Conscription Is Slavery

Bryan Caplan:

Slavery is involuntary servitude; conscription is involuntary military servitude; therefore not only is conscription slavery; it’s a particularly heinous form of slavery that often ends in maiming and death. Yet most people disagree – and so did the U.S. Supreme Court back in 1918. … I think I finally figured out what most people are thinking. Namely: They implicitly regard slavery not as mere involuntary servitude, but as low-status involuntary servitude. … conscripts have high status – and therefore can’t be slaves.

Comments there give many reasons conscription is not slavery:

  • “The key difference is the idea of … `servitude for the public benefit’.”
  • “Cannot sell its conscripted soldiers … conscription offers pay.”
  • “Slavery as an institution appears to cause a lot more social harm than limited conscription powers.”
  • “People hate slavery because it is malicious and exploitative.”
  • “Conscripted soldiers are not owned by a private person. This is the same reason that we don’t consider taxes theft”
  • “Conscripts still have civil rights, slaves did not. Conscripts were paid, slaves were not. Conscripts could own property, especially real property,and wait for it, conscripts could VOTE.”
  • “If the ‘slaves’ could neither be bought nor sold, then they would just be serfs.”
  • “Slavery … is a permanent condition and [conscription] is not. One can apply to anyone, the other only to a specific cohort.”
  • “The connotation attached to conscription and slavery evokes different emotions … positive for conscription and negative for slavery.”

Consider that “comfort women,” forced to serve as prostitutes for the Japanese military during World War II, are often called “sex slaves.” Would they not be slaves they were paid, served only for a limited time, could own property and vote, could not be bought or sold, and were seen by the Japanese public as serving their benefit and evoking positive emotions? Would such conditions also imply comfort women were not “raped”?

It is hard to believe that one must argue this point. OF COURSE conscripts are slaves. Conscription may be a good form of slavery – I for one do not accept a moral axiom that slavery must always be bad. But surely it is slavery. And Bryan is probably right – we don’t call conscripts slaves, but do call comfort women slaves, because the first is high status and the second low.

Added 10a: On reflection, the main effect here is probably that many people take “slavery is bad” to be part of the definition of slavery. So therefore by definition anything good cannot be slavery. For what other words do we take value to be part of the definition? Democracy? Rape?

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  • J Storrs Hall

    I would disagree with that. Slavery is generally defined as the condition in which a person is property, which is distinguishable from other forms of involuntary servitude. In fact the 13th amendment states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

    This makes it quite arguable that the writers of the amendment believed that there were forms of involuntary servitude distinct from slavery — and that they prohibited both, with one exception (e.g. ten years at hard labor as a prison sentence). The fact that they had to make the exception indicates quite strongly that they viewed such government-imposed, temporary arrangements as involuntary servitude.

    Bottom line: there’s a good case that a military draft isn’t slavery. The case that it isn’t involuntary servitude, also clearly prohibited, is weak to nonexistent.

  • rosyatrandom

    (feel free to delete this!)

    And Bryan is probably right – we don’t call conscripts slaves, but do call co_n_fort women slaves, because the first is high status and the second low status.

  • Wonks Anonymous

    I believe the voting age was only raised during the Vietnam war, with part of the argument being that if they can be drafted they should be able to vote. Drinking still requires more aged maturity than dying for your country or making the other fellow do so.

    Good catch to J. Storrs Hall on various kinds of involuntary servitude. Serfdom is another common variety in which the worker belongs to the land and cannot be bought/sold separate from that. But we should also remember that there a variety of kinds of “slavery” proper, with American style chattel plantation slavery being only one particular type very different from many Greek slaves in ancient Rome.

  • Dave

    The analogy breaks down upon other grounds besides status.

    “– we don’t call conscripts slaves, but do call comfort women slaves, because the first is high status and the second low status.”

    The foreign women were indeed slaves,as would foreign men impressed into military service or as coolies by the Japanese Army . By the same token Japanese women,if they were required to become comfort women as part of their service to their country would not be slaves. Funny,this type thing never happened. Perhaps female sexuality for some instrumental purpose was what was what made them low status, yet it was a military necessity for Japanese fighting men? It appears that citizenship entails obligations but this does not include entertaining soldiers.( Unless you want to.)

    • The foreign women were indeed slaves,as would foreign men impressed into military service or as coolies by the Japanese Army. By the same token Japanese women,if they were required to become comfort women as part of their service to their country would not be slaves

      Are you saying that you can only be a slave if your master is of a different nationality?

  • Ben

    Here’s an argument which justifies the draft and not forced prostitution:

    The draft gets around the free rider problem. It might be in the common interests of everyone in a country for their military to win a war (e.g. to stop them growing up in a world dominated by the Nazis/decadent Yanks/etc.). But while most men would prefer their country to win, they can avoid the risk to themselves by deciding not to fight, and if too many men think that way, the war will be lost.

