From the classical liberal/libertarian perspective, conscription is a highly problematicÂ institution.
For one thing, it is connected with war, which the 17th-18th century Enlightenment thinkers rightlyÂ saw as beingÂ mostly a wealth destroying mode of grand larcenyÂ and empire building rationalizedÂ byÂ the glorification of the martial virtues and the pursuit of glory.Â Secondly, conscription infringes upon an individual’s freedom by compelling them to engage in activity they might not otherwise chooseÂ on their own. In other words, conscription is a form of servitude.
This last point is the one emphasized by most contemporary libertarians.Â Milton Friedman, for example,Â appealed toÂ it in his brief against conscription, as did Murray Rothbard.
Still, there is no logical necessity for a a classical liberal/libertarian to oppose the draft as a matter of principle. After all, Ludwig von Mises did notÂ do so.Â He thought it was permissable, although if, and only if, it was necessary to defend a free society against an aggressive totalitarian regime. In this instance, Mises argues that it is actually the opponent of the military draftÂ who is the abettor of slavery:
If the government of a free country forces every citizen to cooperate fully in its designs to repel the aggressors and every able-bodied man to join the armed forces, it does not impose upon the individual a duty that would step beyond the tasks the praxeological law dictates. In a world full of unswerving aggressors and enslavers, integral unconditional pacifism is tantamount to unconditional surrender to the most ruthless oppressors. He who wants to remain free, must fight unto death those who are intent upon depriving him of his freedom (Human Action, Ch. 15, sec. 6).
Is there a way to resolve thisÂ difference of opinion amongst libertarians? Perhaps we can ask the empirical question whether conscription increases the use of military force. Such a test is ultimately consistent with Mises’ position, since his view ofÂ the draftÂ hinges on theÂ notion that it helpsÂ bring about a certain empirical outcome, i.e., the defense of a free society against its external enemies.Â Â
A newly published study by Jeffrey Pickering suggests that conscription increases the chances of war. Here is the abstract:
Armed Forces & Society, January 2011, Pages 119-140
Conscription has been claimed to both increase leaders’ propensity to use military force abroad and constrain them from doing so. The author sheds new light on this longstanding controversy by presenting the first time-series, cross-national quantitative analysis of the impact that state military manpower systems (either conscription or volunteerism) have on the initiation of both traditional, belligerent military missions and “operations other than war” (OOTWs). Using negative binomial regression on 166 states from 1946 to 2001, the author finds that states with conscript militaries have a significantly higher propensity to use belligerent military force than states with volunteer armies. Countries that practice conscription are also more likely than countries with volunteer forces to launch a specific type of OOTW, military operations against nonstate actors such as rebels or terrorists. Neither form of military manpower system seems, however, to be significantly related to the initiation of humanitarian military operations.
Count this one for Friedman, Rothbard, and most libertarians today — though don’t forget it’s on Mises’ own empirical criteria.