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Mises on Conscription

Mises Daily: Thursday, January 09, 2003 by

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The libertarian tradition stands solidly against conscription,  a form of public enslavement imposed mostly for the purposes of "public service" or waging war. Aside from the known waste and inefficiency of these programs, no government can be trusted with such a power, which is inherently contrary to individual rights. For that reason, we can expect every libertarian to resist all new efforts towards the reimposition of conscription, whether they come from the right or left.

Ludwig von Mises, though a radical defender of liberty, was not a proponent of natural rights, and could not be expected to argue against conscription on these grounds. He was, however, a lifetime critic and opponent of all forms of intervention, including conscription.

This may surprise people who only know of the passage from the 2nd and 3rd editions of Human Action, in which Ludwig von Mises suggests that conscription cannot be ruled out in a society that faces an imminent peril from an invasive force. The passages are striking, in part, because it represents a departure from the main line of his thinking. He writes the following:

He who wants to remain free, must fight unto death those who are intent upon depriving him of his freedom. As isolated attempts on the part of each individual to resist are doomed to failure, the only workable way is to organize resistance by the government. The essential task of government is defense of the social system not only against domestic gangsters but also against external foes. He who in our age opposes armaments and conscription is, perhaps unbeknown to himself, an abettor of those aiming at the enslavement of all. Human Action  3rd Edition (Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1966, p. 282)

The passage was first penned in the early 1960s, at a time when the Cold War had been on for nearly a decade, a war that enlisted the ideological defense of capitalism in opposition to the communism of the Soviet Union. Many defenders of free enterprise during this period backed away from opposing tax-and-spend policies insofar as their purpose was to roll back communism.

Moreover, Mises in this passage does not defend the absolute right of the government to conscript, nor the practice generally, but only its expediency in time of grave necessity. His defense is always empirically qualified in several respects: for example, the nation must face a mortal threat and individual resistance to invasion must be "doomed to failure."

What is most striking, however, about the passage is that its tone and import departs substantially from what Mises had written throughout the height of his scholarly career. The passage above, for example, does not appear in the 1st edition of Human Action. In fact, the German predecessor to Human Action, Nationalokonomie, includes a striking criticism of conscription (1940, p. 725–728).

Hence Mises's comments, even when construed most broadly, do not support the recent demand for a general draft or national service, and certainly not a draft "to foster preparedness, solidarity and love of country," as Eric Stakelbeck, among many others, favors.

In addition, the following quotations from the whole range of Mises's work demonstrate that his work cannot be invoked in the cause of the draft. The first passage quoted below was written in 1919, when the Red army was standing on the border with Austria, a time when one might expect him to make a case for conscription, but he does not. He points out that this "blood tax" is favored by militarists and socialists:

The first way [of covering war's cost] was confiscating the material goods needed for waging war and drafting the personal services needed for waging war without compensation or for inadequate compensation. This method seemed the simplest, and the most consistent representatives of militarism and socialism resolutely advocated employing it. It was used extensively in drafting persons into actually waging war. The universal military-service obligation was newly introduced in many states during the war and in others was substantially extended. That the soldier received only a trifling compensation for his services in relation to the wages of free labor, while the worker in the munitions industry was highly paid and while the possessors of expropriated or confiscated material means of war received an at least partially corresponding compensation, has rightly been called a striking fact. The explanation for this anomaly may be found in the fact that only a few people enlist today even for the highest wages and that in any case prospects of putting together any army of millions on the basis of enlistments would not be very good. In relation to the immense sacrifices that the state demands of the individual through the blood tax, it seems rather incidental whether it compensates the soldier more or less abundantly for the loss of time that he suffers from his military-service obligation. Nation, State, and Economy (NY: New York University Press, 1983 [1919] p. 165)

The second passage, from 1940, was written after Austria had been overrun by the German armies, a time when one might have expected a defense of the draft. Instead, what we find is a brilliant discussion of conscription as a species of socialist planning with disastrous consequences

The first step which led from the soldier's war back to total war was the introduction of compulsory military service. It gradually did away with the difference between soldiers and citizens. The war was no longer to be only a matter of mercenaries; it was to include everyone who had the necessary physical ability. The slogan "a nation in arms" at first expressed only a program which could not be realized completely for financial reasons. Only part of the able-bodied male population received military training and were placed in the army services. But once this road is entered upon it is not possible to stop at halfway measures. Eventually the mobilization of the army was bound to absorb even the men indispensable to production at home who had the responsibility of feeding and equipping the combatants. It was found necessary to differentiate between essential and nonessential occupations. The men in occupations essential for supplying the army had to be exempted from induction into the combat troops. For this reason disposition of the available manpower was placed in the hands of the military leaders. Compulsory military service proposes putting everyone in the army who is able-bodied; only the ailing, the physically unfit, the old, the women, and the children are exempted. But when it is realized that a part of the able-bodied must be used on the industrial front for work which may be performed by the old and the young, the less fit and the women, then there is no reason to differentiate in compulsory service between the able-bodied and the physically unfit. Compulsory military service thus leads to compulsory labor service of all citizens who are able to work, male and female. The supreme commander exercises power over the entire nation, he replaces the work of the able-bodied by the work of the less fit draftees, and places as many able-bodied at the front as he can spare at home without endangering the supplies of the army. The supreme commander then decides what is to be produced and how. He also decides how the products are to be used. Mobilization has become total; the nation and the state have been transformed into an army; war socialism has replaced the market economy. Interventionism: An Economic Analysis (Irvington, NY, FEE, 1998 [1940] , pp. 69–70)

Here conscription is analyzed by Mises as part of the general apparatus of interventionism which leads to complete regimentation of all of life. There is nothing about its necessity in times of grave need. From these passages, we observe that Mises's view on conscription is beautifully integrated into his general pattern of thought. Toward the end of his life, apparently, his view shifted, most likely because of the threat of communism. In any case, if we look the whole range of his opinion and read carefully, it's clear that Mises's name cannot be invoked in the cause of a general case for conscription, such as that being made by left-liberals and neoconservatives today.

The essence of the idea of conscription is the elimination of individual choice over occupation and the forcible sacrifice of one's life in the service of the state—two propositions that stand the entire Misesian edifice on its head. In fact, Mises favored the opposite of conscription (forcible enslavement) which is secession, the freedom to withdraw one's consent from government dictate.

A consistent application of the principle of secession would not only rule out conscription, but  effectively make all government voluntary. As Jeffrey Herbener, et al., point out in the introduction to the Scholar's Edition of Human Action, Mises believed that "no people and no part of a people shall be held against its will in a political association that it does not want." (Nation, State, and Economy, p. 65).

If the pundits and politicians ever succeed in imposing the draft again on American citizens, for purposes of bolstering the military empire or doing social work at home or both, they will have to look for support outside the libertarian tradition.



Jeffrey Tucker is vice president of the Mises Institute. Send him MAIL.  See his Mises.org Daily Article Archive.