    You could argue – assuming that the public agrees the war is worth fighting, which I know is a big assumption, but let’s say it’s WW2 Britain rather than the US in Vietnam – that the state is compelling people to act in their own best group interests, in the same way that it compels us to pay tax so that we can have garbage collection and health care. So it’s not slavery, because, assuming a just war, it’s in the soldiers’ collective interest to fight.

    In the case of the “comfort women”, it seems unlikely that their forced “service” was a critical factor in winning the war, so you can’t make the same justification. If it was necessary for morale, the Japanese state apparently could have found willing prostitutes from Japan, but “resisted further issuance of travel visas for Japanese prostitutes, feeling it tarnished the image of the Japanese Empire” (according to my extensive Wikipedia research).

    You’re also pulling a bait and switch by imagining hypothetical conditions where they were paid, served for a limited time, and were seen by the Japanese as “heroes”, then making an argument about relative status. Under the conditions you imagine, maybe they would have had higher status, and then your argument wouldn’t work. In real history, the women who were picked to be abducted were picked *because* they were already low status, and really were treated like slaves.

    [As a minor point, you could also argue that soldiers are forced to assume a relatively low risk of injury and death (I think something like 10% in WW2??), whereas the “comfort women” would definitely be raped. A WW2 soldier could have a relatively “good” war, but that’s not the case for the forced prostitutes].

    Essentially your argument boils down to pointing at the emotive case of comfort women, which is vaguely similar but not directly analogous to conscripts, and saying “if you disagree with me then you’re saying these women weren’t raped”. Good rhetorical trick, but not a good argument.

    • The free rider argument doesn’t work here, because it will almost always be Kaldor-Hicks (and probably Pareto) efficient to just tax the population a little bit more so you can pay the market price for the soldiers you need. That avoids the need to enslave people (or at least, decreases the level of enslavement by a significant margin).

      And if you still can’t find the troops you did, there are still a million intermediate measures you can try that are more efficient and equitable.

      If there are free riders, it’s the people who are ineligible for the draft and benefit from never having to actually be in the line of fire, while the country gets protected anyway.

      • Ben

        In a weird, idealised homo economicus world, you might be right, but there are obvious issues with just buying extra soldiers. Most importantly, how can you buy enough soldiers if you’re fighting a total war like WW1 or WW2? You might *need* all the young men in your country to fight, and you might not have easy access to other countries to recruit foreign mercenaries (not to mention that there are issues of language, loyalty etc.).

        Obviously mercenaries *are* used in some wars, but I think in recent history, the draft tends to be used in precisely the cases when volunteers or mercenaries wouldn’t be enough to handle the demand for soldiers.

        People who are not eligible for the draft for age or medical reasons aren’t really “free riders”, because they’re not *choosing* not to contribute, it’s just that they aren’t suitable (and in the world wars, they got assigned to other kinds of service anyway). The “free riders” are draft dodgers.

        Your link to “intermediate measures” doesn’t actually offer any better suggestion than the draft, just some hopeful rhetoric about how rationalists should be able to find better solutions. It suggests that if you need to select soldiers to fight a war that your group agrees is a good idea, you should hold a lottery, drug the selectees and shoot them if they run away, which *is* the draft, then it immediately disses drafts (citing the example of the Vietnam war, which is not widely agreed to be a “good war”).

        Note, I am not saying that the draft is an unmitigated good, but in something like WW2, it is probably justifiable as a way of making the population serve its own best interests. I am perilously close to a Godwin’s law violation, here.

      • Does anyone other than Ben think the response above is insightful enough to do a reply? I can take it apart, but it takes time, and I’m not going to bother unless anyone’s actually convinced by it.

      • Ben

        Nice trick!

      • Andrew Patton

        Elaborating on your point, you could use propaganda to convince the population to regard with contempt those who are fit for service but unwilling to serve, or you could pass a law requiring employers to give preference to returning veterans in employment decisions. Both would have the effect of strongly encouraging men to enlist, without compelling them to do so.

  • Miley Cyrax

    Probably because most people would think of conscripted soldiers as men and sex slaves as women, and intuitively find men to be expendable while having near infinite a priori sympathy for women. They would call the comfort women “slaves” to imply some sort of injustice, but think of conscripted men of just fulfilling their obligation of sacrificing for women and children.

  • On public vs. private servitude: public slaves weren’t uncommon in Greece and Rome. In an argument over definitions, that’s one point in favor of inclusiveness. Other examples? I wonder now if American slave-state governments directly owned slaves — it’d be kind of surprising if none did.

    • Daublin

      Egyptian projects often used involuntary labor to accomplish state goals. There appears to be some discussion among historians whether to call the workers slaves, but at least some authors use the term.

  • jsalvatier

    You’re arguing about definitions. Caplan was at least making a novel (to me) point about how people’s judgment of the acceptability of involuntary servitude is affected by the status of the conscriptees.

  • John 4

    The US military doesn’t own you, or even claim to own you. That’s the difference. You can’t own another human being, even if they try to sell themselves to you. Self-ownership is inalienable, and that’s why slavery is wrong. (But doesn’t it violate self-ownership to have to follow orders? No more than an enlisted soldier being forced to follow orders–you’ve (implicitly) agreed to follow orders when you turned 18 and didn’t emigrate to Canada.)

