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More Draftiness

April 23rd, 2004 · No Comments

Matt’s not happy that I’m not happy about this whole conscription thing. First, on the charge of advancing a specifically Rawlsian formulation as definitive of “liberalism,” I suppose I’ll plead guilty. But it’s not as though the idea of citizens enjoying an inviolable (or, anyway, near-inviolable) sphere of individual autonomy is some kind of innovation that sprang like Athena from the head of John Rawls. The language I used in my previous post is Rawlsian, but the idea is old enough. I’d say more, but apparently Will Wilkinson has mostly beaten me to it. Now, I’ll acknowledge like some iconic liberals (Mill, famously) were OK with conscription under certain circumstances, so I can’t claim that the “authentic” liberal opposes in every case. Under a very narrow set—imminent invasion by a huge force, say, where the alternative were the utter domination of the society—I might also be persuaded on “lesser-of-two-slaveries” grounds. But Matt’s actually talking about something rather different. His notion is in one sense an improvement over straight universal military conscription, in that he proposes a wide range of civic service options citizens among which citizens would be required to choose, removing the morally repulsive prospect of compelling someone to take another life and risk his own in the service of a cause he may not accept. But in another sense, this is worse: It is one thing to say that we will reluctantly accept the temporary enslavement of our own citizenry as a last resort in the face of military destruction and social collapse. It’s quite another to say that we’re to become tools to be used by the state for the sake of something that’s merely a nice idea. Here, again, the option that best respects people’s autonomy seems to be to offer a decent wage for the service you want performed, and let those for whom it would involve the least life-plan disruption voluntarily accept the job.

I will say a bit more about this, though:

All this talk of letting people work out there own life plans seems to me to demonstrate an all-too-typical libertarian sociological naiveté. Life plans are, clearly, circumscribed by the economic circumstances into which people find themselves born. Julian and his co-ideologues don’t seem very concerned about this. In practice, many people might find themselves more capable of successfully executing their life plans if the service regime came with mobility-enhancing rewards (see, e.g., the GI Bill) and if service promoted a greater level of social equality.

First, the mobility-enhancing rewards have nothing to do with conscription per se. Anyone who wants to broaden their range of opportunities by getting college money from the Army has that option already. Second, the libertarian’s idea (put aside whether right or wrong, for now) is that how one is constrained matters as much as the fact of constraint. To pick an extreme case, being prevented from marrying someone by anti-miscegenation laws is rather different from being prevented by the fact that my prospective partner isn’t interested, even though both “constrain” my options. That’s our conception of how freedom is bounded by equalityâ??maybe misguided, but not incoherent or naive. But assume I’m wrong to make that distinction in the economic realm. That’s an argument against current levels of economic inequality, not for constraining people’s options per se. In a sense, this is a version of the slavery-is-just-taxation argument: If you’re in favor of the “oppression” of inequality, you should also favor the oppression of conscription. But if I were to agree that there’s an analogy, the correct response would be to turn against permitting those inequality.

Finally, it’s worth noting, and (I hope) too obvious to need elaboration that the argument for compulsory schoolingâ??which is meant to enhance the autonomy of citizens too young to make informed decisions for themselves about whether they need itâ??is quite different from the argument for compulsory service. Up to a certain ageâ??probably not 16, as is now the case, but some ageâ??it seems reasonable to say: “We will force you to do this for your benefit, as you are not yet able to clearly assess your own interests.” It’s quite another to say: “We will force you to do this for our benefit; you will serve as a means to our ends.”

ADDENDUM: I’m also not sure what the point about the interdependence of social structures and personal life-plans is supposed to entail. If it’s not that it never makes sense to talk about government interfering with people’s life plans—an argument that, in addition to being highly implausible would prove far too much for Matt’s taste, I think—then surely making someone a foot-soldier in your army of good works against their will counts as an instance. In any event, while it’s obvious that our life plans aren’t formed in a vacuum, and require some kind of structural or institutional base, there’s a big difference (to paraphrase P.J. O’Rourke) between setting up traffic lights and telling people what the destination of their drive ought to be.

Matt, reasonably enough, notes that as he’s a consequentialist all this rights talk isn’t terribly compelling from his perspective. (My own post was originally more directed at a post from Pandagon.) Now, ultimately, I think the strongest arguments here do have a deontic flavor: The problem with slavery wasn’t (just) that it didn’t make plantation owners happy enough to balance the felicific ledger. Still, the consequentialist case for conscription seems pretty dubious. There’s the obvious cost of compelling people to do something they’d rather not. Then there’s the question of how effective these involuntary “volunteers” are going to be. Would you want to learn from a resentful teacher who was only there on pain of fines and prison? Finally, there’s the inefficiency generated when people are diverted from their chosen career or educational paths, which presumably reflect their own assessment of how their talents and capacities are best deployed. The idea that this system would do more good than a voluntary equivalent system of public service seems hard to swallow.

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