Conscription (i.e., “the draft”) was ended in the United States more than forty years ago, but it continues to be widely used outside North America and Western Europe. Recently, conscription in Ukraine has become an international issue as the Ukrainian state has reinstated the draft and met with significant opposition in many areas of the country.
The use of forced military service in the region is hardly unique to Ukraine — Russia has a draft, too — but recent opposition has highlighted the fact that conscription is fundamentally incompatible with even a moderate amount of respect for private property.
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“Conscription is slavery,” Murray Rothbard wrote in 1973, and while temporary conscription is obviously much less bad — assuming one outlives the term of conscription — than many other forms of slavery, conscription is nevertheless a nearly-100-percent tax on the production of one’s mind and body. If one attempts to escape his confinement in his open-air military jail, he faces imprisonment or even execution in many cases.
Conscription remains popular among states because it is an easy way to directly extract resources from the population. Just as regular taxes partially extract the savings, productivity, and labor of the general population, conscription extracts virtually all of the labor and effort of the conscripts. The burden falls disproportionately on the young males in most cases, and they are at risk of a much higher tax burden if killed or given a permanent disability in battle. If he’s lucky enough to survive the conflict, the conscript may find himself living out the rest of his life as disfigured or missing his eyesight and limbs. He may be rendered permanently undesirable to the opposite sex. Such costs imposed on the conscript are a form of lifelong taxation.
Fortunately for those who escape such a fate, the term of slavery ends at a specified time, but for the duration, the only freedom the conscript enjoys is that granted to him by his jailers. Rothbard explains:
… at whatever time the federal government deems fit, he is seized by the authorities and inducted into the armed forces. There his body and will are no longer his own; he is subject to the dictates of the government; and he can be forced to kill and to place his own life in jeopardy if the authorities so decree. What else is involuntary servitude if not the draft? Real Dissent: A Libert... Best Price: $10.48 Buy New $18.76 (as of 06:10 EDT - Details)
Not surprisingly, in all times and places where drafts are instituted, there are those who attempt to avoid it, and steps are taken by governments to capture these so-called “draft dodgers” in the government’s dragnet. The Ukrainian government has certainly been proactive in its own efforts to punish those who attempt to escape this 100 percent tax, even going so far as to imprison people who speak out against it. The Guardian reports:
Ruslan Kotsaba posted a video addressed to the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, last week in which he said he would rather go to prison for five years for draft-dodging than fight pro-Russia rebels in the country’s east. Now he faces fifteen years in jail after being arrested for treason and obstructing the military …
Ukrainian men aged 25–60 are eligible for conscription and 75,000 have been called up, of whom 60 percent will enter service …
A government decree regulates foreign travel for those subject to mobilisation. It means people could be arrested at border checkpoints, with those guilty of draft-dodging facing up to five years in prison.
One will find similar actions — to varying degrees —wherever conscription exists, with even harsher penalties arising during wartime.
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States have long implicitly recognized the fundamental nature of conscription as a form of taxation. In Switzerland, for example, young men who are found unfit for military service are assessed an additional tax for a period of years in lieu of military service.
In other places, such as the United States, where state and local conscription existed prior to the Civil War, those with means were able to avoid military service by paying an additional tax of various sorts, or paying for “substitutes.”
Moreover, those states that are able to extract large amounts of resources from the general population on a reliable and ongoing basis will not need to resort to conscription. In the United States for example, where the dollar’s reserve status allows the state to endlessly increase military spending via debt monetization, there is little need for conscription. In this case, the state can continually fund propaganda campaigns to attract volunteers, pay salaried mercenaries, and fund projects that replace human personnel with capital, as in the case of drones and other remote-control operations.
Where states enjoy less financial independence, however, as in Russia and Ukraine, governments must rely on directly confiscating all of the productive capacity of certain individuals for a period of years. Indeed, conscription is often also a sign of a government attempting to wage war on the cheap. Also, in some cases, it’s politically easier to impose the 100 percent conscription tax on a relatively-small minority (young males) than on a larger portion of the productive taxpaying public. Kindle Paperwhite, 6u2... Best Price: $49.68 (as of 07:40 EDT - Details)
Fortunately for many states, they can rely on nationalist ideology to shame many of those subject to conscription into acceptance. These efforts are of course encouraged by the states themselves with their own propaganda campaigns and claims that one owes one’s government in the form of “duty” and “service.” This “duty” is of course paid by the conscript on top of whatever taxes he may have been paying in his youth or will be paying if he lives to return to private life following his term of conscription. Virtually nowhere in the modern world is military conscription a substitute for taxes later paid to the government.
The arguments used in the cases of conscription differ little from the same claims made in efforts to shame citizens into paying more in taxes. As can be seen in this 1943 propaganda video in favor of income taxes, taxes are something someone should pay “gladly and proudly.” Moreover, tax increases are blamed on the need for wartime expenses: “Thanks to Hitler and Hirohito, taxes are higher than ever before.” In other words, if one does not gladly pay one’s income taxes, he is supporting Hirohito and Hitler.
Conscription Does Not Equal Military Defense
The matter of conscription is independent from the question of military defense. Supporters of compulsory military often attempt to conflate the two issues, but as J. R. Hummel has shown, the United States, from the 1820s up to the Civil War, relied almost exclusively on semi-private militias for national defense purposes, even in a time when raids from Indian tribes were a very real threat in western states. In fact, Hummel notes, it was the private militias that were the most effective military forces with the more consistent records of success compared to groups of conscripts. This is not surprising since a volunteer military naturally includes those individuals who have self-selected into military work thus providing the benefits of a voluntary division of labor.
At the same time, if a government is unable to attract a sufficient number of military volunteers, if conscripts attempt to flee the country, and if citizens are reluctant to pay taxes, this should be a hint to everyone that — at least from the average person’s point of view — the government’s foreign policy leaves much to be desired.
Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.