    I go back and forth about the permissibility and desirability of conscription, but the above seems like a morally relevant difference between slavery and conscription.

  • nikki_olson

    Does the perspective of conscripts as slaves have any notable gender bias?

    I think there is a greater chance that another women would identify a comfort women as a slave than a man would. But probably equally likely for men and women to identify a soldier as a slave.

    • nikki_olson

      I guess the difference here can be at least partially, if not wholly, explained in terms of status; women view other women as higher status than men view women.

  • wophugus

    I don’t think it’s status; I think it’s that people think it is a legitimate infringement to conscript folks for national defense (or national offense, for that matter) and an illegitimate infringement to conscript them for sex. Any right can be infringed if there is a good enough reason; “national defense” is arguably a much better reason than “horniness.” I also suspect most people think the infringement itself is greater in the case of military service than in the case of comfort women (a breach of sexual autonomy is a pretty severe infringement), though that might depend on how likely the conscript is to be ordered to his death.

    The corollary to this is that if you think there actually is a legitimate reason to conscript comfort women and they serve an important purpose then you wouldn’t think of them as slaves, regardless of their low status. And lo, the Japanese didn’t (and in many cases still don’t) think of them that way!

    • Wat

      The comfort women served a national defense purpose– keeping up troop morale– something conscripts were no doubt ordered to do in other ways in addition to privations and danger.

  • blablabla

    The army serves the purpose of protecting you so that you can have these stupid debates “freely” with Internet working and with oil fuelling your transport of food for example. It is then to discuss how a nation arranges its army or protection in general. Is the best way to stigmatize some people as slaves? :O

    • Jayson Virissimo

      We can dissolve your post into a few separate questions for greater precision:

      1.) Are conscripts slaves?

      2.) Does “the nation” benefit from using slave labor during war time?

      3.) Should we stigmatize people for being slaves?

  • John

    Isn’t being overrun by a hostile power just as involuntary? I think this explains why it continues to exist in such First World countries as Israel, South Korea, and Taiwan, but not, let’s say, the US or France.

    For these countries to call conscription slavery would be like calling a paid job slavery. Its basis for existence is survival.

    • Some folks do think paid work is illegitimate, “wage slavery”. David Ellerman is one such person I’ve encountered, a website promoting some of his ideas is Abolish Human Rentals.

      • Andrew Patton

        Of course such an argument is silly when one has the choice to go into business for himself and chooses instead to work for someone else. Such an employee is not in any sense deprived of his freedom, but rather exercising his freedom in such manner as he deems best for him. Should this arrangement become distasteful to him, he retains the right to alter or abolish it (i.e. negotiate more preferable terms from his employer or resign from the position in favor of working for a different employer or starting a business himself).

  • Kevin Dick

    I’m with Robin. I was also very surprised that people even disputed this point. I was skipping over the posts for a while because I thought this would be a complete non-debate among regular readers of the Masonomics blogs.

    I bet there’s some sort of basic personality trait at work here. I’m not judging whether it’s good or bad, just that different cognitive styles seem to approach this question from opposite directions.

  • John 4:

    It bothers me that you are arguing your case backwards by using an a priori false conclusion in lieu of a valid observable premise. The argument you presented is: “If the military does not own you, then you are not a slave. The military does not own you. Therefore you are not a slave.”

    Except “The military does not own you” is a false premise. Whether the military owns you or not is not a principle, it is not an assumption, and it is not a belief. It is a conclusion that is either true or false, and its validity must be drawn from observation, and the observation clearly states that they indeed do own you.

    Now, let’s observe reality. If you refuse to be conscripted, the military can take your body and put you in a cage against your will. This is observable fact and it has happened many times. Now, being legitimately able to do whatever one pleases with one’s property, alive or dead, *is* the definition of ownership.

    This observation proves your starting assumption wrong. Your syllogism is erroneous.

    In general, it bothers me when people go about “refuting” an argument by presenting a premise that is actually an a priori conclusion contradictory to the facts.

    • John 4

      I’m not sure what fallacy you think I’ve committed. I am arguing from premises that I take to be uncontroversial, such as that the military does not own you. You write:

      Now, let’s observe reality. If you refuse to be conscripted, the military can take your body and put you in a cage against your will. This is observable fact and it has happened many times. Now, being legitimately able to do whatever one pleases with one’s property, alive or dead, *is* the definition of ownership.

      But the military does not have the right to do with you whatever it pleases. Need I list the ways?

      If Robin can establish that the military owns conscripts, then he wins. I’m just pointing out that he hasn’t even tried to make that argument. I mean, go back to Bryan’s argument, which is just an equivocation on ‘is’:

      Slavery is involuntary servitude; conscription is involuntary military servitude; therefore not only is conscription slavery; it’s a particularly heinous form of slavery that often ends in maiming and death.

