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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