Why Freedom is Free and Rights are Right: 

The Case Against Conscription, Compulsion, and Confiscation

G. Stolyarov II
Issue CXLIX - March 23, 2008
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A sample image  A popular and highly damaging cliché of our time states that “freedom is not free.” Those who espouse this mantra seek to legitimize government actions that undermine the most fundamental freedoms of all human beings – the right to life, the right to liberty over the disposal of one’s body and time, and the right to private property. Conscription, compulsion, and confiscation are the outcomes of the “freedom is not free” line of thinking – so it is suitable to term the advocates of such thinking “compulsionists,” for future convenience. This is not meant to insult them, but simply to identify the fundamental actions which they endorse – actions which necessarily entail forcing some individuals to act against their will, where those individuals themselves had not initiated such compulsion beforehand.
            Although this essay does not make an effort to insult the compulsionists, it will demonstrate why their position is utterly incorrect, unjust, and immoral. Here, a case will be made for why freedom is indeed free in any relevant sense and why no freedom can be secured by the pursuit of policies that in themselves violate the inalienable rights of man.
What Does “Freedom is Not Free” Mean?
            Those who say that “freedom is not free” use this phrase largely because of its rhetorical punch. However, the meaning of these words is ambiguous. Could those who espouse them mean that freedom lacks the quality which defines freedom – namely, the quality of being free? To assert this would be self-contradictory, just as saying that “chairs lack chair-ness” or “music is not musical” would be. While the proponents of governmental coercion are wrong, one can give them enough credence to assume that they are not wrong in this elementary way.
            The adjective “free” in the cliché does not mean “characteristic of freedom,” but rather “costless.” Moreover, it means “costless” in a specific sense. To simply say that the ability to have de facto freedoms to perform specific actions requires certain material prerequisites is not controversial, nor is it the point advanced by the compulsionists. Nobody would deny, for instance, that the freedom of the press cannot exist if printing presses do not exist. In a society which has not yet invented printing presses, there can be no freedom of the press – although freedom to handwrite whatever one pleases may still exist. Likewise, the advocates of liberty and the compulsionists will not dispute that exercise of any natural rights is scarcely possible if one is threatened with imminent execution by a totalitarian dictator or an invading horde.
            The idea that it may sometimes be prudent to fight in defense of one’s liberties is not the claim advanced by those who say that “freedom is not free.” Indeed, many consistent opponents of compulsion would agree that circumstances exist in which it is proper to fight with all available resources against tyranny or invasion. Many consistent opponents of compulsion would themselves gladly take up arms to defend their homes, their lives, their families, and even political institutions that they cherish against genuine threats. These individuals, however, will always insist that only their personal choice and their personal evaluation of the circumstances can justify their taking up arms and fighting in defense of anything.  
            The “cost” of freedom that the compulsionists refer to is not, however, a cost voluntarily borne by individuals who cherish freedom. It is a cost imposed by some individuals – usually individuals with political power – on other individuals – usually those without substantial political power. What the compulsionists are in effect saying is, “In order for freedom to be preserved, some of us who know better must have the authority to force others to make certain sacrifices of their freedoms.”
            But, of course, if anybody’s freedom is sacrificed, it follows by definition that everyone’s freedom cannot be preserved. This situation implies necessarily that only some people’s freedom can be preserved. It also implies that only the people who have not sacrificed their freedom can have their freedom preserved – allegedly through the sacrifices of some. Thus, “freedom is not free” can be translated as “In order for freedom to be preserved for some of us, some of us who know better must have the authority to force others to make certain sacrifices of their freedoms. We who mandate the sacrifices will have our freedom preserved, while those upon whom we mandate the sacrifices will lose their freedom.”
            Of course, some compulsionists may object to this characterization and claim that they, too, will proudly bear the sacrifices they are recommending to impose – because it would be unfair for the sacrifices to only be imposed on some. Granted, this is a possibility. In that case their mantra can be translated as “In order for freedom to be preserved for some of us, some of us who know better must have the authority to force others to make certain sacrifices of their freedoms. We who mandate the sacrifices will also lose our freedom by partaking in the sacrifices, while those upon whom we mandate the sacrifices will lose their freedom.” That is to say, “In order for freedom to be preserved for some of us, all of us must lose our freedoms – both those who impose the sacrifices and those who do not.” But if all of us must lose our freedoms,  then it will be impossible for even some of us to maintain our freedoms! Thus, in the quest to equally distribute the sacrifices upon everyone, the compulsionists necessarily destroy freedom for everyone as well.
