Sunday, April 10, 2016

Is military service compatible with libertarianism?

In the fall of my freshman year at Hopkins, I walked into debate team practice and was greeted by the best debater on the team, a Senior named Omar.  “So Doris,” he chided, “how does it feel to be a libertarian living off the government’s teet?”

As a libertarian ROTC cadet, I got that a lot in college.  I complained about high taxes, called for reductions in military spending, advocated the elimination of federal tuition assistance, and preached self-reliance…yet I myself had a four year, full ride scholarship paid entirely by tax dollars.  Many sparring partners were quick to pounce on that perceived hypocrisy, and I’m sure many others thought it to themselves without challenging me on it to my face.

What these critics overlooked is that my scholarship was not a handout so much as compensation: I was, and still am, working for that money.  During college, I assumed a whole series of responsibilities and time commitments in exchange for my tuition, which my civilian peers did not share, and which escalated each year I remained on salary.

Three times a week, I woke up at 5:15 AM for an hour of physical fitness training while my civilian peers were still sleeping (if not still stumbling home from the night before!)  I had to work out in the gym outside of those times as well, to ensure I met my contractually binding physical fitness standards.  I spent my Thursday afternoons and many weekends crawling through the woods conducting tactical lab exercises, or practicing land navigation with a map and compass.  I had to fit into my schedule some 30 credits of leadership classes nobody outside of ROTC had to take, which did not count towards my university’s major or minor requirements (and sometimes conflicted with other classes I did need for certain majors).  By my Junior and Senior year, these classes involved our assumption of battalion leadership positions, which consumed at least triple the time investment of any other class’s readings and homework.  There were training meetings, remedial PT sessions, weekend ruck marches, late-night OPORD briefs, mentorship meetings, and 1,000 other little obligations civilians wouldn’t even understand.  And most importantly, my receipt of this tuition money incurred an eight-year service obligation in the US Army after my graduation!  If I am discharged or somehow unable to fulfill this obligation, I have to pay the money back at full-sticker price, which at Hopkins (with no retroactive FAFSA financial aid, mind you) would amount to roughly $250,000 of debt.  I may not have paid for my college education out of pocket, but it certainly was not free.

In this way ROTC was not much different than a work-study arrangement, or a salaried internship with on-site training.  I am not the recipient of government charity; I merely signed a contract with the government, offering certain services and sacrificing certain liberties in exchange for a compensation package that included college tuition.  I never had much difficulty explaining this to people, and Omar’s teasing soon subsided. 

But now, having commissioned as a real Army Officer and deployed to a forward station in a foreign country, I’m faced with a series of questions that are a bit tougher to square with my libertarian sensibilities.

Libertarians decry state violence, and yet the military is the most explicitly violent of all state functions.  It kills innocent people every year.  It spends hundreds of billions of stolen tax dollars a year on wasteful bureaucracy, unnecessary wars, and foreign meddling in matters libertarians feel are none of our business.  This spending is funneled through a wasteful and corrupt military industrial complex which destroys wealth and limits economic freedoms here in America, to say nothing of the lives worsened in other places.  It also creates blowback that makes Americans even less safe.  How can I be proud to serve in such an organization?

Multiple libertarians who respect my opinions have told me I’m a hypocrite to my face.  One online friend went so far as to ask How do you sleep at night being such a perfect libertarian and simultaneously in the Army?” She posted the following cartoon in the ensuing conversation.

Point taken – there are some merit to these arguments.  But I did consider them before I decided to sign my contract. They did not deter me then, and they do not deter me now. I continue to believe my service is not only compatible with, but complementary to, my libertarian advocacy.

To explain why, the remainder of this post will take the form of a question and answer dialogue between myself and an imaginary libertarian who is cynical of military service.  I will write questions or accusations I commonly receive in red text, and then answer those accusations in regular typeface one at a time to keep it all organized.  This will give the impression that somebody else is arguing with me, when in reality it’s just me reproducing the conflicted inner monologue I sometimes have in my head.

Libertarian military cynic: “Libertarians believe taxation is theft, and also love to quote Thomas Jefferson in saying that “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money to the propagation of ideas which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.”  Surely, many Americans disbelieve and abhor the actions of the US military abroad.  As a soldier collecting a salary and scholarship funded by tax dollars, aren’t you accepting money that was forcibly stolen from people who often don’t agree with what the Army is doing?”

Yes, but a) theft can sometimes be justified, and b) my individual choice to join the Army has no impact on how much money is stolen anyway. 

