the notion that if they can't wrongly describe conscription as slavery, they have to admit that conscription is A-OK?

Andy writes:

Brian with an i,

There may not be anything that logically prevents babies from being conscripted, but that notion should be rightly regarded as ridiculous.

Secondly, the point of bringing up deferments, objectors, cohorts and imprisonment is to demonstrate the material differences between conscription and slavery - specifically that there are "outs" available to those subject to conscription that are not available to slaves.

Finally, as has been pointed out many times, "involuntary servitude" is not synonymous with slavery though obviously involuntary servitude is a required component of both slavery and conscription. If you want to say that both slavery and conscription are "involuntary servitude" then that accurate IMO, but it is a mistake to extrapolate from there to assert that because both are involuntary servitude they are therefore synonymous. Conscription and slavery are, in fact, two different things that should not be conflated.

And this is leaving aside practicalities - the ability to institute conscription is necessary for the survival of the nation state - slavery is not.

matt writes:

The problem is not what you think. Your approach is not denigrating the conscript, it's failing to acknowledge that slavery was worse. The problem is that by calling conscription slavery, you equivocate the experience with the experience of African slavery in the United States, not with the dictionary definition of the word. This experience is considered to be worse than conscription- as it went on for an entire lifetime, made you a second class citizen, etc.

By equivocating conscription and slavery, you are attempting to take some of the awful context that goes with the word slavery and apply to conscription. However, conscription does not have all of that awful context, so the equivocation is going to cause a negative reaction in all of those that realize that. It makes it look like you don't care about those parts of slavery that aren't in conscription.

Conscription is like slavery in some ways, and not like slavery in other ways. If you want people to listen to you, you might say something like "The draft is almost like slavery. While it doesn't make you and your descendants second-class citizens and condemn your entire race to a meager, painful existence in servitude of others, you are forced into service as a killer, with a high probability of being killed yourself."

Yancey Ward writes:

I get the feeling that far too many of us don't want to give up the possibility of conscripting people to some good, future cause.

Matt Skene makes the point most forcibly with the Mill quote.

Scott Sumner writes:

Even if you are right, does that actually get you anywhere? Let me use an analogy. People are sometimes shocked when I claim Hiroshima was an act of terrorism. But it was an effort to kill lots of civilians in an attempt to terrorize the Japanese population into agreeing with our political goals. So it seems to fit the definition. They are even more shocked when I then claim it might have been a good idea to bomb Hiroshima. "How can you support terrorism?"

Words of course have meanings on multiple levels. There is 'terrorism,' a bland dictionary definition, and then there is TERRORISM a very emotionally freighted term of abuse. Most people don't understand this distinction, and hence decide on whether or not something is "terrorism" solely on the basis of whether they think it was justified--which of course is quite illogical.

Similarly there is slavery (forced service) and SLAVERY, the emotionally freighted term for the horrific abuse of slaves in historical times. If people support the draft, they won't take kindly to a person calling it slavery.

My response would be; "OK it's slavery (but not necessarily SLAVERY.) But that doesn't get us anywhere. We next have to discuss the much more important issue of whether it's a good idea or not."

I happen to oppose the draft, but not because it's "slavery." Rather for pragmatic reasons. And for that reason I am open to persuasion--I might be talked into favoring the draft under very rare circumstances. Of course if I thought it was SLAVERY, then no argument could persuade me to support the draft. That's because SLAVERY refers to those forms of slavery that seem obviously abhorrent (on utilitarian grounds.)

(Now that I wrote this, I see Pandaemoni expressed the idea more effectively.)

Gaurav writes:

Next post on "How Could Taxation Not Be Slavery?" please.

Seth writes:

So the state has a monopoly on slavery?

Scott Sumner - Would you still need to weigh the pros and cons of conscription if you believed it was necessarily slavery.

Arthur_500 writes:

Compulsory activity such as Jury Duty or the Draft does inhibit the liberty of the citizens, allegedly for the common good. Certainly it is a form of servitude. I don't think status has anything to do with it. It is simply the price we pay for the institutions of our Country.

If we want to separate our military then we have a right to do that. One argument is that draftees are simply cannon fodder so politicians can play war games. However, the correctness of this particular servitude is for the society to discuss and not if it is servitude.

