Objectivism and the Military

Objectivism and the Military

William Thomas

3 Mins
April 14, 2010

Q: I have a cluster of questions centered around understanding how the military would function and be maintained. Your FAQ on "What is the Objectivist View of Law and Government (Politics)?" states "There must be a military force for defense against external enemies."

What would this "military force" look like in an ideal Objectivist world? Would there be a standing military? Who would serve in it? Only those who would choose to do so? Or would the government have the power to draft when the need for service people was greater than the number volunteering? Would the military supply its own needs, i.e., manufacture weapons, research weapon technology, research chemical, biological, and nuclear agents? Would the military provide medical services? If so, for how long? Would the military provide training and education?

Would the military provide medical assistance for those injured while in service? Would there be a time limit or would it be for the life of the combatant? What about those injured while in service, but not in combat?

Would intelligence gathering be under the auspices of the military?

Would the government maintain embassies in other countries? What part of the government would negotiate treaties?

A:  Objectivism has no position on most of the questions you ask, and in many cases the same general answer applies: We'll see when we get there.

Objectivism is a philosophy, not a detailed blueprint for all aspects of social organization. As society gets closer to being one based in our core values of reason, individualism, achievement, and freedom, there will be many options to explore, and we will gain much practical experience in seeing how different institutional arrangements work out. From basic principles of human nature we can say something about the make-up of a just society, but we cannot say everything without more experience and expertise to draw on. As a result, today there is a wide range of reasonable debate among Objectivists about the proper extent and form of the government of a free society.

Now, on to your questions.

1) The nature of military service

Ayn Rand opposed the military draft as a violation of individual rights. There is some argument to be made for granting the government broad, exceptional powers in genuine emergency situations, but these are much, much rarer than commonly supposed. A war that a country's citizens do not volunteer to take part in is a war that deserves to be abandoned, and to coerce innocent people to risk or lose their lives is a profound violation of the purpose of government. A volunteer military, always and by all means.

You can read more of my thoughts on the draft in my article “Free Minds and Free Militaries.”

Who would serve? Citizens, I suppose. There are arguments against employing non-citizen mercenaries (Fall of the Roman Empire, and all that), but these are not decisive. We would have to see what institutions best accord with practical justice.

2) Where would the military get weapons and equipment?

Usually by buying it, as it generally does today. It might well fund research, if the research were essential to its proper function of defending individual rights. It might well provide training or education if that was what was needed to develop effective soldiers. Would the military have its own research agencies for sensitive or highly dangerous weapons? I don't know. We'll cross that bridge when we come to it. I am doubtful an Objectivist government could justify secrecy laws, but this is not a well-developed area of Objectivist thought.

3) Would the military provide medical services?

Well, I suppose it would buy insurance. How long soldiers or ex-soldiers would be covered for is a matter to be settled democratically. But justice would seem to demand that soldiers be fully covered for injuries suffered in battle, at the minimum.

It is hard to see, however, once we ignore bad socialist premises, why the government should run a massive bureaucracy like the Veterans Administration. An interesting question for a freer future is whether the government should literally own any property at all (rather than leasing, for example). Objectivism says nothing conclusive either way on that last matter.

4) Spies?

Any legitimate intelligence-gathering activities would seem to be functions of the military or of diplomatic corps. More would be hard to say at this time. It might well be that, as I've said, very little in the way of official secrets laws can be maintained on an everyday basis (they violate freedom of speech and contribute to a dangerous isolation of government from public oversight). One of the tragedies of the post-WWII period in particular was that the perception of an unending Cold War lead to the creation of durable institutions with powers that traditionally would only have been allowed during emergencies.

5) Diplomacy and embassies

I think we can assume that there will be a diplomatic service of some kind and embassies of some fashion under an Objectivist regime. But we can hope that "ambassador" might become a part-time job and that bankers or merchants and the like might serve also as consuls in their spare time. After all, we are projecting a society in which government has much, much less to do—and much less to do with our daily lives—than does the bloated welfare state of today.


William Thomas

William R Thomas writes about and teaches Objectivist ideas. He is the editor of The Literary Art of Ayn Rand and of Ethics at Work, both published by The Atlas Society. He is also an economist, teaching occasionally at a variety of universities.