Regarding A, I have explained why some taxation is morally acceptable in prior posts.  One of the factors important to identifying those situations is legitimacy, which can be roughly approximated by constitutionality (Lysander Spooner would disagree, and I’m sympathetic to his argument. But the constitution is so popular on both halves of the political spectrum today that I have little doubt it would be re-ratified were the whole thing put up for a Yea/Nay vote as written).  Say what you will about the wisdom or ethics of funding such a large military, but there can be no doubt it is explicitly constitutional.  National defense is something I’m comfortable taxing people to support, even if I (and many others) disagree with many of the specific policies pursued towards those ends.

But more importantly, my military service does not increase military expenditures relative to what they would be without my service.  The Army offers a fixed, congressionally stipulated number of commissions and ROTC scholarships each year, based on how many officers they need.  Each school’s ROTC program gets X number of two-year, three-year and four-year scholarships to dispense to their prospective and existing cadets, and those are offered based on an order of merit list.  If a new scholarship is granted, it goes to the next most qualified cadet in that ranking.  If a previous recipient vacates, the next guy in line gets the remainder of his money.  There is no such thing as surplus scholarship funds.  The Army never credits taxpayers with leftover scholarship money that nobody used, because there are always dozens of cadets clamoring for that extra cap space.  Indeed, no bureaucracy ever returns the money it’s been allotted; if they run a surplus, they find a use for that extra money, because they’ve been legally instructed to spend it.

This means the money used to pay me would just go to somebody else were I not in the military; military spending would not decrease, and my accepting the scholarship did not cause it to increase.

Libertarian military cynic: “Okay, but don’t Libertarians believe the military is oversized and should be cut? And by adding yourself to its ranks, aren’t you doing the opposite? If you believe the government doesn’t need any more soldiers, then why are you tacking on one more? Isn’t that effectually the same as forcing others to pay for soldiers we don’t need?”

Even companies that are downsizing need to hire new people.  Freezing all additions and allowing the dead weight to be shed through attrition is a terrible force reduction strategy, because it just leaves your military old and destroys your recruitment infrastructure.  A better idea is to adjust the ratio of new soldiers to departing soldiers such that the army decreases in size over time, while simultaneously staying young and flexible enough to fulfill entry level positions and adapt its personnel to new challenges in a changing world.

I would happily vote to cut my own healthcare perks or retirement benefits in pursuit of cutting military spending.  But so long as that money is already being given out to somebody (and therefore, already being stolen from somebody for unnecessary government purposes), there is nothing immoral about accepting it.  Wielding the force is what’s immoral.

Libertarian military cynic:But isn’t that all the Army does: wield force? I understand you feel that can sometimes be justified, but lots of times the government thinks it is, and you don’t.  Libertarians disagree with a whole lot of what the Army has done in recent years, and really throughout American history.  Isn’t it very likely that the Army will continue to do objectionable things during your service time?

It is very likely.  In fact, by maintaining so many posts around the world and continuing to use too many drone strikes and fight wars without true congressional authority, it already is.  But to me, the solution to these problems is not to abandon the Army as inherently evil; it is to fix the Army, which can best be attempted from within the Army.

The same is true of government more generally. Congress and the President have done, and continue to do, many un-libertarian things throughout history.  Does that mean no libertarian should run for federal office?  Or is that all the more reason why we should – to seize control of the things which have historically been used to oppress, so we can shrink and restrain them from positions of power on the inside?  For example, I think it would be perfectly reasonable for someone in NORML to attempt nomination as head of the DEA (an organization they may not believe should even exist!) because they could do more to limit the drug war from that position than they could from any other.  It’s easy to be a critic of injustice, but people who sit on the sidelines and complain without “leaning in” to actually influence conditions on the ground aren’t doing much to fix the problem.

If all the people who object to collateral damage and undeclared war self-select OUT of the organizations responsible for those decisions, we will be left with a government and a military run exclusively by people untroubled by dead civilians and constitutional restraints on executive power.  That’s a much more dangerous world, which I don’t want to live in.  The military is already far more conservative and jingoistic than the nation at large, precisely because it doesn’t much appeal to peace-loving people.  That’s problematic!  It’s also part of the reason liberals think it’s important to let more women into the military: women think differently than men, and that disrupts groupthink and foments diversity and strengthens organizational decision making.  The same could be said for introducing more libertarians.

For so long as these wars are going to be fought – and I have no real control over that – I want them to be fought by people who care about minimizing civilian casualties.  For so long as the military budget is set so high – and I also have no say there – I want it to be spent by people who care about eliminating corruption and waste, and who understand and appreciate the national security damage of enormous debt.  And so on an so forth.

Libertarian military cynic:  I hear what you’re saying, but be honest: you’re not making those decisions from your current position.  Most military service is about executing decisions made by your superiors; lowly second lieutenants are not deciding matters with policy implications.  Isn’t it possible that in your attempts to rise up those ranks, you will be given an order to do something you feel is immoral or unwise?

