The Case Against The Case Against National Service

I probably wouldn’t support any actually existing proposal for national service, whether in the US or in France.

There are plenty of good practical arguments against national service: it’s expensive; it’s social engineering with a low likelihood of success; it’s feel-good paternalism; it’s a waste of time. If your idea of national service is military service, you can add that good 21st century militaries are highly professional outfits, not mass conscript armies, that social engineering is not the military’s job, and so on.

Those are all good arguments. They are also not the arguments that most libertarians make. And the libertarian arguments are not only ridiculous, and not only as ridiculous as they are strongly-held, they are ridiculous in a specifically pernicious way that perfectly encapsulates why I’m not a libertarian.

I remember being so shocked that I committed the event to memory: many many years ago Rep Rangel introduced a bill to reinstate the military draft as a protest against the Iraq War. One of the writers at the Volokh Conspiracy wrote (and this so shocked me that I committed this quote to memory) that military service is “a heinous institution that presupposes that people are the property of the state.”

I don’t remember which of the Volokh writers wrote this but if I’m not mistaken all of them are legal scholars, and this idea which ought to embarrass a first-year law student shows the extent to which libertarian brains shut down with a mention of the draft. The state is entitled to demand military service of you for the same reason that it’s entitled to demand that you pay a portion of your wages: military service is a form of taxation paid in kind. Military service is like slavery in the same way that taxation is theft. (And if you read this and pumped up your fist and went “Well, yeah!” you need to read more books.)

I’m the most quasi-libertarian non-libertarian you’ll ever meet. Milton Friedman is one of my all-time personal heroes—I even named my cat after him! Free to Choose will be mandatory (gasp!) viewing for my kids.

Here’s the thing, though.

My great-grandfather was a major in the French Army. When the Battle of France was lost he was one of only a handful of battalion commanders who managed to keep his unit together in the debacle, and was decorated as one of the final acts of the legitimate government of France. He was a public school teacher and administrator, because he had grown up as a stableman’s son and a public school teacher’s detection and encouragement of his precocity (something forbidden nowadays) was the only reason he was able to pursue education, and out of gratitude he dedicated his life to public service, at the end of his life watching impotently as the French public school system he loved was destroyed from the inside by Sixties radicals, and taking his granddaughter out of public schools and putting her in a private parochial school. For him serving his country entailed working in schools, but also serving in the French Army reserves, and he went to fight for his country when she needed it. After the armistice, he went home but did not stop fighting. He joined the French Resistance and ended up building and leading one of the most important maquis networks in Burgundy, which was occupied territory. He became a wanted man and his house was taken by the Nazis. If he had been found, he would almost certainly have been tortured to death as an important asset. And I shudder even more to think of what would have happened to his little daughter, also in hiding, my grandmother.

One of the greatest men of the past century, André Malraux gave this homage to one of his fellow Résistants, Jean Moulin, head of the Resistance tortured to death by the Gestapo.

You Head of the Resitance, martyred in hideous cellars, look with your blinded eyes all those black women standing watch over our companions: they mourn for France, and for you. Look as under the small oaks of Quercy, with a flag made of knotted rags, slip by the maquis that the Gestapo will never find because it only believes in tall trees. Look at the prisoner who enteers a luxurious villa and wonders why he has a bathroom—he hasn’t heard of bathtub torture. Poor tortured king of shadows, look as your people of shadows rises up in a night of June pierced by torture. Hear the rumble of German tanks rolling towards Normandy: thanks to you, the tanks will not make it in time. And when the Allied troops break through, look, Prefect, as in every town of France the Commissaries of the Republic rise up—except when they were killed. Like us, you envied Leclerc’s epic bums : look, fighter, your bums crawl out of their maquis. Their peasant hands have been trained to use bazookas, and they stop one of the foremost tank divisions of Hitler’s Empire, Das Reich. (…)

Enter here, Jean Moulin, with your terrible cohort. With those who died in basements without talking, like you; and even, which may be more awful, having talked. With the striped and shaved figures of the concentration camps. With the last stumbling, beaten body of the awful lines of Night And Fog. With the eight thousand French women who never returned from the prisons. With the last woman who died in Ravensbrück for giving asylum to one of ours. Enter here with the people born of shadows and gone with it—our brothers in the order of the night.

My ancestor risked torture and death and worse. What for? So that his children, and his countrymen’s children—so that I could enjoy a free and prosperous life.

