Winston Churchill famously observed that, “socialism is the equal sharing of misery.” In the same spirit, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama believes that we should all be equally subject to servitude. He recently indicated that because men are forced by the government to sign up for the selective service, women should be forced to do so as well.

Obama’s collectivist and anti-individualist views suggest what we can expect from his administration. They also highlight the crucial need to defend freedom based on the moral right of individuals to live for themselves and their own values, rejecting the requirement that they justify their lives by serving the state, society, or others.

Feeling a draft

Let’s begin with some background. The federal government requires all men between the ages of 18 and 25 to register for the selective service in case it is necessary to initiate a military draft. Some argue that when a country’s survival or security is seriously and directly threatened, that it is moral to conscript citizens to defend it. Of course, one might ask whether a country is worth defending if its citizens are not willing to fight voluntarily for it.

In any case, America had a military draft during the two world wars, conflicts that had general public support. But by the time of America’s military involvement in Vietnam, with the draft still in place, things had changed. First, America’s security was not directly threatened by Vietnamese communists, as vile as those communists were and as noble as it might have been to fight them. Second, that conflict wasn’t in response to some direct attack on the country, such as what happened at Pearl Harbor or on 9/11. And third, the conflict was not a war officially declared by Congress; it started small and perniciously grew and grew. Yet at a time when the nation was prosperous and officially at peace, the government was taking millions of young men at random, at just the time they were becoming independent adults with their own aspirations and their whole lives ahead of them, and subjecting them to the horrors of war and possibly to hideous deaths.

In reaction, millions of American, especially those young men, protested against both the war and the military draft. (An important historical note and philosophical lesson here: Objectivists like Joan Kennedy Taylor and Martin Anderson played a key role in establishing the intellectual groundwork against the draft and for a volunteer military.) By 1973, at the urging of the Nixon administration, Congress abolished the draft, although since 1980 the federal government has required all young men register for selective service in case the draft is needed again.

The volunteer military has worked well. Millions of individuals in fact have joined because they passionately believe in defending the country, most recently against Islamist fundamentalists. Such service is truly admirable and—this is the crucial point—voluntary.

The unpopularity of the Iraq War today might seem to rule out any danger of a return to the military draft. We might ask, would Obama actually subject women as well as men to the draft if he thought military conscription were really needed? He would likely have strong opposition from conservatives who think women don’t belong in combat and leftists who loathe the military altogether.

So if a military draft is unlikely, other than foisting a stupid, bureaucratic inconvenience on young women by forcing them register for the selective service, what’s the real harm of Obama’s proposal?

The problem is that the growing belief of politicians, based on a degenerate collectivist morality, that Americans owe society some form of community service, when combined with the continued existence of the selective service system, directly endanger individual liberty.

Who serves whom?

Let’s get a few ethical points straight from the start. It certainly can be consistent with rational self-interest and benevolence for individuals to help one another, to give to charities and the like. But virtue ultimately is measured by the commitment of individuals to rationality, productivity, and their own happiness and flourishing, which will involve dealing with like-minded individuals based on mutual consent.

Sadly, in recent decades we’ve seen the spread of the belief that the moral worth of individuals should be measured first by their service to others and that we all, in fact, are duty-bound to serve one another. Thus we see that many schools today not only give students academic credit for doing community service; they actually mandate such “volunteer” service as a condition for graduation. And what constitutes “service” is a matter for political determination. Helping in a family business or working with the Boy Scouts who give you a merit badge for your achievements have been ruled out by some schools as “selfish.”

The morally-confused President Bush early in his administration pushed government-facilitated and financed voluntarism as a key component of his “compassionate conservatism” ideological mush. He wanted to build on Bill Clinton’s AmeriCorps program and set up a few new programs for good measure.

This duty-to-others morality has been on ugly display in the 2008 presidential campaign. John McCain urged us all to devote ourselves “to causes greater than our own self-interest.” At least McCain generally referred to actual voluntary acts, like choosing to join the military.

Obama, on the other hand, has been a very consistent collectivist. Thus, for example, in May 2008, at Wesleyan University he told new graduates that, “You can take your diploma, walk off this stage, and chase only after the big house and the nice suits and all the other things that our money culture says you should buy. You can choose to narrow your concerns and live your life in a way that tries to keep your story separate from America’s. But I hope you don’t.

Here Obama truly distorts America’s story. The moral foundation on which America stands is the right of each individual to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This has meant millions of productive individuals pursuing their own self-interest, values, dreams, and aspiration through voluntary and mutually-beneficial exchanges with one another. When individuals respect the rights of others to their own lives, there are no inherent conflicts of interests; rather, there is a harmony of interests.

Obama then contends that, “thinking only about yourself, fulfilling your immediate wants and needs, betrays a poverty of ambition.” He then does the ultimate logic-twisting by arguing that, “it’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential and discover the role you’ll play in writing the next great chapter in America’s story.” 

Obama shows his own spiritual poverty if he thinks that those who produce food; market goods and services; design aircraft, computers, and rockets; discover new medicines; invent PCs and every form of consumer electronics—that is, all of us who engage in productive work that we enjoy and enjoy the fruits of our labor—suffer from a poverty of ambition.

Obama wants to echo John F. Kennedy’s declaration, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Ayn Rand was right at that time to identify this as a new fascism.

Strong-armed to serve

And here’s where Obama’s belief that women should register for selective service like men comes in. We see attitudes and policies converging on the notion that government more and more should force citizens into service to the state or society. Are we on a slippery slope to a national service mandate?

After all, we already have the programs of Clinton and Bush, for example, to give young people taxpayer money to pay for their college in return for doing community service after they graduate, and getting paid for that service with more taxpayer money. So why not extend such policies? Perhaps government could pay for job-training and require some kind of service in return? Perhaps such programs would carrot-and-stick businesses with tax and regulatory pressure into some sort of partnership that will require payback to the politicians?

Today Obama has joined the chorus calling for a mandate that welfare recipients be required to perform work. This seems sensible enough in and of itself. If you take my money, then sweep some streets or do something to make yourself useful. But in the current context such a mandate highlights the danger of all government handouts: they ultimately will come with strings attached and those strings will end up as nooses around our necks.

The more the paternalistic state makes it impossible through taxes and regulations for individuals to live autonomous lives, and the more the state creates programs to deal with the problems it creates, the more it will exercise control over us. Want your student loan, Medicaid or Medicare payment, prescription drug benefits, home loan guarantee, Social Security, government accreditation for you-name-it, business license or whatever? The feds have some new requirements for you.

This is the new manifestation of bondage. And it is only possible because too many Americans accept the notion that they must justify their own lives and happiness by service to others. Politicians foster and play upon this guilt to morally disarm citizens so they will acquiesce in their own servitude.

A good start to countering this collectivist moral premise would be for young women to loudly protest Obama’s requirement that they register for selective service and, in a true practice of equality, demand that the requirement be dropped for young men as well. This would help us take from the politicians the weapon of guilt that they use against us and retake the moral high ground for individualism.
Edward Hudgins

About The Author:

Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.

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