A more useful question is why men are obliged to register for the draft and not women. That, my firend, is the real injustice.

Brian with an i writes:

Right, Arthur, the real injustice is that we don't expand the terrible injustice of the draft to other segments of the population. We need more slavery in the name of fairness.

Alex: like I said, what if you could not buy or sell a slave you had, would he still be a slave? I think he would be.

The operative distinction is 'involuntary servitude.'

If you let people decline to be conscripted, then it wouldn't be slavery. If you could stop being a slave by saying "I'd rather not, thanks" then you wouldn't be a slave, either. Buying and selling the rights to the person's labor isn't the most relevant thing here. It's that you've denied their inalienable right to liberty that makes them slaves.

BZ writes:

Society does not discuss things. Society does not decide things. Individuals do; politicians do -- for the rest of us.

Because 51% of 20-40% of society selects some politician (usually based on party label or some extraneous issue), does not give them the right to send the unwilling to their deaths at their whim. And even if a majority agrees to send some young male minority to its death, that does not make it right.

Whether or not this power to kill-on-demand is "slavery" seems to depend, as others have said, on what you take the word to mean.

Frankly, the thing that impresses me about this whole discussion is that it's coming from Dr. Caplan. Wouldn't he normally be calculating utiles here?

roystgnr writes:

rsquire's "The sovereign can do things that private parties cannot" answer is only slightly more artful than in it's original phrasing by rnixon.

thomas boyle writes:

You can be a slave, even if you are paid, and even if you have a limited set of rights. Historically, slaves have routinely been paid, and have had rights. In ancient Rome, for example, slaves occasionally purchased their own freedom (i.e., bought themselves). Low status is not slavery. Again, in ancient Rome many slaves were educated Greeks, and had far higher status (and lived better) than the poor of Rome - but they were slaves. And taxation is not slavery; it is simply a cost of doing business - but we are not forced to do business or earn an income.

What defines slavery is the inability to refuse to work: involuntary servitude (whether in law or in fact).

The purpose of the draft is to recruit an army at less than its market cost. The market cost would be where the price offered was sufficient to raise the army required. The price required will depend on the justice of the cause, the degree of threat to country/family/way of life, the danger involved, etc. The price offered will depend on the value of winning, to those who want to win (for reasons of national pride, or simply because they don't want their property seized by invaders). If society as a whole is not willing to put up enough cash to recruit the army, then the value of winning is not worth the cost - either the potential gains/losses are low, or the cost of winning (in blood and treasure) too high. If a draft is necessary, quite simply, the war should not be fought. This is basic economics.

The draft, therefore, causes a project (the war) to go forward when it should not, because its cost exceeds its benefits. And it transfers that excess cost to a few - the soldiers - by force, through a vote of the many (who will capture the benefits). Democracy is no excuse for tyranny. The draft is not alone unwise, it is morally indefensible.

It also meets any commonsense definition of "slavery." In fact, I distinctly recall when the US went to war in Iraq the first time, we heard talk of "Saddam's slave armies." That talk was accurate. To pretend that our own slave armies of years past were anything but, is dishonest.

Finally, I cannot understand why military people tend to be so sympathetic to the draft. If others can be forced to serve, why should volunteers be treated well? Why properly paid? Why given career opportunities? Why given proper equipment or armor, when they can be so readily replaced with the victims of involuntary servitude? Not only is the draft an attack on those who are drafted, it undermines those who serve voluntarily.

It's certainly not worthy of us.

thomas boyle writes:


The 13th Amendment makes an explicit exception for slavery or involuntary servitude, permitting it in the cases of people who have been duly convicted of a crime.

Strikingly, having considered so obvious an exception, it makes no mention of enslavement (or involuntary servitude) for military purposes. Since the framers of that amendment clearly thought through even such an obvious exception as prison labor, the military institution appears plainly "unconstitutional," in a commonsense reading of the term (as distinct from a Supreme Court reading, which among other things considers herbs grown at home for personal consumption to be part of "interstate commerce" despite being neither commerce nor involving more than one state).