      The premises are true if ‘is’ abbreviates ‘is a form of’, but then the argument is invalid. The premises are false if we read ‘is’ as the ‘is’ of identity. (Schoolchildren are not slaves, yet they must work involuntarily. Fathers are not slaves, but they must support their children involuntarily. Etc.)

    • Ben

      The military can put you in a cage for a certain time, but they can’t sell you on to somebody else, or keep you in the cage forever.

      If I don’t do as the police tell me, the police can put me in a cage for a certain time. So I guess I’m a slave of the police?

  • ad

    OF COURSE conscripts are slaves.

    Can they be arbitrarily raped or killed by their owner?

    Remember the Zong:

  • People debate the undebatable with Robin, because any reality that does not match the carefully constructed belief system they have, causes them great emotional stress, and the quickest path to resolving that stress is to attack Robin or say lies.

    Take this case as an example. People are taught the conclusion that conscription is not slavery. This is taught repeatedly in school, in a varied number of ways. When smart kids discover the contradictions between this conclusion and what they can observe, they are given all sorts of pretexts — “it’s necessary”, “you own the government, the government does not own you”, “if you do not serve your country, you are an evil traitor”. None of those pretexts, of course, are true, but they serve their purpose: they shut the kid up.

    When these kids grow up and encounter points of view that contradict this system, this generates emotional stress; after all, if Robin is right, then it means they were deliberately lied to and a lot of the things that conform their current identity are false.

    So what do they do? They do what their teachers and parents did: they reflexively replay the canned pretexts that they were given when they were kids. “It’s necessary”, “you own the government, the government does not own you”, “if you do not serve your country, you are an evil traitor”. After all, the kid was taught to resolve internal contradictions between observable reality and his belief system by inventing excuses.

    Doing this gives them immediate relief from the emotional stress, and staves off the realization that they were taught lies, at least until their interlocutor manages to demonstrate how those excuses are fallacious. As the discussion progresses and each excuse is refuted one by one, the stress level grows and grows. This is why people who believe in lies become more and more aggressive, the closer you get to refuting any and all excuses they have for their continued belief in said lies.

    • Ben

      That’s an interesting theory for why people are rejecting Robin’s argument, but it doesn’t seem to fit the observable facts of this discussion.

      I don’t see anybody attacking Robin or just dismissing his argument as lies, or, really, repeating any of your possible justifications. I guess what I am saying is “it is arguably a good mechanism to promote the common interest in certain circumstances”, which might be caricatured as “it’s necessary”.

      I’m lying down, relaxed, eating a biscuit, and I don’t feel increasingly aggressive or stressed. Perhaps other participants who don’t agree with Robin could tell us if they are experiencing the psychological crisis which your model predicts?

    • Dave

      It seems that people like you and some others are violating a “Goodwin like law” to coin a phrase. Slavery like Naziism is universally reviled. If you don’t like the draft call it slavery. Anyone who disagrees is a Nazi sympathizer( or slavery supporter).

      An example will illustrate. When North Korea needed people to teach them Japanese they went to Japan and kidnapped them and carried them off to Korea. I don’t recall anyone using the word slavery to describe this,though it was. There was no need to do so.It was atrocious on its face. Drafting people has some features that can be compared to slavery. So if you have to call it slavery to condemn it ,your argument is probably kind of weak.

  • ad:

    They don’t have to be “arbitrarily raped or killed” before we conclude conscripts are slaves, because the definition of slavery does not demand “being arbitrarily raped or killed” as a sine qua non requisite.

    • ad

      No. It requires that that they have all their rights stripped from them.

      Which does not happen to conscripts, or people in other states of involuntary servitude.

      “Slave” was a legal term. It had a defined meaning. It did NOT mean “involuntary servitude”.

      There were states of servitude other than slavery.

  • I think the problem is that slavery *actually* means “one person makes someone else do something they don’t want to AND BY THE WAY THIS IS TOTALLY EVIL”, and the argument here is just because people are rejecting the idea that conscription is evil. Sometimes we just need to give up and start using different words for things.

    • Sister Y

      Conscription is cuddly slavery – like pre-1975 marriage.

      • josh


      • Wat

        Except without the “I do,” or any cuddling.

      • Andrew Patton

        The marital debt goes both ways.

    • This.

  • dysgenic

    I prefer to think of conscription as a tax, a highly regressive and unequally distributed one, rather than quibble on definitions about agency and exit.

  • Chris, I believe you are at the very least partially right. People approach this subject from the standpoint of “Robin says conscription is slavery, but we all know that slavery is evil and conscription can’t be evil because I have been systematically indoctrinated to believe that conscription is morally good and necessary, so by back-ass-wards reasoning, Robin must be wrong”.

    At the core of the problem is human emotions used in service of the status quo to hide the truth.

  • Evan

    The army serves the purpose of protecting you so that you can have these stupid debates “freely” with Internet working and with oil fuelling your transport of food for example. It is then to discuss how a nation arranges its army or protection in general. Is the best way to stigmatize some people as slaves? :O

    We’re not stigmatizing those people as slaves. We’re stigmatizing the politicians and military officials who conscripted them as slaveowners. Our sympathy is wholly with the conscripts.

