Would a Return to Conscription Substantially Reduce the Probability of War?
David R. Henderson
One of the biggest victories for freedom to which economists contributed in the last third of the 20th century was the abolition of military conscription.1 Some economists argued that the draft was an extreme violation of individual liberty because it forcibly put people in jobs—and not just any jobs, but jobs in which they could be killed in a foreign war. Virtually all economists who participated in the debate also pointed out a subtle economic point: that conscription would, by imposing costs on those conscripted, actually make military manpower more, not less, expensive.2
An increasingly common argument for the draft, though, and one made especially by foreign policy intellectuals, is that the draft would put the children of the rich and powerful at risk and, therefore, cause their parents to raise more objections than otherwise to military adventurism. That argument is superficially plausible. But a careful look at economic incentives shows that the case for using a draft to prevent a war is weak. In any plausible draft, the rich and powerful would have a cheaper and surer way to shield their children from harm than by devoting resources to stopping or preventing a war.
In the last few years, many intellectuals have made this new argument for the draft. Thomas E. Ricks, for example, a fellow at the Center for a New Economic Security, drawing on similar thinking by retired General Stanley A. McChrystal, writes that having a draft might "make Americans think more carefully before going to war."3 Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University and a critic of the 21st century Iraq war, writes, "Americans should insist on fielding a citizen army drawn from all segments of society."4 To achieve that goal, he would have the government force all able-bodied 18-year-olds into two years of national service, either civilian or military. This would mean, he claims, that "[i]t will be incumbent upon civilian and military leaders to make the case to citizen-soldiers (and their parents) for long, drawn-out, inconclusive wars in far-off places."5
Before I get to why this argument is weak, it's important to make a moral point. Most of us think that it's wrong to use innocent people as human shields in war. The immorality is due to two factors: (1) those innocent people's lives are put at risk, and (2) they do not get to choose whether to risk their lives. We don't make our moral judgment conditional on the consequences. We tend to believe that using people as human shields is wrong even if it prevents the other side from firing.
Similarly, it is profoundly immoral to put innocent young people at risk so that their parents will get politically active. Those who advocate conscription as a way to avoid war are advocating that innocent people become "human shields." Even if it can be shown that reintroducing conscription would reduce the chance of a war breaking out, it still is wrong to force people to put their lives at risk.
Whatever one's views on the moral issue, the argument that a return to conscription would reduce the probability of wars is weak. Those who make such an argument do make one good point: that all other things equal, if the children of rich and powerful people could be forcibly sent to war, those people would tend to ask more questions about the war. But if the main goal of the influential is to avoid having their children put at risk, there is a more direct way to do so: get their children exempted from the draft or, in the unlucky case that their children are drafted, use their influence to get their children relatively safe postings that are far from the battle. Further weakening the case, there are many influential people without draft-aged children and, perhaps, some who want their draft-aged children to be conscripted.
Inadvertently, the proponents of a draft have come up against what economists call a public-good, free-rider problem. The key characteristic of a public good that's relevant here is that it is prohibitively costly to exclude non-payers. So, economists have concluded, there is typically underinvestment in producing public goods. You and millions of people may value them very much, but if it is prohibitively costly to exclude non-contributors from getting the benefits, people have an incentive to free-ride on the efforts of the contributors. The result is that many beneficiaries of the public good don't contribute and even those who do often contribute much less than the value they place on the good.
How does the public good reasoning apply here? Even if influential people would be against the war because their children would be at risk, two factors would cause them to invest little in preventing war. First, any resources they put towards lobbying, writing letters, etc. would only marginally change the probability of war. Second, they would risk wasting their investment because of the likelihood that others would free ride and cause the collective effort to fail. This means that they would be unlikely to contribute much to the public good of avoiding the war. A far better investment, from their viewpoint, would be to invest in a private good, one from which only they and their children benefit. That private good is to arrange a special deal—either draft exemption or a safe job in the military—for their children.
