Not Obliged

In this month’s edition of Cato Unbound is a discussion on concepts of citizenship & obligations, kicked off with the plainly absurd attempt by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry to make a “libertarian” case for national military service a.k.a. conscription. The immediate counter to the proposal that being forced to take up arms for the State is a form of slavery has already been well provided by c4ss’ David S. D’amato, but some other things stuck out for me embedded in the original post & conversation I’d like to air out…

In a reply to Jason Kuznicki, Pascal invokes social contract theory, by way of summarizing what he interprets as the logic he is faced with then smacking at it as demonstrably impractical:

“Only one type of obligation is legitimate, and that is obligations that I have explicitly and specifically consented to.”

Let us pause for a second to note that nobody believes this. We all believe, for example, that we have obligations to our families, even though nobody signs a contract to that effect.

He goes into the standard social contract spiel from here. While it is true that no human is an island of course, that our experiences and interactions shape us over time, with regard to families and by extension close friends this is a fluid set of ever changing conventions. What in one time period seemed a normal thing for people to do as blood can later on be dismissed as silly or barbaric, and vice versa, as we’ve endlessly carved our social institutions to fit over the years. To use such an example as a tie-in to requiring service to government — which has resisted change throughout history, usually opting for harsher restriction to be followed by collapse over flexibility — is quite odd.

The flexibility throughout time of family and convention within such further contrasts with the state due to it coming with less overt methods of reiteration. People generally take up actions with regard to their children deeper than simply feeding them when hungry (education involvement, for example), yet the influence of outside force on doing so is minimal; usually when there is overt influence it’s actually a negative (note the regular folly heard about in government school systems, or cases such as the couple who had a child removed from their home for marijuana possession only to be abused & murdered while in foster care). The equivalent in Pascal’s vision of conscription would have parents locked up for not getting them enough books.

If, as implied throughout, we owe something, have something to pay forward, the method called for for doing so fails on another level: to whom is whatever owed? The phrasing “national service” is a sleight of hand considering the service to be rendered, as “the nation” didn’t ask anything, let alone the specific at hand, nor could it. See, nations are an abstract concept, the only flesh of them being the believers in it. The claimed as synonymous “nation-state” is a complete other beast, in both senses of the word. Government officials, as human beings themselves, have their own interests, and even if one adhered to the concept of “the nation” that simply means that it is possible — extremely likely, I’d argue — that interests of said nation could conflict with what the current officeholders in government claiming to speak for it as nation-state. When this occurs, the government tends to win, having claim of “right” to use force on its side; this does not make the outcome just, otherwise carjackers would be justified too.

Later on, Pascal brings up an argument about “thick” vs “thin” notions of citizenship, alleging in an oddly conservative framing manner about the latter that it leads to ruin. Yet again, he conflates fluid cultural concept with brittle-if-nudged central institution:

[…] without thick citizenship, liberal-democratic nation-states will eventually fail. I will add one thing, which is that any sustainably great collective creates this sense of irrational identification by creating what management curricula refer to as a culture, or a shared set of values, and that in turn this culture only thrives for long if it is made real, that is to say if these values are reflected in the collective’s actions and not simply as nice words on paper and frontispieces.

Say one accepts the nation concept, even the “nation-state” one, and a sense of thick citizenship. They feel obligations to their fellow man, and seek to do all they can to help the nation prosper. They particularly notice ways that the nation appears to be steering into an iceberg, and want to contribute to the ongoing dialog in a way that will shake the nation out of its stupor and avoid potential catastrophe, at the least asking questions.

Well, depending on how you do so, you could end up joining Chelsea Manning* in a cage.

People as equals operating in aggregate or cooperating voluntarily for goals is noble, essential even. However, humanity is not states and states are not humanity. The question of what is owed, if those we associate with and share interests with are swept out of the picture in favor of service to political power, indeed can be answered with nothing. They have too many standing at arms for them to begin with.

(* – Not saying this is the reason she joined, or even that it’s the reason for the leaks necessarily. Chelsea has since explained that part of the reason for joining the military was attempted adherence in vain to the warped sense of masculinity on offer — it was Chelsea trying to be what she wasn’t in order to satiate an unjust social expectation that got Chelsea in that position.

BTW: all previous posts here referring to Chelsea were written before her coming out as trans.)


About b-psycho

Left-libertarian blogger & occasional musician.
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2 Responses to Not Obliged

  1. Todd S. says:

    It all seems to boil down to the primacy of the institution when placed in opposition to actual people. How and why (most) people came to have this particular view is a topic for exploration. I used to have that view when I was younger, and for the life of me I can’t find a reason why. I can only suppose it was inculcated by the school system and I never stopped to reflect on it. Certainly my parents – and I’m not knocking them – never encouraged me to question it. I’m sure their parents never did for them either. I mean, in the land of good’n’plenty, what reason is there to stop and reflect? Crisis is the catalyst for change, and up until recently mainstream America has experienced little of that.

  2. JOR says:

    Libertarianism aside, some of Gobry’s historical claims are ludicrous or laughable (the one about monarchs reviling conscription is probably the worst one; ancient imperial monarchies – even into the middle ages – used and expanded traditional ‘freeman’ levy systems, they did not appear with professional soldiers ex nihilo).

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