  • Long response (aka flame) to Caplan here.

    I didn’t address the (ridiculous) idea that conscripts are “high status”. I don’t know where this idea comes from, but maybe you could ask a Vietnam Vet if he thought being a draftee gave him a status boost. They were called “grunts” I believe, which sounds real classy.

    • Conscripts may not be high status in practice. But officially they are–they’re Heroes fighting for Democracy, or some such. In the Vietnam era, I know they were called “our boys.” But I tend to think this doesn’t explain much; the real difference is that we’re making a moral judgment by insisting conscription isn’t slavery.

      • Yes and Wal-mart calls its shelf-stockers “associates”.

        Official status and real status are different things; presumably it’s the latter one should pay more attention to.

      • Conscripts are put into a military hierarchy which explicitly marks them as low status. But outside of the military, they are supposed to have high status. Everyone is supposed to “support our troops”, “our boys”, we only have freedom because of their fighting on our behalf etc. People don’t go out to cheer a parade of retail stockers.

      • Yes, status is complex. The reductive efforts around here to employ it as a simple answer to everything don’t help.

        Traditionally, military service has conferred some status (and avoiding military service was considered shameful, a status lowerer). But generally people don’t have to be forced to do things that give them more status, and doing something because you are forced to lowers your status.

      • Some cultures had ritual human sacrifices in which the victim would be chosen and then granted high status. But you are right that high status people generally have more scope to make decisions. A common theme at OB is that paternalism focuses on low status people.

    • mtraven, what did I tell you about providing justifications rather than citing an arbitrary difference? If you’re not capable the easy task of articulating why jails should lock the inmates in but schools shouldn’t, you probably don’t have a relevant insight to offer on any topic, because you can’t justify even the simplest propositions.

      Think about it.

  • richard silliker

    The point here is that the State behaves like a

    psychopath (ˈsaɪkəʊˌpæθ)

    — n
    Also called: sociopath a person afflicted with a personality disorder characterized by a tendency to commit antisocial and sometimes violent acts and a failure to feel guilt for such acts

  • Robert Speirs

    Are children slaves? But – but – their actions are controlled for their own best interests! As their parents interpret that interest. Conscripts are in the same situation, arguably. Except that society as a whole makes the interest argument. “If you truly knew where your own best interests lay, you would be off fighting Hitler – or Ho Chi Minh.” Now children can grow out of this “slavery”. Does this mean they are not slaves? So could conscripts, if they survive. Of course, slaves could end their slavery by buying their freedom. So what is the logical content of this heavily emotion-laden word “slavery”?

  • Curious fact: the 1918 ruling was a ruling about the interpretation of the 13th Amendment. But the 13th Amendment outlaws not just “slavery” but “involuntary servitude.” So it appears that current jurisprudence holds that conscription is not involuntary servitude.

    • ad

      A fact that says a lot about the legal system.

  • Arthur

    Conscription is not slavery.

    Slavery is a very specific form of compulsory work. But because of the bad image associated with it people use it to refer to any compulsory work that they don’t like.

    The modern Slavery was defined by contrast with the other most used form of compulsory work in America, the Encomiendas.

    If you’re gonna use Slavery for al kinds of compulsory work, what would you call the most common modern form of compulsory work used especially in the Caribbean and Portuguese America regions?

  • Dorrit

    Consider the “Bevin Boys”. During WW2 a proportion of randomly selected conscripts were sent down the mines in the UK as they had a major labour shortage.

    Were they slaves? They had to move to the mine towns and do hard manual labour they were not accustomed to, and couldn’t change their jobs at all. THey were still there after the war ended, longer than most in military service.

    The interesting bit for this debate is the status attached. They were not considered war veterans, and were treated quite differently. From Wikipedia: “The programme was wound up in 1948. At that time the Bevin Boys received no medals, nor the right to return to the jobs they had held previously, unlike armed forces personnel. Bevin Boys were not fully recognised as contributors to the war effort until 1995, 50 years after VE Day, in a speech by Queen Elizabeth II.”

  • English Professor

    First, language does not function like mathematics. You can’t use Caplan’s definitions and assume that they are transparent and unproblematic. Words have connotations as well as denotations. The word “slave” has numerous implications that differ from those of “soldier” (which in fact is what a military conscript becomes).

    When a person is drafted, he is generally understood to be fulfilling a social duty; he is certainly compelled to do it–even at the risk of his life–but he may be compelled to do other things as well. I am compelled to pay taxes to support many government programs that I oppose. Caplan may in fact be consistent and argue that this is theft, but that is a political interpretation of the situation, not a simple equivalence (theft=to take property against the possessor’s will; taxation=taking my property against my will). Taxation is a practice within an institutional structure; I may believe that it is unjust, but my dispute is with the institutional structure. When I am forced to pay my income tax, I cannot go to the nearest police station and fill out a complaint saying a thief has compelled to hand over money against my will. To call taxation theft is to trivialize a complex institutional situation.

