Is it legitimate to force young people to serve?

There is currently a debate in Germany about introducing compulsory service for young people. The German Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, for example, is committed to this.

More than ten years after the suspension of compulsory military service in Germany, the debate seems backwards-looking. 

But, as far as the military part is concerned, it isn’t that backwards-looking. There are still a lot of countries with mandatory military service in Europe: Austria, Belarus, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Georgia, Greece, Lithuania, Norway, Russia, San Marino, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey and Ukraine (see world map here). 

It is conceivable that compulsory service in Germany (which would be offered in military, social and ecological institutions) will also be introduced. Because a clear majority of the Germans favours such an obligation to serve. In a recent representative survey, 64 per cent answered Yes to the question, “In your opinion, should there be compulsory social service for school leavers in Germany?”; 28 per cent said no, and 8 per cent were undecided.

So it might make sense to form your own opinion. Therefore one question should be at the centre. 

Under what circumstances can it be legitimate to force people to do something against their will?

Because this is what duties are for, right? To force people. Compulsory service isn’t necessary for those who want to join the army anyway, work in senior care, or wish to count rare birds on deserted islands. Compulsory service is for those who have other plans. It is for those who want to study right after school instead, go on a trip around the world, or want to start an apprenticeship as a locksmith. So when can it be right to force the individual to do something for the community?

It may sound surprising, but we live in a society where we constantly force individuals to do something against their interests for the sake of the community. And that’s OK.

The driver who, in order to get home faster, would have to drive in the opposite direction of a one-way street – and doesn’t do it. Or the taxpayer who gives part of his income to the community. – We’re used to acting against our impulsive interests because we recognize that rules make sense. That society can only function when these rules apply. 

The question, however, is which rules are justified, although they are directed against the interests of the individual in the first place.

Economics has found quite a good answer to this question. 

Economists are known to deal with markets. Countless people act in these markets and make voluntary decisions under certain conditions. These numerous individual decisions often lead to socially desired results. The tomatoes, which end up in the supermarket at a low price and of good quality, are one example. Food supply in general.

Sometimes, however, these individual decisions together lead to undesirable outcomes. Best example: the climate crisis.

So what is it that individual decisions sometimes lead to good results and sometimes don‘t? The simple answer: Because not everything can be produced through markets. 

Think of something simple like street lights. 

One person’s enjoyment of them does not detract from other persons’ enjoyment, and it currently would be prohibitively expensive to charge individuals separately for the amount of light they presumably use.

It would hardly be possible to organize the installation of street lamps through private markets. Because nobody would pay for it. Since no one could be excluded from using the light, however, that would be exactly needed if you wanted to establish a working market.

In economics, goods that are both non-excludable and non-rivalrous are called public goods

Such public goods have to be forced by society (in the form of parliamentary decisions and carried out by the government). 

It‘s the city government that puts up streetlights and charges citizens to pay for them (although individuals would prefer to be able to use the streetlights for free). 

In the case of public goods, hence, individuals must be compelled to do something (e.g., pay taxes) that they would prefer not to do (for reasons of self-interest) to achieve an outcome that benefits everyone.

Clean air, invention or herd immunity are examples of public goods, so where the state is needed to intervene and ignore the free decisions of the individual – in favour of the community.

National defence also belongs in the category of public goods. Nobody wants to go to war and risk their life so that others can survive (at least not when his or her own life is the most important thing to them). But if everyone thinks like this (and therefore, no one defends the country), the entire society may be destroyed (at least subjugated). 

It is not for nothing that the soldiers in the armies of past centuries wore colourful uniforms. It wasn’t to make them easier for the enemy to spot, but to make it harder to get away undetected from the front lines.

What conclusions can we draw from these considerations? 

It can be legitimate to force people to do something against their will.

The restrictions must not be arbitrary but limited to the provision of public goods.

National defence is such a public good. Therefore mandatory military service might be legitimate (at least if not enough volunteers can be found).

Non-military activities do not produce public goods. At least most of them don‘t. And among those who do so, such as some ecological activities, it is possible to find people who (against payment) do such an activity voluntarily. 

That is why I am against introducing such an obligation to serve.


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