Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Slavery vs. the draft

While discussing the general idea of national service on Bloggingheads, Peter Beinart asks Jonah Goldberg whether he's in favor of the draft.

Here's the key section from Goldberg's response, which I want to analyze:

I have a problem with compulsory military service if compulsory military service isn't needed at a time of war. . . . You know, the draft is a bad thing. It has a lot of benefits — don't get me wrong. . . . The draft is . . . an incredible . . . it is very comparable to slavery. And in some ways, it's worse than slavery, insofar as you're forcing people to kill other people and be killed. Now, it's an evil, but it's a necessary evil sometimes.
Here's the video, which includes more of the context (the above quote is from the end of this clip):



When I first heard this, my immediate thought was: "Well, he's clearly right about that — so right it's almost boring. Forcing someone to fight in a war and possibly kill or be killed is obviously worse than forcing someone to do more mundane labor, even though they're both bad."

But then I noticed that I have the following set of beliefs, which are so extremely common and mundane that I'd be surprised if you didn't share them:

1. Slavery is always immoral.

2. The draft is usually immoral, but sometimes a good idea. For instance, I would be against the United States having the draft right now, but I think it was worth having the draft during World War II.

But don't points 1 and 2 imply that the draft isn't as bad as slavery? Doesn't that contradict my agreement with Jonah Goldberg's point?

On the other hand, it's seems like the apparent contradiction can be resolved. All you have to do is acknowledge that liberty is not an absolute right, but a relative value that can be trumped by more important values. Or, to put it another way, you'd need to have not an absolute rule against infringing people's liberty, but a general rule that's subject to exceptions based on specific circumstances, e.g. the overriding need to stop the Nazis from taking over the world. Right?

Bonus question: How many made-up words does Goldberg use in that clip? I count two.

5 comments:

XWL said...

Answering the bonus question first:

Definitely 'compulsorary' is extra-dictionarial (how's that for a made up word?), but I'm sure he meant compulsory and just had a slip betwixt tongue and lip, enculturated might be the other one you meant, but as you can see by the link, it's in the basic M-W online dictionary.

The other possibility is DeTocquevillian, it fails the dictionary test, but it does show up in a few places (18 unique usages by google's count).

As far as the substance, though, drafts have been essentially slavery in many states throughout human history, so it's a valid comparison.

Quasi-compulsory (I put hyphens in my made up words, so they aren't really made up, just compound) 'volunteer' work on a mass scale like Sen. Obama is proposing is some scary, damn near, socialist crap.

Conscription of any kind without that government under an existential threat (as should be required to enact a military draft, like in Israel for instance, their compulsory draft makes sense, Finland's, not so much), is wrong.

What Obama proposes is a form of non-military conscription for some nebulous goal of improving community relations. If folks need to be coerced into behaving as a community, then you don't really have a community at all.

When you see it all laid out as Jim Lindgren does over at Volokh, it looks like a pretty huge expansion of the role of government, one only rivaled by what FDR did in the 30s.

(and those programs in the 30s most likely helped extend the Depression from a 2-4 year major economic downturn into a decade long stupor)

(insanely high levels of taxation on the wealthy and corporations didn't help, either)

John Althouse Cohen said...

I was thinking of enculturated, but you're right -- it's in the dictionary. I had looked up "inculturated" (wrong spelling) -- and I thought he meant "acculturated."

But I think my statement that he used at least 2 made-up words is still accurate because of DeTocquevilian, though I hadn't been thinking of that when I wrote the post (I was thinking of "compulsorary" -- so you got both of them). Yes, it does return a few Google results, but Tocquevillian returns about a thousand times more. A 1:1000 ratio is so slanted that you can pretty much assume the less common word is just a gaffe. Plus, Tocquevillian sounds right to my ears; there's something weird about including a preposition in a proper adjective like that.

Simon said...

I suppose that Scalia would point out that just as keeping prisoners of war has always been thought to be entirely beyond the purview of the criminal process amendments, the fact that conscription is a very old idea and has never been thought to be forbidden by the Thirteenth Amendment is strong evidence that it isn't. (Easterbrook's article Statute's Domains has some interesting things to say in this area.)

Anonymous said...

Historically the US didn't maitain a standing army. The military would be mostly disbanded after each war. When the nation went to war, the able bodied men would be called to fight. This changed after WWII.
I would consider military service is war a civic responsibility on par with taxes. If you want the benifits of our way of life you should be willing to fight for them, and conversly if the war isn't worth your life then the government of the people wouldn't go to war.
I don't any similarity to slavery.
The volunteer military has resulted in the strongest fighting force in the world. I just don't know if thats a good thing.

Matt said...

It's kind of a historical fact that if a person of conscience is drafted, there will be jobs they can do to fulfill their conscription requirements that don't involve betraying their convictions.

I favor a draft; if we had a draft and a politician wanted to go to war, the politician would have to unify the country behind the adventure before the fact. Without a draft, this kind of consensus can be superfluous.