    Now, that a conscript equals a slave is an old political argument: it was used in 18th century Britain as an argument against impressment (the forcing of merchant seamen to serve in the Royal Navy). But all the courts upheld it because even if it was compulsory, the state was acknowledged as having the right to compel people to serve in time of need. This kind of belief has been consistent since the ancient world: both the Greeks and the Romans believed in the right of the state to compel military service. This is the context. Once again, the whole point is that both slavery and forced military service exist in different institutional structures. You can call them the same thing if you want, but only the naive and unsophisticated are going to be impressed with your arguments.

    Finally, I avoided the draft during the Vietnam War. I opposed the draft and thought it unjust. I even considered fleeing the country if I should be drafted. I did not believe that the government wanted to enslave me, I believed that it wanted to use its power to compel me to risk my life for ends with which I did not agree. The institutional context was one in which the majority of society upheld the state’s right to treat me in this way, even though everyone agreed that slavery per-se was an abomination and a crime. If this is too subtle or complex for a libertarian to grasp, then you can call conscription slavery. But no one who uses the language with any sophistication will be impressed by your logical dexterity.

    • In the antebellum south, slavery was known as the “peculiar institution”, and if you went to a court complaining that you were enslaved they’d laugh at you, and say your owner had the right to own you and you had no right to object. You are mostly repeating Hanson’s point that society regards conscription as something other than slavery rather than explaining the relevant difference that results in society judging the two practices differently.

    • Well said. Language can be used to clarify or confuse. While slavery and conscription are both types of “involuntary servitude” (a fairly neutral term), they are very different phenomena and conflating them doesn’t really help in understanding them. The only reason to do that is to tar one with the sins of the other. But it is perfectly possible to be opposed to conscription without misleadingly identifying it with chattel slavery.

      • Douglas Knight

        The phrase “chattel slavery” exists because most people that are described in English as “slaves” are not chattel. Americans have trouble reading history because of this confusion.

  • Isn’t it slavery when you take a portion of someone’s wages and promise them something in return and then renig on it?

    What about when that something is Social Security or Medicare?

  • Jayson Virissimo

    Isn’t it slavery when you take a portion of someone’s wages and promise them something in return and then renig on it?

    I think a more accurate term for this would be theft.

  • Gil

    Forget conscription – what about jury duty?

    • Andrew Patton

      Jury duty is different because the accused has a right to be judged by a jury of his peers. The duty to serve on a jury is a legal and moral obligation to defend the innocent against threats to their liberty, a right that the juror himself will avail himself of should he ever be accused of a crime. An all-volunteer jury, therefore, cannot be considered a jury of one’s peers, but rather a corps of professional judges/arbitrators.

      Now, the 5th Amendment does prohibit the taking of private property for public use without just compensation. As such, while jury duty is obligatory, jurors ought to be entitled to a just wage for their service and just compensation for costs they incur by serving on a jury (e.g. mileage).

  • knb

    This seems to be a simple semantic quibble. There isn’t a right or wrong answer, because people are using different, equally valid definitions.

    • Jeffrey Soreff

      True, though I mostly agree with Prof Hanson here.
      Conscripts, like slaves, do not have the freedom
      to leave, and that seems to me to be
      the main feature of either condition.
      Alternatively, one could call conscription closer to
      “involuntary servitude”. It still retains the same feature.

      Another condition that conscription is similar to are
      imprisonment. Again, one can’t leave.

      The act of imposing conscription also has similarities
      to kidnapping. Innocents are forced to go somewhere
      against their will in both places. The act of imposing
      conscription (in U.S. history, anyway) is also similar to
      mass murder. Even if one splits the responsibility for
      it evenly across all of the legislators, each war that the
      U.S. has used conscripts in has killed thousands of them.
      Thus, each legislator responsible outdoes the Boston Strangler.

  • tribsantos

    Being bad is part of the definition of terrorism. Being good is part of the definition of art

  • Please visit to see why conscription is indeed slavery.

  • Dave

    If conscription was like slavery,why didn’t slave owners talk about how their slaves were serving their country? How come slaves didn’t get medals for how much cotton they picked? Why don’t school children celebrate Nixon’s birthday,since he ended the draft? It is because social reality trumps word play.

  • Sister Y

    Re: 10a: ALL words have connotation in addition to denotation.

  • Aron

    “OF COURSE conscripts are slaves”

    If someone aside from this had just randomly asked me if draftees were slaves, I probably would have thought ‘well slavery has been used as a label for a whole lot of things, and there are certainly elements in those examples that overlap. It mostly depends on what kind of conclusion you are going to go on and draw from my calling them slaves or not.’ That is, the set inclusion is fuzzy not strict.

    But approaching this subject in the manner of reading Robin, who frames this as a proposition: True or false: ‘conscripts are slaves’.. OF COURSE conscripts are slaves…. well that just makes me dumber for a while because admittedly in the process of trying to understand him, I put my own better judgement on the back burner for a time.