I categorize those things distinctly: unwise orders, and immoral orders.  If I’m given an order which I believe to be unwise, I will bite my lip and give that order in my own name.  Smart, well-intentioned people can disagree on which is the wisest course of action, even in pursuit of shared moral ends.  Organizations cannot function at all without a sense of hierarchy and command authority, and to disobey any order with which I disagree would be to sabotage the effectiveness of our military to the detriment of both my fellow soldiers and the mission. 

So for example, I think the continued presence of ground forces in Afghanistan is counterproductive to US national security on net.  However, I see nothing unethical about killing a terrorist in Al Qaeda or helping my friends do the same.  And for so long as we are in Afghanistan (which I have no control over, and will happen whether or not I serve in the military), I would much prefer that our operations there be as effective, safe and just as possible (which I COULD control as an officer in charge of those operations).  Therefore, if ordered to deploy to Afghanistan, I would gladly go and serve my country with vigor and enthusiasm, keeping any national security disagreements I may have with elected officials and generals to myself.  I haven’t earned the right to make those decisions, I trust they are coming from good intentions, and the act itself which I am being ordered to engage in is morally permissible.

By contrast, there are other orders I could conceivably be given which I would consider not only unwise, but also ethically unjustifiable.  One example would be Donald Trump’s recent promise to kill the families of terrorists as a means of deterring terrorist recruitment or extracting information from those suspects we have in captivity.  This is not only plainly illegal, but also morally unconscionable.   If I’m ever ordered to do this, I will tell Donald Trump to go fuck himself and accept whatever legal repercussions ensue (which likely would be pretty light, because again, that violates the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which is an international treaty forming the basis of military law).

But I doubt this will happen, because most abuses of power are not waged by those at the top of the government pyramid.  Those at the top have the most visibility, the most scrutiny on their actions, and the most to lose from misconduct.  When wrongdoing happens, it’s often at the lower levels, and that’s where strong leaders can make a real difference on the ground.

When my uncle was in high school, he once got into a fight with the son of a local policeman.  He won this fight, and when the policeman found out about it, he didn’t like that one bit.  That night at dinnertime, this policeman entered my father’s house and tried to arrest my uncle, dragging him outside where his police car waited with lights flashing.  Just as he was exiting the doorway, my grandfather pointed his shotgun directly at the policeman’s face, and told him that if he took one more step with his son he would “blow his fucking head off.”  A shouting match ensued, but eventually the cop released my uncle and stormed off.  Had my grandfather not stood his ground, we have no doubt that my uncle would have been driven to a remote location and had the shit kicked out of him by a hotheaded father on a power trip.  With no witnesses, he would have gotten away with it on whatever fabricated story he drew up.

This is how government misconduct happens – not in massive conspiracies or overtly evil policies, but in isolated incidents where proud, selfish, and unaccountable agents in charge of something small prove utterly unworthy of the responsibility with which they are entrusted.  And so it is in the military.

Six years from now, an intelligence report will discover a suspected terrorist is hiding in a certain building, in a country in which we are not authorized to deploy ground troops for political reasons.  We will have the capacity to drop a bomb on this building if we like.  But in and around this building, there will just so happen to be a bunch of other people we cannot identify.  Some Commander, who is under pressure from his boss to accomplish the mission at all costs, and who is shielded from accountability for collateral damage by a skilled military PR team, is going to have to make a decision upon which the lives of innocent people depend.  Regardless of what decision he makes, it’s not going to make the evening news.  No American civilians will ever hear of his decision, nor will anyone on the outside know who made it.

I joined the military in part because I want to be that man.  For so long as government institutions confer the power to kill with impunity on somebody somewhere, I’d rather it be me than some Islamophobic neocon who thinks he’s Jack Nicholson from A Few Good Men.

Libertarian military cynic:  Cut the shit, Andrew.  You can’t wriggle out of this with analogies and flowery rhetoric.  Libertarians believe the government is an agent of oppression.  You swore an oath to serve and obey that very same government.  There is no way to square those two things!  Service, subjugation and violence are the literal antonyms of everything libertarians advocate.  You decry how the state can only do anything at gunpoint, and then literally volunteer to hold the gun!  This is doublethink at its most egregious.  You are a hypocrite and a coward and a statist jackboot - libertarian in words only.

Yes, rhetoric can be used on both sides of this debate.  But so can facts, and in fact I did not swear an oath to “serve and obey” my government; I swore an oath “to support and defend the constitution of the United States from all enemies, foreign and domestic” – which, believe it or not, can include that government.  I am not the President’s pawn, who unthinkingly executes every command at the drop of a hat. On the contrary, I have thought about the constitution and what it means for an uncommonly long time.

