Conscripting Liberalism

A draft from the left


Welcome to the political wonderland of the early naughts, where "Republicans…consider spending cuts the new "third rail" of politics" and liberal Democrats are at the forefront of calls to renew military conscription.

Last year, Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.), who only a few years ago joined a push to abolish the Selective Service System, sponsored a bill that would give all young Americans the chance to serve their country—whether they want to or not—joined by Democratic colleagues Neil Abercrombie (Hawaii), Corrine Brown (Fla.), William Clay (Mo.), Elijah Cummings (Md.), Alcee Hastings (Fla.), John Lewis (Ga.), Sheila Jackson Lee (Texas), Jim McDermott (Wash.), James Moran (Va.), Pete Stark (Calif.), Nydia Velazquez (N.Y.) and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D.C.).

At the time, the move was seen largely as a symbolic gesture connected with opposition to the war in Iraq. The underlying logic of the proposal was expressed by liberal columnist Anna Quindlen, who asked of (presumably upper-class) hawks: "Would most of them support staying in Iraq if their sons and daughters were obliged to go? Hell no."

Or as The Denver Post's Jim Spencer put it:

Conscription would force all Americans to bear the risks of Iraq. That's not happening now. While the few and the proud put it on the line for most of us, we sit around watching un-reality TV and wondering who's going to survive on "Survivor."

Now, an increasingly thinly-stretched military is prompting more serious consideration of conscription. Congressional Budget Office found that "The Army does not have enough active-duty component forces to simultaneously maintain the occupation at its current size, limit deployments to one year, and sustain all of its other commitments."

The notion that a conscript army would make us more cautious about undertaking far-flung military adventures is plausible on face, but doesn't find terribly robust support in polling data on support for the war. The idea is that elites will be too willing to send the children of poor citizens off to battle for poor reasons, confident that their own sons and daughters won't bear the burden of war. But was there a class gap in support for intervention in Iraq? Among those with household incomes above $75,000, support for the war ran at about 56 percent in polls Gallup conducted in late 2002 and early 2003. But among respondents with household incomes below $30,000, support plummeted to… 55 percent. Gallup Senior Poll Editor David W. Moore later wrote: "While there are major differences in war support among partisan groups, there are relatively modest differences by age, gender, and income."

Partly that's because, while millionaire recruits like the late Pat Tillman are the exception rather than the rule, the military is not so grossly unrepresentative of America as is often supposed. African Americans are overrepresented—according to CBS News, they constitute twenty percent of the armed forces, compared to 12 percent of the general population—but Hispanics are underrepresented. High school graduates, on the other hand, are overrepresented. And as Northwestern University military sociologist Charles Moskos is fond of observing, the military is one of the few sectors of American society where large numbers of young white men routinely take orders from black superiors. In any event, it seems likely that the conscript pulled from his job at Microsoft would still end up behind a desk, rather than at the front lines of battle.

From the point of view of military effectiveness, there are myriad good reasons that the Pentagon itself prefers a volunteer force. Whatever the advantages of having more warm bodies on the field, they're almost certainly outweighed by the benefits of a willing, well-trained, professional force. Rather, a large part of the appeal of the draft seems to have its root in an egalitarian impulse. Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) sponsored the Senate version of the Universal National Service Act of 2003, and said of the bill: "We all share the benefits of life in America, and under this plan, we all help shoulder the burden of defending our freedoms." That logic has been echoed by liberal bloggers such as Daily Kos, Matthew Yglesias, and Max Sawicky, who writes:

You could argue that it's wrong to force people to serve against their will. But nobody volunteers for the military in order to get killed or maimed. Those with any sense enlist hoping they never have to shoot a bullet. Once you're in, you are no longer a free agent. You do not have the luxury of changing your mind in the face of changes in circumstances.

A draft is more democratic because it subjects everyone to these constraints on individual choice. The class bias in recruitment of volunteers could not be more obvious. It would be wrong to imagine volunteers are impoverished and join out of some economic desperation. But there should be no question that prospective recruits do not have the same life and career choices as those (including women) who would be subject to Charlie [Rangel]'s draft.

To be willing to support a draft on these grounds, one must ultimately believe that paying volunteers is more coercive and inequitable than quite literally forcing them on pain of punishment to take up arms. Something about that argument calls to mind that episode of The Simpsons where town officials plan to combat a plague of lizards by releasing Chinese needle-snakes. And when the snakes get out of control? Carnivorous gorillas.

Any time a wage is offered for a job, the people who take it will tend to be those who don't expect to make a great deal more doing something else. But if those with fewer options are "coerced" into taking (what they regard as) the best option available, then all employment, not just military service, is coercive. If that were right, it might constitute an argument for redistribution to relieve this "economic duress." But it could scarcely be an argument for trying to even out representation in the armed forces, for trying to ensure that those who would choose military service as their best option, all things considered, stay home while the unwilling are shipped off to basic training.

Liberals tempted by the egalitarian argument for a draft might want to look to John Rawls, the 20th century's greatest liberal philosopher, who founded his theory of justice on the notion that "each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override." Though he articulated a highly egalitarian ideal, what made his theory distinctly liberal was the regard for individual dignity embedded in Rawls's idea of the priority of the right over the good, of equal freedom—required by his first principle of justice—over the equal resources and life prospects guaranteed by his subordinate second principle, the famous "difference principle." Rawls was not willing to reject the draft a priori under any imaginable circumstance, but he wrote that "since conscription is a drastic interference with the basic liberties of equal citizenship, it cannot be justified by any needs less compelling than those of national security….The priority of liberty…requires that conscription be used only as the security of liberty necessitates."

Contemporary liberals still tend to be somewhat reluctant to send unwilling men and women to kill or die in conflicts their consciences oppose, which is why many support a generic requirement of national service, where conscripts could choose to serve in a civilian or military capacity. But even as this lightens the burden on conscripts, it undermines the appeal to necessity that seems uniquely capable of justifying such a massive interference with the life-plans of young Americans.

For Rawls, as for so many of the leading lights of liberal thought, the egalitarian impulse had its roots in a deep respect for individual dignity and autonomy. Equality of resources was seen as a means to an end: The equal freedom of individuals to pursue their life plans. Conscription turns this formula on its head, treating individuals as so many action figures to be arranged in pleasingly equal formation. The perverse desire to spare some a hard choice among limited options by leaving a random subset of Americans with no choice at all runs contrary to the best and noblest strains of the liberal tradition. Modern liberals would do well to remember it.