This past June, the US Senate approved a bill requiring women to register for the military draft. Although we do not currently have conscription, men have been required to register for conscription since 1980, the theory being that should the need for a draft arise, the government would be one step ahead of the game by already having eligible persons registered. (Besides the 85 senators who voted in favor, the change is also supported by former Senator Hillary Clinton.)
The argument advanced in support of the change was that requiring only men to register for the draft was unfair, and that women should have the same opportunities as men. This rationale is morally obtuse. It is unfair that only men have to register, because conscription is an incredibly immoral policy to which none of our citizens should be subject.
The argument from equality is misapplied in cases like this. When one group receives a benefit or opportunity that is denied others, equality requires extending the benefit to all. But if one group is being harmed or denied an opportunity, the moral ideal of equality does not require that the other groups be harmed as well. It requires that no group be harmed.
Example 1: Only white males can vote. The principle of equality requires extending the right to vote to women and non-whites. Note that one could also achieve “equality” in this example by denying everyone the right to vote.
Example 2: Blacks are enslaved by whites. It would be odd to suggest that the principle of equality means that other races should also be enslaved. Better, surely, to abolish slavery.
Example 2a: It’s often noted that blacks are disproportionately subjected to police brutality or stiff prison sentences for marijuana. It’s a misuse of the principle of equality to conclude that more whites ought to be brutalized. Clearly, the better answer would be to reform police practice and sentencing policy.
Conscription is like the latter two examples: it is a violation of fundamental rights. The Constitution explicitly forbids involuntary servitude, which is by definition what conscription is. Sadly, the Supreme Court has never chosen to interpret the Constitution that way, so it remains legal. Nevertheless, it is manifestly immoral, and inconsistent with the principles of a free society.
Conscription makes citizens into subjects, people whose autonomous life choices can be overridden by the state for purposes not freely chosen. Other than slavery itself, there is nothing less compatible with the idea of a free society than conscription. As if the deprivation of the conscripts’ freedom isn’t bad enough, conscription also allows the state to wage wars without regard to whether the people actually support them.
Senator John McCain, who chairs the Armed Services committee, defended the vote by arguing that “since we opened up all aspects of the military to women that they would also be registering for Selective Services.” This is incoherent. Since it is now possible for women to volunteer to do a thing, he’s saying, it is now necessary to force women to do that thing. I shouldn’t have to explain how pernicious that argument is.
And the chairman of the Armed Services Committee should know better anyway: the military itself prefers the all-volunteer force. It results in much better morale and higher degrees of professionalism. The people who enlist have chosen what they want to do. Conscription replaces some of them with people who have chosen something else, so no one’s choices are being respected. That is not how a free society operates.
The bipartisan support for this is sad but not surprising. The left, which was once strongly opposed to the draft, has been siding with the right the last few decades. The way to advance women’s equality is not to make them equally subject to coercion and fail to respect their choices. The only equality worth pursuing is equal freedom and respect. For an “equal rights” argument that’s worth its name, the correct answer is to abolish conscription entirely.