Military conscription has been a recurring topic in the news (where liberal Democrats like Rangel, Stark, Conyers, Hollings have proposed it as a tactic
to make going to war less likely, and recently Republican Chuck Hagel proposed it as a means to spread the burden and to boost military manpower),
and the blogosphere (where liberal Matt Yglesias thinks compulsory service is a fine idea, and libertarians like Will Wilkinson, Julian Sanchez, Tim Lee think he’s wrong on many counts, including liberalism).
I think that contemplating military conscription as a teenager is what led me to libertarianism (long before I’d ever heard the word). It made me think carefully about individualism and collectivism and force and governments. It seemed clear to me that slavery is wrong, whether by private citizens or governments. Not because it’s out of fashion but because the nature of human beings makes their autonomy important. To hijack their lives for your own purposes is to lack the proper respect for people and their rights to direct their own lives. If you want their help you should try to convince them, or pay them. If you have good enough arguments, or have enough economic demand for their services then you’ll be able to get it voluntarily. If you can’t do that, then you should leave them alone.
Now, I admit that in emergency circumstances I’d probably resort to hijacking somebody’s life in order to save my own or the lives of others (if I had no better options), but I’m extremely resistant to institutionalizing this as a government policy.
On the practical side (which, unsurprisingly, often correlates highly with the moral side) the case for military conscription is very weak. Currently, the military is doing very well with recruitment efforts and troop quality and has no interest in a draft. Also, it seems to me that if you want to have a check against a military going out of control, it is better to rely on young people’s unwillingness to volunteer for ill-conceived campaigns, than to rely on others applying democratic pressure to protect their drafted relatives. And, if there is a genuine emergency in which the country needs to quickly boost its military troop levels, there shouldn’t be (and has never been) a problem getting sufficient volunteers. It seems to me that a country that can’t get people to volunteer to defend it, is likely to not be worth defending.
So, I think that people who favor a draft don’t do it because it makes practical sense as a means to improve military capability. They usually do it to effect sociological changes. Some want to make rich people die along with poor people. Some want people to become more compliant with governmental authority by going through a military (or other “national service”) experience. What all of these people have in common is that they don’t take the rights of individuals to control and direct their own lives seriously. This, to me, is highly immoral.