Those who want a draft to reduce the probability of war might argue that people are not that narrowly self-interested. But if they so argue, then they have rejected their own view: recall that it was their belief that the rich and powerful are self-interested that led them to make this argument for conscription in the first place.
Some people who want to return to the draft to reduce the prospect of military adventurism point to the Vietnam War as Exhibit A for their position. But a much stronger case can be made, as Henderson and Seagren point out, that the Vietnam War is Exhibit A for the exact opposite position. They write:
First, the existence of a draft did not prevent the Vietnam War or even appear to affect how intense the war became. Second, it took many years of protests and, more important, over 58,000 American military lives lost and over 150,000 wounded before the war ended. Indeed, it took a few years of high casualties before there were widespread protests against the Vietnam War.6
Moreover, a large body of anecdotal evidence suggests that many children of the rich and powerful carried out exactly the strategy that I suggest above: namely, finding ways around the draft or finding relatively safe jobs in the military. Baskir and Strauss write:
Congressman Alvin O'Konski took a personal survey of one hundred inductees from his northern Wisconsin district. Not one of them came from a family with an annual income of over $5,000. A Harvard Crimson editor [James Fallows] from the class of 1970 tallied his twelve hundred classmates and counted only fifty-six who entered the military, just two of whom went to Vietnam.7
The advocates of using conscription to cause the rich and powerful to question wars could argue that their draft would be different from the Vietnam era draft in that it would require all able-bodied 18-year-olds to serve. That would be different, but not in a way that matters much: the domestic service option that Bacevich and others favor would still give people a way to avoid going to war. And there would always be the option of lobbying to get their children into a relatively safe job in the military.
Recall Bacevich's argument, quoted above, that, with his preferred draft, "It will be incumbent upon civilian and military leaders to make the case to citizen-soldiers (and their parents) for long, drawn-out, inconclusive wars in far-off places." I've already dealt with his argument about their parents. But Bacevich's claim is profoundly weak in another way, as well: it's precisely when people are conscripted that civilian and military leaders do not have to make the case for a war. If the draftees could say to their leaders, "Oh, you've failed to make the case and so I won't fight," this draft would be like none that I have ever heard of.
In short, young people would be heavily coerced in order to reduce the probability of war only a little. And in the event that the strategy failed, as it well might, the nation would be stuck fighting wars with conscripts who are (a) unlikely to be as effective as volunteers and (b) because of their relative ineffectiveness, at higher risk of dying.
Moreover, in one important way, relying on volunteers to fight a war can help discourage wars: the government must entice people to join. To entice volunteers, it often must pay more. That contrasts with the case of a conscripted military. Henderson and Seagren note that, as the number of troops in Vietnam increased from 1964 on, real military personnel outlays per military member barely budged. By contrast, real military personnel outlays per member rose substantially as the U.S. government got in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. From an average of $73,887 per member between 1996 and 2001, real outlays rose to an average of $103,772 from 2004 to 2010, an increase of 40 percent.8 The reason: the government had to increase pay to meet its manpower targets. Henderson and Seagren point out that this higher cost per military member resulted in about an extra $45 billion per year in U.S. government spending. That higher cost was, admittedly, financed mainly with deficits rather than with current taxes. But deficits now, unless the government later defaults or cuts spending, lead to higher taxes in the future. And if, as seems likely, the future tax system even roughly resembles the present tax system in forcing higher income people to pay a much higher percent of their income in taxes, the rich and powerful will pay more for war. So a volunteer force does give the rich and powerful an incentive to oppose war.
This incentive does not appear to be strong, but it exists. More importantly, that incentive for high-income taxpayers to oppose war is not clearly weaker than the incentive that conscription of their children gives them to oppose war.
The questionable morality of using innocent young people as political pawns to get their parents politically active, combined with the small probability that the strategy will work and the larger probability that it will backfire, means that the new argument for conscription is unpersuasive.