I took every constitutional law class that Johns Hopkins had to offer before my Senior year. During my senior year, I interned at the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy in Washington D.C., where I worked on intricate con law matters on a daily basis.  I carry a copy of this constitution in my backpack every day because I’m a TOTAL FUCKING NERD.  If you scroll to the bottom left of this screen, you will see a catalogue of every topic upon which I have submitted a blog entry.  The second most common – with 49 entries once this is posted – is “constitution.”  Most of these entries are 3-10 pages long.  Suffice to say that I know precisely what that document says, and precisely what I will and will not do in service of it.

In one of these 49 entries, I summed up a long series of arguments evaluating the US constitution’s merits and drawbacks by explaining why I had taken the oath I took.

…the US constitution is not perfect, [but it is] the closest humanity has ever come…This was the first governing document (and arguably, still the only governing document) to fully outline the three unalienable human rights of life, liberty, and property.  It remains the most ingenious mechanism for securing those rights I know of.  And with some minor tweaks in wording and some major corrections in judicial interpretation, I genuinely believe that it is still humanity’s greatest hope for the protection of those rights.  Of all governing structures yet invented, the US constitutional model has the best chance to maximize the freedom, prosperity, and happiness of people everywhere.

It is for this reason (and this reason alone) that I consider myself a patriot. When I took the Oath of Enlistment in the US Army, I solemnly swore that I would “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic” and that I would “bear true faith and allegiance to the same.” I did not swear allegiance to any individual man or leader. That is by design. In Ancient Rome, soldiers pledged allegiance to their lord or ruler; they swore to follow one man wherever he went, and fight his battles, regardless of cause, for the glory of his name and the enrichment of his kingdom. But after the colonial militia narrowly defeated soldiers who served just such a king, it was decided that American soldiers would never make any such pledge to any one individual. Similarly, my allegiance is not to the territory enclosed my America’s borders. That land, though beautiful, is no more worth fighting for than the land anywhere else. And although I serve the American people, my allegiance is not to them either…American citizens are no superior in value or worth than the people anywhere else. Rather, my allegiance is to an ideal, the ideal inscribed on the document I’ve sworn to uphold. That ideal is individual liberty…I want to devote my life’s work towards ensuring that spirit never dies; that freedom’s “last, best chance on earth” “shall not perish from the earth.”

Maybe you think that’s a bunch of naïve, idealistic bullshit that sounds noble on paper but hasn’t panned out in practice.  Maybe you think I’ve been brainwashed by a romanticized, nationalistic, ethnocentric, public school rendition of state history.  Or, maybe you think I don’t even believe this stuff anymore – that I’m just assuaging my cognitive dissonance with comforting clichés because I’m in too deeply invested in my profession to get out now.  Maybe I’m scrambling to find redeeming qualities in an obviously oppressive organization so I can cling to my pride as a thinker and a soldier and an American.  I confess I have grappled with these possibilities myself.

But at the end of the day, I don’t really care what you think – that’s sort of the whole point of individualism.  I follow my conscience in all things, and this one passes the test.

The Army is an enormous and diverse organization that performs thousands of unique functions.  These functions cannot be lumped together beneath a single ethical adjudication just because we wear the same uniform.  My day-to-day life does not consist of bombing third-world families in pursuit of hiding terrorists.  I’m not waterboarding people, I’m not chasing down tax-dodgers, I’m not awarding cushy government contracts to crooked corporate mercenaries, and I’m not imposing myself uninvited in foreign social disputes.  I wake up each morning and reserve training areas for MEDEVAC helicopters, so we can rescue wounded people on the battlefield and transport them to a hospital.  I do this alongside native Korean soldiers in a rich and peaceful country, whose people and elected officials desperately want us here to protect them from an aggressive neighbor – a neighbor that just so happens to be one of the most evil and oppressive regimes in the world.  The contrast between good and evil demarcated by the DMZ could not be more clearly illuminated.  I don’t lose sleep over which side I’m on.

I am a libertarian because I want to live in a world in which everyone respects one another’s rights to life and liberty – where people don’t try to kill or rob or oppress one another over religious, economic or political disputes.  I am an American Soldier because we don’t yet live in that world, and that has implications for when the use of force is justified.

Libertarians can disagree on whether the US military and US constitution helps or hurts the cause of liberty on net, historically and presently.  But no matter which conclusion you come to, it does not follow that each individual soldier within that military is helping or hurting it through their service.  Individuals can only be said to have helped, hindered, or done nothing for the cause of liberty on a case by case basis, taking all their actions into account.  Soldiers can do some good in the world, whether you want to admit it or not.  Therefore, military service is wholly compatible with libertarianism.


  1. Hello Sir, excellent article. Ive been grappling with these same issues and this article has helped. Hope you are enjoying korea as much as I am.

    Spc B

    1. Thanks for the feedback, glad to hear it helped! I certainly am enjoying Korea (and the surrounding countries too, when I get the chance). Best of luck in your career.

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