The End Of The Draft

Modern military conscription, which largely began in France under Napoleon has slowly but surely faded away:

In 1970, only 20 percent of the countries for which we have data did not use conscription. In 2009, that figure was nearly 55 percent! The United States’ move from a conscripted military to a volunteer military over this period, while relatively early, is not an anomaly. It is what happened in many countries, including Argentina, Australia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, and Peru. Most significantly, the government of France, the country in which modern conscription first began, ended conscription in 2001.

This is, as Ilya Somin points out, a positive development not only because of the well-known policy arguments against conscription, but because it is an affront to human freedom:

There are few more severe violations of human rights than forcing a person to do work he doesn’t want at below-market rates for years at a time. In addition, conscripts’ lives are often tightly regulated even when they are not actively carrying out their duties. And, of course, they are sometimes forced to risk their lives.

Many people resist the comparison between conscription and other forms of forced labor because they see military service as providing a great good that is essential to our society. But military service is far from unique in that regard. Historically, slaves and forced laborers often performed work that was vital to the social order. The entire economy of the antebellum South depended on crops produced by slaves. So too with ancient Rome, Russia in the era of serfdom, and so on. The key point to realize is that this work, however noble and necessary, can be performed by free laborers. Thus, the use of forced labor to carry it out is still unjust. The same goes for military service. Both the United States and other liberal democracies can field more than adequate military forces without conscription. Indeed, they can create better armies without it than with it.

Indeed, if one examines the list of countries in which conscription is still in effect, one finds a definite correlation between conscription and authoritarian regimes. There are some European nations (as well as places like South Korea) that maintain the practice, but all of them offer some form of alternative service for those who don’t wish to serve in the military. Perhaps there are some situations where a violation of personal liberty like this can be ethically justified, but they are few and far between and, with modern military technology, the kind of mass armies that conscription creates seem less necessary, and less practical.

Most of all, though, this is a positive development and one that hopefully will spread around the world.

H/T: Andrew Sullivan

FILED UNDER: Military Affairs, Quick Takes
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed for too young in July 2021.

Comments

  1. PD Shaw says:

    Many people resist the comparison between conscription and other forms of forced labor because they see military service as providing a great good that is essential to our society. But military service is far from unique in that regard. Historically, slaves and forced laborers often performed work that was vital to the social order. The entire economy of the antebellum South depended on crops produced by slaves. So too with ancient Rome, Russia in the era of serfdom, and so on.

    The substantial difference here is that national defense is a public good, which frankly most governments were formed as the means of providing. Cotton and food might be important, even vital commodities, but their production is not hampered by public good problems like free riders.

    So long as the national defense can be provided through conventional tax and spending, conscription isn’t necessary, but that’s conditional.

  2. @PD Shaw:

    Wrong. There is never a moral justification for slavery

  3. 11B40 says:

    Greetings:

    Some of us remember just how well that “volunteer” military concept worked during the dark days of the Iraq war when manpower shortages were rife and tour extensions and recalls were out and about.

    For me, the problem with ending the military draft for males, ( and I could care less what other countries do; I see most of them as the “free riders” mentioned above ) is that it results in society sending a message to its menfolk that they do not have an individual responsibility to defend it.

    One of the things that struck me when Bin Laden bit his dust, was how people came into the streets in celebration but there didn’t seem to be any lines outside the recruiting offices.

    Back when the Jesuits were making their contribution to the shaping of my character and intellect, this type of “human rights” argument would have been termed “sophomoric”. We are experiencing a process of “hollowing out” our military and the ending of the military draft was the first leap off the cliff. Perhaps soon we will achieve some people’s goal of a military who’s motto is “Do no harm”.

    Think Libya !!!

  4. Tano says:

    Very few countries on earth would have much of a problem staffing their armed forces in times when the country is under attack – even countries with governments that are deeply unpopular. If they did have problems in those times, then they probably don’t deserve to survive.

    The point of conscription is to compel service from those who would otherwise not serve. To build a larger and more powerful armed forces than what would form through the voluntary service of young citizens. A larger force, in other words, than what is needed to defend the country.

    Conscription in this country ended after we experienced the logical result of having such a large force – that it be used for other than the true national defense. Or, to put it another way – when one has a larger force than what is need for immediate defense, one’s definition of “national defense:” tends to get broader – so that suddenly local disputes on the other side of the world are defined as crucial to our national interest, and so we use the force over there.

    Build it, and they will use it.

  5. PD Shaw says:

    I didn’t make a moral argument; it was an economic differentiation.

    But yes, I do think its moral to concript soldiers to end slavery.

  6. An Interested Party says:

    For me, the problem with ending the military draft for males, ( and I could care less what other countries do; I see most of them as the “free riders” mentioned above ) is that it results in society sending a message to its menfolk that they do not have an individual responsibility to defend it.

    Well, certainly there would not have been the need to end the military draft if certain presidents and other politicians didn’t have the urge to involve the military in foreign entanglements that had nothing to do with defending this country…