Conscription and Freedom: Irreconcilable or Inseparable?

Questions of national service and the cost of freedom were debated at the January 26th Stanford Political Union (SPU) sponsored debate entitled “Serving America: Choice or Mandate?” The proposition side, represented by two young men with service experience, acknowledged the infringement on liberty that a service mandate would constitute but concluded that the social and economic benefits were of greater importance. The opposition relied principally on two lines of argumentation: first, that a mandate represents unbearable government coercion, and second that an ethic of service can be achieved only through volunteerism.

The overarching theme for the night was undoubtedly freedom, as it was mentioned in the remarks of every debater in every speech. “The price of freedom is national service,” argued the proposition in its opening statements. The opposition countered with an image-rich historical narrative of revolution, spilled blood, and freedoms won. The debater responsible for this violent account of history made mention of liberty his principle aim, returning to this primary line of argumentation time and time again. Ultimately, little progress was made on the topic, as the proposition resorted to quoting national monuments (“Freedom isn’t free”) while the opposition constantly alluded to slavery and the Constitution’s thirteenth amendment.

Further discussion came on the economics of a national service mandate. Buzzwords abounded; externalities, public goods, and incentives all got multiple mentions. As one member of the proposition remarked, this discussion was much more palatable for “those who have taken [microeconomics].” Interestingly, the proposition founded much of its argument upon economic reasoning, contending that national service could serve as an engine of long term growth. In turn, the opposition chose not to contest the claim that national service organizations such as Teach for America advance technological innovation, instead pursuing an inflation-based argument. “How much money are we going to print?” asked one member of the opposition, pointing out the nation’s looming deficit. A final interesting moment of the economy debate came in the proposition’s analysis of 20th century economic history, when one debater implicitly suggested that the United States could be on the precipice of social upheaval on par with the Soviet or National Socialist revolutions.

The intended focus of the debate was the philosophical justifications for compulsory national service, yet such argumentation often became muddled in the course of investigating policy minutiae. In the closing moments of the debate, the proposition happened upon important justification for their proposal. One debater argued against the opposition’s suggested use of increased incentives to increase national service, calling it a continuation and reinforcement of status quo paradigms because only the economically disadvantage would respond to such incentives. The proposition, recalling the draft of the 1950s, further contended that compulsory service would have “cultural network effects.” On the other hand, the opposition’s philosophical arguments were often simply repetitive claims about freedom. Still, valuable commentary on the value and ethic of volunteerism emerged amidst the hubbub. One debater maintained that a mandatory program would only “drive our generation to a more cynical view of government.”

Despite the conservative bent of the panel, liberal views by no means failed to make appearance. The opposition reminded the audience of the “power of example,” recalling President Barack Obama’s voluntary service. The proposition, while maintaining a belief in “individual liberty and freedom,” argued that “the idea of true liberalism is dead.” Asserting that some limitations on freedom were justified, the proposition stated that the “theoretical underpinnings of Libertarianism are just that –theoretical.” During the Q&A, one member of the audience advanced a theory that strong national leadership can compel a population to volunteer and serve, citing the work of Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy. Some members of the panel agreed, affirming that President Obama could play a similar role.

The final words from each side provided a worthy closing to the event. One proposition debater, an Israeli citizen, told of how the military is the “glue of society” in Israel. The opposition countered with this final thought: “Forcing some cynical nineteen year old to serve 100 hours in some wind turbine—I just don’t think that’s going to do it.”

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