  • Thursday

    Ben has it. I’d also remark that whether or not the draft is good policy or not, people don’t like the idea that someone should get the benefits of winning/not losing a war without also taking on the risks. People don’t see the draft as slavery because they see (most of) the drafted soldiers as getting the potential benefits from the war too.

  • Buck Farmer

    Possible relevant distinctions:

    A. In a democracy, notionally the conscripted population has collectively decided to submit itself to a military hierarchy for a common good…sort of similar to the Romans bringing in a dictator or the Italian cities bringing in a podesta.

    B. So long as exile is a permitted alternative, conscription may be argued to be a voluntary condition for continued membership in a community.

    I’m not entirely comfortable with either of these, but slavery (excluding selling oneself) typically involves neither…comfort women had no say / rights in the Japanese imperial government and further they did not have the right to choose exile.

    I’m not too familiar with the laws regarding conscription in the U.S., but it seems reasonable to allow citizens to renounce their citizenship rather than be drafted. Obviously, there are risks of moral hazard and “fair weather citizenship,” but those are both consequentialist considerations, whereas the arguments around slavery (and to a degree conscription) are oriented around deontological morality.

    • F650gtown

      Even if people were allowed to revoke their citizenship instead of being conscripted, it does not take away the fact that conscription is based on age and gender and is therefore discriminatory.  I propose a mandatory open referendum for conscription, and if the referendum wins, the pool of candidates to be conscripted would be taken from those who vote yes – irrespective of age or gender.

  • “I for one do not accept a moral axiom that slavery must always be bad.”

    A profile in courage on your part. More intellectuals need to stand up for cost benefit analysis + existential risk minimization over rule of law +liberal democratic principles, in my opinion.

    • Fred

      Have you read Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon”? Although even I probably wouldn’t find it too convincing these days, when I was younger it persuaded me that we should always go for libdem principles over cost/benefit due to limited knowledge, the corrupting effect of corrupt means, etc. Doubtless an adolescent take on the problem, but I haven’t shaken it all off.
      I’m 100% on board that, on the internet, we could use a whole lot more of what you’re angling for, but I’m interested in whether you think that at a certain point your point of view could become too successful, resulting in too much / radical experimentation.

      • Fred,
        I haven’t read that yet, and you’re not doing a good job selling it to me. I would be a more Oakeshottian/Burkean conservative about preserving the tradition of rule of law if I wasn’t so skeptical of the Kurzweil brand of techno-optimism.
        Given that the longstanding default is information theoretic death within 100 years, I think we should move the needle in the direction of too much /radical experimentation, IMO. Since my core aspirational value is maximizing persistence odds, I could see a point where I thought there was too much or too radical experimentation in society.
        In some areas I think experimentation should be a minority sector of activity -for example, I’ve been sold that healthcare should be socialized and spending should be capped at Hansonian recommended levels, without much additional economic spending on experimental alternatives. At the same time, I favor massive tax increases to fund increased basic research in STEM areas and the social sciences (in the direction of 1/3 of GDP). I don’t think those two goals are in conflict, although it would require a more detailed articulation of the differences between “health care spending” and basic biomedical and medical social science research.

    • cost benefit analysis and existential risk minimization only works in a world controlled by joysticks. Go out into the world. Smell the roses and breathe fresh, clean air.

  • Buck Farmer, those sound like some relevant distinctions. They may not settle the argument, but you should win some Silas Barta award.

    Hopefully Anonymous, Hanson previously endorsed slavery here. He’s been a pretty staunch supporter of the rule of law though (Harvey Mansfield may be the most prominent intellectual critic of rule-of-law now, although he claims to be shocked by Eric Posner’s embrace of Carl Schmitt on emergencies).

  • Scott Sumner

    You asked:

    “For what other words do we take value to be part of the definition?”

    Terrorism. When I argue that the bombing of Hiroshima was clearly terrorism, and probably justified, I get puzzled looks from people–a sort of “that does not compute” look.

  • Oligopsony

    Conscription, as noted above, is a form of compulsory work. So is serfdom. And slavery is another. I’m comfortable saying that conscription is generally evil, like the others, but that doesn’t mean it is slavery.

    Slaves are not by necessity low status. Nobody objects that janissaries were not slaves on account of their high status.

  • Michael Kirkland

    I agree with you on this point (except for slavery ever being not-bad), but there’s another counter argument: conscription is generally for a specifically limited time, where as slavery is not.

  • Phil Atio

    The argument is assinine in my opinion. Ask yourself this, if a private individual forced another individual to work in a “high status” form of slavery, lets say in a very dangerous job like illegal mine digging/logging where death was as equally likely as being in the army; would the court/police/prosecutor say well although you were forced to work against you held someone against their will and forced them into labour an dpaid them very crappy, it is legal? I highly doubt that a court would agree, in fact just threatening to lock a person in your private prison if they refused to illegally mine for you or log, would be enough to get you locked up. But if your the government it seems the laws do not apply to you, even though the constitution was specfically about what the government cannot do.