Of course, even if the constitution made an exception for military service, the fact that a thing is constitutional may make it neither wise nor just.

Andy at 9:21,

many nation states have proven themselves quite capable of surviving without either slavery or conscription. Indeed, the most powerful nation in history currently practices neither.

Boy this whole thesis is a stretch..Firstly, all conscripts still have civil rights, slaves did not. Conscripts were paid, slaves were not.

Conscripts are denied the freedom of movement. The freedom of movement is a civil right. Therefore, conscripts are denied some civil rights.

If slaves did not get paid, then they could not have saved their wages to buy their freedom. Some slaves saved their wages and about their freedom. Therefore, some slaves did get paid.

If slaves did not get paid, then they could not have saved their wages to buy their freedom. Some slaves saved their wages and about their freedom. Therefore, some slaves did get paid.

Correction: about should be bought

Andy writes:

Thomas Boyle @ 6:24,

Yes, the most powerful nation in history currently practices neither. How do you think we got here? There was conscription during all of America's major wars until relatively recently. Conscription began during the revolutionary war before this country was even formed. The idea that able-bodied men should be organized into militias was written into the founding documents of this country and was required by law for many years in most states.

mktlogic writes:

I love the argument that keeps coming up: because the draft is not identical in all respects to some specific form of slavery which has existed, the draft is not a form of slavery. By the same mistaken reasoning, the piece of furniture I'm sitting on is not a couch because it doesn't have some feature common to couches in the the 1850s.

To answer Bryan's question, whether or not the draft is slavery depends on a number of auxiliary assumptions. If we assume, as many people do, that the state rightfully owns a call option on everything that it has the might to control, or everything that it claims to own, or some other such foolishness, then conscription is just the exercise of a call.

MikeDC writes:

Conscription is not slavery because our rights and freedoms are socially constructed. They're wise constructs, but we have an obligation, at some point to our mates, who protect and recognize our rights to extend the same courtesy to them.

A conscript is a member of a compact that is being called upon to live up to the terms of the deal. A slave is not a member of the social contract, but a subjugated outsider.

mktlogic writes:


Do you favor only conscription by the state? I ask because none of the reasons you give mention the state. So if your reasoning is valid, your words should persuade me that conscription is an obligation whether or not the agency doing the conscripting is a government.

Actually, I don't understand your arguments. Specifically, what rule of inference is associated with the "because" in your first sentence? I've heard countless variations of "x is socially constructed therefore y isn't a bad thing if the people doing it call themselves a government," but I've never heard anyone explain how this follows.

thomas boyle writes:


I was born in a country that is today an independent nation state, has been one for longer than most modern European states, successfully fought a war of independence against a world power to become a nation state, and has never practiced slavery, neither to perform agricultural labor nor to perform military service.

It has also operated a volunteer army since independence, and that army has been involved in active conflicts in one place or another, almost my entire life (I'm middle aged).

Just because the US took a while to catch on, doesn't mean it can't be done, or is necessary to survival.

But then again, they said you couldn't profitably grow cotton without plantation slaves. They were wrong about that, too.

Andy writes:


What country would that be?

Scott Sumner writes:

Seth, You asked:

"Scott Sumner - Would you still need to weigh the pros and cons of conscription if you believed it was necessarily slavery."

Yes. If the definition of slavery is elastic enough to include conscription, then you'd still need to weigh the pros and cons. Indeed I favor weighing the pros an cons of all public policies, and adopting those where the pros outweigh the cons.

Morality isn't determined by what we choose to call something, but rather its estimated impact on aggregate human welfare. (I say estimated, because of course we can't directly measure welfare, rather we make educated guesses.) BTW, I come to libertarianism from a pragmatic direction, not a natural rights perspective.

MikeDC writes:

I infer that our freedoms (as we understand them as existing in relationship to other people), as a practical matter are established by, basically, common recognition and guaranty.

Our freedoms in a society are contractual and contracts require consideration. In return for you recognizing and protecting my rights, I will recognize and protect yours. The state is generally a poor mechanism for anything, but fundamentally it's a mechanism for requiring us to honor this contract.

It follows that the state can conscript us just as it follows that I can take you to court and use the state to compel you to pay me if I contract with you to give me $30/bushel of apples and you take 5 bushels of apples and don't give me $150.

