All-Volunteer Rhetoric

David Henderson of EconLog recounts a recent lecture about the demise of military conscription in the United States:

On Thursday, February 20, I gave a guest lecture in the classroom of Ryan Sullivan at the Naval Postgraduate School. This is the third year in a row I’ve given this lecture. It’s titled “How Economists Helped End the Draft,” and the readings for it are David R. Henderson, “The Role of Economists in Ending the Draft,” Econ Journal Watch, August 2005, Christopher Jehn, “Conscription,” The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, and David R. Henderson and Chad W. Seagren, “Time to End Draft Registration,” Defining Ideas, February 10, 2016. Almost all the students were U.S. military officers.

During the discussion, I highlighted the stormy, and illuminating, interaction between Milton Friedman, a prominent critic of the draft, and General William Westmoreland, a prominent proponent of the draft, at some hearings held by the Gates Commission on the All-Volunteer Force, appointed by President Richard Nixon.

I quoted Friedman’s telling of the story in his and Rose Friedman’s autobiography, Two Lucky People:

In the course of his testimony, he made the statement that he did not want to command an army of mercenaries. I stopped him and said, ‘General, would you rather command an army of slaves?’ He drew himself up and said, ‘I don’t like to hear our patriotic draftees referred to as slaves.’ I replied, ‘I don’t like to hear our patriotic volunteers referred to as mercenaries.’ But I went on to say, ‘If they are mercenaries, then I, sir, am a mercenary professor, and you, sir, are a mercenary general; we are served by mercenary physicians, we use a mercenary lawyer, and we get our meat from a mercenary butcher.’ That was the last that we heard from the general about mercenaries.

I drove the point home by saying, “Let me ask you, and I’m asking you to be honest here: Who, when you first thought of joining, looked at what the pay in the military was at the rank you would have?” Almost all of the students raised their hands. “You mercenaries, you,” I said, laughing. That got a few laughs and smiles.

I have long been a lukewarm supporter of the anti-conscription movement.

I am unpersuaded by the libertarian aspects of the movement. As a typical economist will tell you, conscription is a form of taxation, in that the conscriptee is forced to provide labor to the U.S. government at a wage rate that is (presumably) less than the wage rate he could earn through civilian employment. Thus conscription is (presumably) unfair to conscriptees.

But defense, itself, must be subsidized through taxation, which effectively makes conscriptees of all Americans who pay federal income taxes. I am unaware, however, of a suggestion by any serious economist (which excludes Paul Krugman) that Americans shouldn’t be taxed to defray the cost of defending the nation. So the anti-conscription movement among economists must be viewed with suspicion. Specifically, academic economists — being highly educated and therefore (relatively) highly paid — cringe at the though of being lowly-paid, bossed-around draftees, so they assume that other Americans share their distaste for servitude in the service of America.

The effort to end the draft became serious during the Vietnam War, when the anti-war movement was driven mainly by anti-draft sentiment. Fighting a distant enemy who seemed to pose no direct threat to America didn’t stir patriotic fervor in the way that the sinking of American merchant ships and the bombing of Pearl Harbor had in 1917 and 1941.

Will the draft ever be revived? Possibly, in the event of a major land war to protect vital American interests. But such things are unpredictable, so I won’t venture a prediction about the possibility of such a war. I will only predict (quite safely) that the general response of young American men to a draft will depend on two things:

  • whether the enemy of the time seems capable of mounting a direct threat on the liberty and well-being of Americans, and
  • whether the young people of that time still think of themselves as Americans.

(See also “Whither (Wither) Classical Liberalism — and America?” and the comments on that post.)

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