            We have thus seen that “freedom is not free” means that either somebody must be sacrificed to protect somebody else’s alleged freedoms or that everybody must be sacrificed in the name of protecting freedom. In neither case can true, complete, and universal freedom be preserved.
            Now we consider a set of principles under which true freedom for all can be preserved – namely, the principles of inalienable natural rights.
The Purpose of Society
            What is the purpose of a society, and why do societies come about? That is to say, why do individuals choose to enter societies and remain in them?
            A society is nothing more than a convenient designation of the sum total of the individuals comprising it and their mutual interactions. A society does not exist as a metaphysical entity in its own right. Like the words “group,” “collection,” or even “universe,” it is mere intellectual shorthand enabling humans to speak of phenomena for which the burden of enumerating all the constituent entities is far too time-consuming.   
            Whether or not societies have historically emerged from a Lockean state of nature is irrelevant to the truth that a society has no justification for existing aside from the purposes of the individuals comprising it. That is, even if individuals did not enter a particular society of their own free will from a state of nature, this poses no threat to the doctrine of natural rights. Most individuals by their everyday actions still choose to remain in societal relationships with other individuals – and they explicitly recognize the advantages of social cooperation. These advantages include the division of labor and the consequent specialization and increased productivity for all – resulting in universally higher standards of living. They can also include the benefits of associating with other human beings, exchanging knowledge, forming friendships, and occasionally coordinating efforts so as to achieve mutually desirable outcomes. Business enterprises, families, clubs, intellectual organizations, private charities, and numerous other institutions are some of the products of voluntary social cooperation. In a world of true freedom, armies are as well.
Government is Not Society
            The government is not equivalent to society itself. Rather, the government is an organization established for definite and highly limited purposes – as agreed upon by the individuals comprising a society. Certain actions necessary to preserving every individual’s rights – such as military defense, police protection, and adjudication of disputes – may be most effectively performed if a single organization coordinates them. In forming a government, individuals do not lose any of their rights – contrary to the compulsionists’ belief. Rather, individuals simply delegate their existing rights to a group of other men so that those rights may be more effectively enforced.
            The government only has the authority to act in ways explicitly delegated to it by all of the individuals it represents. It may be necessary to establish some manner of due process in order to determine the actions a government will take in the event that some of the individuals it represents disagree with one another. For instance, disputes about which individuals ought to serve in government positions may be resolved in elections, and disputes about which laws will best serve the purposes for which a government was established may be resolved through votes of representative bodies. It is important that these measures of due process be agreed on by all individuals within a society when a government is constituted; the purpose of a constitution is to present the rules of due process that a government must follow in the event that policy disagreements exist.
            However, the rules of due process within a government can only be considered binding so long as the government remains within its original limitations. If the government exercises any right other than a right explicitly delegated to it, it does not matter if this exercise is within the parameters of due process. The purpose of a government must take priority over the means by which that government makes decisions. Thus, it is illegitimate for a majority vote to sentence some to slavery or confiscate their property – because such a decision undermines the basic natural purpose of any government – the protection of the rights to life and property of every individual within a society.
            The moment a government exceeds the boundaries of its delegated powers, it ceases to be a legitimate protector of individual rights and instead becomes an instrument of its violation. It then becomes the right of any person to resist, alter, or abolish the government – however he deems prudent. (Yet it is also his right not to resist the illegitimate government, if he deems resistance imprudent. A right to rebel is not an obligation to rebel, and it must be balanced against other non-political considerations. As John Locke and Thomas Jefferson observed, most individuals prefer to suffer political evils while they are sufferable – because the upheaval caused by rebelling is itself a high cost and is only willingly borne if the political oppression becomes extreme.)
