By Bryan Caplan
The end of the draft is arguably the greatest policy success of libertarian economics. Libertarians still have plenty of complaints about the U.S. military. But libertarian complaints about the way the military treats its manpower have virtually ceased. It’s an all-volunteer military. How could any libertarian continue to object?
Well, it depends. Yes, every soldier now joins voluntarily. But once you join, you surrender many basic rights – most notably the right to quit:
In a civilian job, if you don’t like your boss, or don’t like the job,
you can simply quit. Not so, in the military. I get email all the time
from recruits who just graduated basic training and/or technical school
(job training), asking how they can “quit” the military. The short
answer is that you can’t — unless it is for a valid hardship reason
(i.e., someone in your immediate family is terminally ill, and your
presence is required). The military can throw you out for several
reasons, but you can’t simply quit because you don’t like it.
How should libertarians morally evaluate military-style employment? Unless you believe in the curious doctrine of inalienability, the answer is clear: There’s nothing wrong with it. If you object, don’t consent. Once you consent, the contract is morally binding – and ought to be legally binding. The only problem with military-style employment, in fact, is that no one but the military can offer such contracts. In Libertopia, the right to make such deals would be open to everyone.
But who would want such a contract? The most historically obvious answer is: People contemplating marriage. In many societies, parties to a marriage surrender many basic rights – most notably the right to quit (“divorce”). These contracts are often explicitly “one-sided”: Under the doctrine of coverture, for example, a woman could not own property, make contracts, or accept employment without her husband’s permission. Under current legal doctrine, similarly, men find it extremely difficult to get custody of their kids in the event of a divorce.
Why would anyone in his or her right mind consent to such a deal? The same reason soldiers consent to join the military: The deal has off-setting advantages that outweigh the drawbacks. The most obvious reason to consent to a lop-sided marital contract: To win the hand of a higher-quality mate. To steal the words of Luke 14:11, “For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.”
How should a libertarian morally evaluate such marriages? Exactly the same way you evaluate our all-volunteer military. Unless you believe in inalienability, the correct answer to critics is, “If you object to these marriages, don’t get one.” Once you consent, the contract is morally binding – and ought to be
For libertarians, the problem isn’t the contracts that are allowed, but the contracts that aren’t allowed. If a society only allows marriage with coverture, that’s not freedom. But when a society forbids marriage with coverture, that’s not freedom either. The purist solution is the privatization of marriage. But does that mean that all systems of government marital law are equally unlibertarian? I think not. Later this week, I’ll explain why.