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  • AndrewChan

    What an arbitrary argument.

    About whether conscription is involuntary servitude (against the 13th amendment);
    Involuntary servitude, means ….. (wait for the drum roll) INVOLUNTARY SERVITUDE. Literally. It is therefore a violation of the 13th amendment regardless of its practical necessity.

    On draft dodgers being free-riders on the country being protected;
    People have the right to want their country being protected while not partaking in the war effort because they pay taxes. This means that they cannot expect the involuntary servitude and sacrifice or others to do the dirty job for them. It is only free-riding when they believe in conscription but do not partake in it.

    On conscription being a necessity during (all out wars) WW2;
    Not only conscription is not necessary during “all out wars”, it is also less effective. This is because conscription removes the check and balances of the validity of the declaration of war, by allowing politicians to get enough soldiers no matter what the policy is. Having the market determine the price of a soldier means that the more valid The People think the war is, the more the size of the army would be raised, and the more tax they might be willing to pay also. In other words, an AVF can also reach the size of a conscripted army under the right conditions and “signals” from We The People, yet at the same time, an AVF doesn’t need to be as big as a drafted army because of the “motivation factor”. This means having an AVF brings the power back to We The People from politicians, being moral and practical at the same time. Not to mention that creativity, which usually comes hand in hand with liberty of conscience is also not stiffed, as far as society at large is concerned. After all, we use money for bread and butter, so why offer life and limb for free?

    And this means I have proven that conscription is BAD and INFERIOR, both on MORAL and PRACTICAL grounds. F’ck you socialist draft supporters!

  • AndrewChan

    And if I may add to the sentence “It is only free-riding when they believe in conscription but do not partake in it.” an annotation which says “…and you know who those people are.”

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  • Carlee Veldezzi

    No matter what way you slice it, if the government can tell you: “you have two options, be thrown into jungles to be shot at and possibly murdered or be locked in a cage like an animal” You are, by definition, little more than a tool to be used by the government whenever they see fit.

    Is the government not supposed to be a tool of the people? In the US, our founding documents claim that it is. With the way our checks and balances have eroded, this now means that one man, the President, could make a decision today that ends in us being murdered by the millions in a war tomorrow. That is not a world any of us should accept.

  • “I for one do not accept a moral axiom that slavery must always be bad.”

    You waste your inquiry into moral axioms. Slavery taken in and of itself is neither good nor bad; it is only deemed so dependent on who is doing the deeming. Slavery is always good to those doing the enslaving. It will always be bad to those enslaved, obviously. If you throw your own children from a balcony to their deaths is that bad? Not to some scruffy teenager who’s videoing the whole thing for Youtube. For your kids, and perhaps other child-loving, live-valuing members of society, that would be a very bad act.

    As always, so-called intelligent people waste an awful lot of time swimming in the bowels of definition. Do this: look at the physical consequences of the thing. Then graft those consequences onto a moral compass.

  • Slavery is involuntary servitude; conscription is involuntary military servitude; therefore not only is conscription slavery…

    How libertarianism can blind someone to basic logic! This is a bad syllogism. “Is” is notoriously subject to interpretation, but it’s reasonable to think the is here is the is of class inclusion, unless “is” changes meaning from the first clause to the second.

    But to be valid, the first “is” must be interpreted as the is of synonymy. But slavery is not equivalent to involuntary servitude – except to libertarians like Bryan, and some quasi-libertarians like Robin. To a libertarian, slavery and involuntary servitude both involve totalitarian restrictions on liberty and so are morally equivalent. The 13th Amendment, incidentally, doesn’t view it that way: it explicitly prohibits both slavery and involuntary servitude, and thus implies a distinction between them under the legal rule of interpretation against interpreting conjuncts as surplusage.

    The dictionaries, as well, don’t equate the two. Typically, they say a slave is a) an involuntary servant and b) owned by another (hence without rights). Conscripts are involuntary servants, but they are not owned by the government. A libertarian will see the distinction as a mere legal formality in that the conscript lacks “self-ownership,” as does any involuntary servant. So Robin thought it “obvious” that a conscript is a slave.

    • jake101goodale

      Can a person disobey their commander without punishment, can a person choose to leave service at any time, can a person say whatever they want, can the person live wherever they want, and can the person eat whatever they want?
      The answer is no to all those questions when it comes to the draft. As such you have to do significant mental gymnastics to come to the conclusion that the government does not own you during a draft.

      • Can the military beat a draftee with a whip? Why not, if they own him?

        Can they sell a draftee? Why not if they own him?

      • jake101goodale

        Slaves in the south were frequently protected by laws limiting what their masters could do. So your comparisons are invalid.

        That being said forcing labor from a person without consent is what slavery is. There is no way around the fact that forced military service is extraction labor from a person without consent.

  • jake101goodale

    We don’t call those who are drafted slaves? Because I certainly do. Involuntary service is slavery and there are no hairs to split on that.