Proper and Improper Defense
            It is true that certain material arrangements are better suited to protecting individuals’ lives and property against invasion. It may well be that some manner of socially and/or governmentally coordinated system of defense is more effective at repelling threats to individuals’ natural rights than leaving each individual as the sole provider of his own defense. None of the arguments in this essay are to be taken as opposition to organized militaries, police forces, or volunteer organizations of “minutemen” or citizen soldiers. Each of these arrangements may be effective and proper under a particular set of circumstances.
            However, in order for any protective arrangement to be proper, it must fulfill the purposes of all the individuals involved in it. The moment that a defensive arrangement begins to undermine the freedoms of any individual within a society, it has turned from an instrument of protection to one of aggression against the very rights it was intended to protect. While a protective arrangement must not necessarily positively guard every individual’s freedom, it must meet the minimal burden of not positively lessening any individual’s freedom.
            The moment a government – or any group of armed men within a society – begins to deleteriously affect any person’s life, liberty, or property, it becomes the equivalent of a group of armed thugs. It does not matter whether this group of thugs is fighting yet another and possibly more menacing group of thugs; neither has any legitimacy. This does not necessarily mean that the society itself is a poor association or not worth defending; it simply means that the intrusions of a particular group of men have violated the purposes of the society – which are the benefit of all participating individuals. These intrusions must thus must be resisted and reversed – however each individual deems prudent to do so.
Conscription is Murder by Lottery
            No defensive arrangement that protects the freedom of all individuals in a society can exist if some individuals have no choice about whether they may play an active role in that arrangement. If an individual is forced to fight, his life is in greater jeopardy from the men who force him than from any external threat his society may be facing. In virtually all armed conflicts on a mass scale, the deaths of some individuals are inevitable. By fielding an army of conscripts, a government necessarily guarantees that some of those conscripts will be killed – although nobody knows in advance who will die. In effect, this is no different from selecting a large number of fit young men, assigning numbers to each of them, and picking a few of the numbers out of a hat – whereafter those whose numbers have been picked will be shot. Conscription is just such a murder by lottery – except that the picking of numbers is performed by the vicissitudes of the battlefield rather than the luck of a draw. The responsibility for the deaths of millions of young men from conscripted armies throughout world history lies solely on the shoulders of the governments who conscripted them. The enemy soldiers who killed them were mere instruments of murder; they were likely only following orders – and were likely themselves under compulsion to do so. The government officials who drafted the men, however, did so of their own free will and even with enthusiasm.
            But if an individual volunteers to fight, he is knowingly undertaking the risk that he might be killed. He fights not with the expectation that he will be killed, but with the hope that he will not be. He exerts his full efforts to ensure that he will survive and that his enemy will become incapacitated. Furthermore, if he volunteers to fight, it is because he considers himself sufficiently skilled to have a fighting chance. He may see military service as an opportunity for earning a living, making a career, and developing a reputation. It is no more accurate to say that his service in the military led to his murder as it is to say that a fireman who died in a fire or an automobile worker who perished in a factory accident were murdered. Each of these individuals was aware of the risk entailed in his job and knowingly, willingly undertook that risk – expecting the benefits of doing so to outweigh the costs.  If they perished, then their expectations surely were disappointed – but the expectations were theirs to make in the first place. They were not forced to go to their deaths by others who thought they knew better.
Against Forced “Public Service”
            It is not only conscription that violates a government’s mandate to protect the liberties of all of its citizens; it is any kind of compulsory service that the government exacts from individuals – even if such service does not pose direct threats to the individuals’ lives or existing property.
            It is important to note that it is not compulsory if the government offers individuals some manner of payment – in terms of money, non-coercive privileges, or public recognition – that the individuals themselves consider to outweigh the cost of engaging in the “public service” they are to perform. A government that encourages individuals to perform certain services by means of persuasion or payment is not violating those individuals’ rights; it is simply offering them opportunities. (Although other people’s rights might be violated still, depending on how the funds used to support the “services” were appropriated and what the nature of those “services” is.)
            The only genuine cases of compulsion toward service are cases where individuals evaluate the benefits of performing the service as less than the costs of doing so. In that event, the government forces individuals to perform actions that they would not have performed otherwise – clearly violating their liberty to direct the labor of their bodies and the use of their time as they see fit. Compulsory public service is nothing short of slavery – just as conscription is nothing short of murder.