If you won the sperm lottery and were born in a wealthy, democratic nation, you have a life whose charm is simply incommensurable and incomparable with the lived existence of the vast, vast majority of human beings who have ever lived on Earth.

You have the privilege of not dying of hunger and easily preventable disease. You have the privilege of having attended schools that, yeah, could be much better, but still taught you how to read. You have the privilege of access to technology and a standard of living that would have been simply unimaginable even to most kings of old. You have the privilege of not having to keep a spare set of clothes under your bed in case the secret police knock in the middle of the night. You have the privilege of being able to spout off whatever nonsense on the internet and not get thrown in jail for your opinions. You have the privilege of medicine which cures most ailments and is relatively available to you. You have the privilege of a relatively much much higher likelihood of having work that is not back-breaking and awful, and perhaps even meaningful and fulfilling. You have the privilege of having a life expectancy which is basically twice the life expectancy of most of the people who came before you. That’s right: you basically have A WHOLE OTHER LIFE on top of your “natural” life, as a reward for the hard work and toil of being born in the right place and the right time.

And the simple fact of the matter is that if your sperm was lucky and you were born in one of those countries, the only reason you enjoy this incredible, unimaginable privilege is because people who lived before you sacrificed, and toiled, and gave their lives so that you would have it. They fought wars and they gave their blood and their lives so that a certain political community to which you belong shall not perish from the Earth so that you could enjoy this.

We owe this incredibly charmed modern life not just to scientific progress and capitalism. We also owe it to the stubborn fact that many of our forefathers were willing to put on a uniform, swear an oath, and lay down their lives, for us, their children and their children’s children. Your blessed life is built on the blood and bones of your forefathers.

You can tell me that war is bad, and I agree. You can tell me that nationalism is bad, and I agree. You can tell me that militarism is bad, and I agree. But none of that changes the stubborn actual facts of history that wars, some of them just, were fought by your forefathers, and that your forefathers died, so that you could enjoy the positively mind-boggling privilege you do enjoy. Freedom is never free. Government is often a threat to freedom, yes, but it is also a bulwark for freedom. Maybe it doesn’t have to be this way, but it’s the way it has been.

In this context, the idea that your political community which has given you so much does not have the right to ask you to contribute just a little something back to the effort of national defense strikes me as the height of solipsistic adolescent egotism. It is spitting in your father’s face.

Through no effort of your own, being born in the right political community basically gave you forty extra years of expected life, and giving back just one or two is too much?

“Oh, but that’s slavery.” You know what’s slavery? ACTUAL SLAVERY. And you know where slavery exists? Not where you live. Slavery still exists—in places you were lucky enough not to be born in. Instead you were born into a place of unimaginable freedom, wealth and wonder which you did nothing to earn. And so yes, that place just may ask you to spend a year wearing ugly green fatigues which don’t compliment your eyes, crawling around in the muck and getting yelled at by a guy who didn’t even go to a good college. The horror.

Tell me national service is too expensive. Tell me it won’t work. Tell me you want smart ways to deal with true conscientious objectors. Tell me it’s wankery, even. Heck, tell me why as a Christian you refuse to take up arms against anybody. Tell me all these things—really.

But don’t tell me that there’s no social contract. Don’t tell me that you don’t owe anything to your country.

In the end, that’s why I’m not a libertarian. I am pro-libertarian in that I believe the libertarian critique of state overreach is critically important. I want libertarian ideas to have more purchase in our societies. I probably agree with the Cato Institute on 90% of issues. But following the logic of libertarianism leads to denying the social contract, to denying that political communities have value. Nations exist. In all of human history, people have formed political associations. It seems to me self-evident that this is necessary and good. Through a painful and long process of trial and error, we’ve stumbled upon a form of political association, the liberal democratic nation state, which is uniquely good at protecting people’s natural rights and encouraging their flourishing. But for these political associations to be successful, they require us to give as well as take, and for us to affiliate in a powerful way, and to view our destiny, at least a little bit, as a common endeavor and not just an individual one.

As Jim Manzi wrote in his book, every successful institution relies not just on the well-understood personal interest of its members but also on an emotional attachment to that institution and its well-being at the expense of our narrow personal interests. The liberal democratic nation state is the most successful, good and important institution we’ve come up with. It deserves and needs that we defend it—with words, with deeds, and sometimes, yes, with service. And it has the right to ask that of us.