Now, in practice, people break contracts all the time, and they should be free to break contracts. But of course doing so will foreclose lots of options for future contracts and recognition of your rights.

BZ writes:


Contracts? Where? I don't recall signing away my rights. I don't recall chattel slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries doing so either. What in the world are you talking about?

MikeDC writes:

BZ? What in the world are you talking about?

You don't sign a contract when you go buy your groceries either, but you're still contracting.

Chattel slaves, of course, did not either, which is the fundamental distinction I made in my first reply. At its root, conscription is something a society imposes on its members. Slavery is something a society imposes on non-members.

Tim Starr writes:

Slavery is a special kind of involuntary servitude, in which the slaves have no rights at all. Simply finding some rights lacking in conscripts is not enough to make them slaves. Slavery is also usually either a permanent condition, or one that the slaves can only get out of with great effort, and not as a matter of right. Slaves who historically purchased their freedom did so only with the consent of their owners. Killing your slaves was not illegal in the antebellum South; certainly not in all slave states, and hardly at all, in practice, with all-male all-white jurors, most of whom either owned slaves or wanted to. Nor is it true that US conscript soldiers could be ordered to do anything; they had not only the legal right to refuse unjust orders, they had the legal duty to do so.

Others have already pointed out that many historical slaves were high-status, such as the Greek slaves in ancient Rome. It's also false that slaves have never been soldiers; the Janissaries of the Ottoman Empire were slave soldiers who ended up taking over the Empire via coup d'etat. It was the Ottoman practice of capturing Serbian boys (slavs) and forcing them to become their soldiers that gave rise to the very word "slave" in the English language. Before that, they were called "captives."

Finally, to address a completely unrelated point someone tried to use in an analogy, the atomic bombing of Japan was not intended to kill civilians. It was targeted at Japanese military headquarters (Hiroshima), war production that had been dispersed amongst civilian neighborhoods (Hiroshima & Nagasaki), and other resources (e.g., Nagasaki was a main port for the Japanese Navy). A great many Japanese civilians were killed in the process, of course, but only as collateral damage, and a great deal less than would've died of famine if the war had continued much longer. Meanwhile, the Japanese were killing hundreds of thousands of civilians per month in the parts of Asia remaining under their control (mainly China).

PrometheeFeu writes:

On the paid vs not-paid issue, you should all listen to the EconTalk interview on slavery. Slaves were often paid in order to provide incentives.

Permanence vs impermanence is also an inaccurate distinction. Conscription lasts until the government releases you. Slavery lasts until your owner releases you.

The existence of conscientious objectors is itself merely a mitigating circumstance in favor of conscription. But slavery was also not absolute. In many places, the slaves victims of rape who became pregnant were granted their freedom. (I know... How generous...) One could only rarely simply kill a slave without good case.

The "soldiers can't be sold" argument would be persuasive if it wasn't for the fact that soldiers have to do whatever they are told. While the government may not pass "title" of a soldier to someone else, the government can definitely detach a soldier to be under the command of someone else.

In my opinion, conscription and slavery resemble each other strongly in the way that matter the most: You must obey the orders of a superior under threat of violence. Resolve every other aspect of slavery and it will still remain a gruesome institution if that characteristic remains.

I think the most meaningful distinction is that slaves can't vote while soldiers can. However, by playing around with assignments and the delivery of ballots, the votes of soldiers can be easily ignored.

PrometheeFeu writes:

@Scott Summer:

How do you aggregate welfare? I don't mean how you measure it to come up with a number. That is obviously impossible. I mean, what is the aggregation of welfare in your book?

Phil writes:

Came across this quote doing other research. From Howell Cobb, former Speaker of House, Secretary of the Treasury, Governor of Georgia, and one of the founders of the Confederacy. Arguing with Robert E. Lee concerning the enlistment of slaves into the confederate army, "You cannot make soldiers of slaves, or slaves of soldiers. The day you make soldier of them is the beginning of the end of the Revolution. And if slaves seem good soldiers, then our whole theory of slavery is wrong." Battle Cry For Freedom, J. M. McPherson, page 836

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