Against Confiscation
            The entire premise behind the alleged “right of eminent domain” is that there sometimes exist “public purposes” for which the taking of private property is justified. It is granted that some purposes may be better served if the arrangements of material objects in the world were different from what they are currently. However, does this justify government confiscation of property? Can confiscation be justified even if the government promises to “fairly” compensate the individuals whose property has been confiscated?
            Confiscation of property is a non-issue if a private property owner voluntarily agrees to cede some of his belongings to the government in times of war or for the construction of some infrastructure deemed to bring about future benefits. Confiscation only comes into the discussion if a private individual does not share the evaluation of the government that surrendering control of his property would in fact result in a superior state of affairs.
            Take, for instance, a time of war, in which a Person A’s wagons are deemed necessary by the government to transport munitions to the front lines. If Person A voluntarily gives, sells, or lends the wagons to the army, no violations exist and both parties are satisfied. Person A evidently believes that he will gain some advantage from relinquishing control over his wagons – be it his own protection, monetary gain, or the satisfaction of contributing to the defense effort.
            But if Person A does not wish to voluntarily give the wagons to the army, this means that he does not believe that doing so would in fact accomplish the legitimate purposes of government – which include protecting his own livelihood. If the government wishes to have the wagons nonetheless, it must offer Person A additional compensation in order for him to reevaluate the situation and consider relinquishing the wagons to be to his benefit. If the government does not attempt to bring about a voluntary transfer of the wagons, but rather tries to take the wagons from Person A against his will, then it commits an infraction identical in kind to the looting of property that the opposing army may be engaged in. To say that, in order to prevent the looting of his property, Person A must consent to the looting of some of his property, is self-contradictory and self-defeating. If Person A still prefers his own government to that of the invading army, it would only be because of the difference in degree between the looting of each side. But it is not a free society whose government promises only to loot its citizens a little less than the governments of its neighbors.
            When there exists no time of war – then the justifications for government action are even farther reduced. If confiscation of property cannot be legitimate in the direst of military emergencies, then it cannot be legitimate in peacetime, when no imminent threat to citizens’ lives exists. Whatever “public purposes” the government seeks to accomplish in peacetime, it must do so with the consent of the property owners whom it thereby displaces. Instead of compensating them based on what it deems to be fair, it must compensate them based on what they deem to be fair. Only then can the government be truly said to consider and respect the liberties of all of the citizens whom it is entrusted to protect.
True Freedom
            Conscription is murder, compulsion is slavery, and confiscation is looting. Their status remains unchanged if they are done in accordance with some ceremony or due process – or under glorified names that oppressive states use to mask their thuggish behavior.
            True freedom can exist in a society where – among other fully consensual arrangements – membership in the armed forces is fully voluntary, public service activities – including charity – are performed only by willing participants, and all property which the government wishes to acquire is negotiated for to the satisfaction of all parties involved. These are not sufficient conditions for a truly free society – but they are necessary. Any government which does not uphold them is illegitimate and not worthy of any support. Any society which widely condones and encourages such basic violations of individual rights as conscription and confiscation is not worthy of existing – and it is proper for individuals to leave it and enter into other societies or the state of nature, if they deem it prudent to do so.
            True freedom is free, not in the sense of being materially costless, but in the sense of never requiring individuals to do anything they do not voluntarily decide to do to preserve it.  At the moment that impositions are made upon some people by others in the name of “preserving freedom,” true freedom vanishes.

G. Stolyarov II is a science fiction novelist, independent philosophical essayist, poet, amateur mathematician, composer, contributor to Enter Stage Right, Le Quebecois Libre,  Rebirth of Reason, and the Ludwig von Mises Institute, Senior Writer for The Liberal Institute, and Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator, a magazine championing the principles of reason, rights, and progress. Mr. Stolyarov's works have been published on GrasstopsUSA.com. He also posts his articles on Helium.com and Associated Content to assist the spread of rational ideas. His newest science fiction novel is Eden against the Colossus. His latest non-fiction treatise is A Rational Cosmology. His most recent play is Implied Consent. You can also view his YouTube Videos. Mr. Stolyarov can be contacted at gennadystolyarovii@yahoo.com. 

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Read Mr. Stolyarov's new four-act play, Implied Consent, a futuristic intellectual drama on the sanctity of human life, here.

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