Henderson, Meckling, and Friedman on World War II Conscription
By David Henderson
As promised, I’m reporting here on how I drew out Milton Friedman’s views on conscription during World War II. If you look at the quote from his 1966 piece on conscription, you can easily conclude that he favored conscription during World War II. I thought he did, based on that piece and based on the fact that I had never seen him, in print or orally, say that he was against it. That’s why I’m reporting this next as somewhat of a victory.
First, it’s important to understand the context. In 1979, Senator Sam Nunn (D-Georgia), head of the Subcommittee on Manpower of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, was pushing for a return to the draft and, at a minimum, a return to draft registration, which had lapsed under President Ford. In May 1979, Tom Palmer, playing bad cop, and I, then an assistant professor of economics at the University of Rochester’s Graduate School of Management (GSM), playing kind-of-good cop, both testified before Senator Nunn against both a return to the draft and the revival of draft registration.
The late Martin Anderson, who had played a huge role in getting rid of the draft under President Nixon, and Thomas G. Moore, both of the Hoover Institution, took this threat seriously. So did my former boss, William H. Meckling of the U of R’s GSM, who had been Executive Director of the President’s Commission on the All-Volunteer Force (the Gates Commission), W. Allen Wallis, the Chancellor of the University of Rochester and a former member of the Gates Commission, and the late Walter Oi of the U of R, who had played such an important role in analyzing the economics of the draft. Walter Oi, with the assistance of Meckling, Wallis, and Kenneth E. Clark, put together a proposal for a 2-day conference at Hoover in December 1979. By then, I was at the Cato Institute in San Francisco and I was invited. The official conference name was the Hoover-Rochester Conference on the All-Volunteer Force. Later Marty Anderson put together the conference proceedings, both the papers and the discussions, in a book titled Registration and the Draft, Hoover Press, 1982.
One of the first papers given at the conference was “The All-Volunteer Force: Has It Worked, Will It Work” by Richard W. Hunter and Gary R. Nelson. It was excellent. Their answer to both questions, backed up with lots of illuminating data, was: Yes.
In the discussion after they gave the paper, though, Richard Hunter said:
I’d also like to keep in mind when we discuss this, and when we start talking about war, about major columns coming through Europe and whether we’re going to go nuclear, and all those kinds of things, that the peacetime debate we’re having is a debate on how we’re going to maintain our force prior to the start of a war. It is the prewar maintenance that is the dominant factor in the early days, the critical days of a war. But no one I know argues we could maintain a volunteer force during a massive war. When the clear and present danger comes, I think you have to more toward a more conscriptive force. You have to mobilize the economy. You have to take over the means of production and a lot of other things that Bernie Rotsker, Director of the Selective Service, spends his time worrying about. And he wouldn’t have an agency if we didn’t believe that had to happen when a war came about.
His “But no one I know argues we could maintain a volunteer force during a massive war” sounded off key. There were two people in the room who I was positive argued that “we could maintain a volunteer force during a massive war.” One of them was me. Of course, he didn’t know me. But he did know the other person, who had been quite prominent in helping end the draft.
That session ended but I made a mental note to raise it during the next session. At the break, I went up to say hi to Allen Wallis, whom I hadn’t seen since we had had a 2-hour exit interview when I had left the U of R in July, and Milton Friedman. Milton had told me that summer that I was making a huge mistake by going to Cato and he proceeded to aggressively share that view with me yet again. The break ended and we went back to the room for the next session.
Here’s the dialogue, as reprinted in the Hoover volume:
DAVID HENDERSON: David Henderson, Cato Institute. Richard Hunter said something earlier that no one challenged, and I was a little surprised. He said that no one is talking about having an all-out war with an All-Volunteer Force. Now, I’m not clear on that. He could have meant one of two things. One is that people aren’t going to go for it as voters, and he might be right. The other is that economists don’t argue for it, or there aren’t other people arguing for it.
Well, I am one of the people who argue for it. In fact, the economic argument against the draft is stronger during war than during peacetime. The implicit tax is higher. You’re not just taking a couple of years of people’s lives with a small probability of dying. In very many cases you’re taking their lives themselves. And so I think that, if anything, if I had to choose between having a draft in wartime and having a draft in peacetime, and I could only choose one of them, I’d choose a draft in peacetime. Of course, I wouldn’t choose that either, but if it were a forced choice, that’s what I’d do. And I know there’s one person in this room who agrees with me–Bill Meckling.
When I first met him, Bill told me that during the Second World War, he opposed the draft throughout the war. I think we shouldn’t let that issue go by. There’s a real issue there.
RICHARD HUNTER: I guess I was speaking from what I viewed as Department of Defense policy and the Washington debate that’s going on. There’s an implicit assumption, and in most cases an explicit assumption, that we’re going to call on Bernie Rotsker (Selective Service) as soon as we think we’re in a really major war. You also have to define what you mean by war. We’re talking about massive numbers of divisions crossing some Eastern European country’s border, violence, and maybe or maybe not tactical nuclear weapons. That sort of thing.
DAVID HENDERSON: So you’re talking about what you think is going to
happen, not what is feasible.
RICHARD HUNTER: If that sort of thing happens, and we are then in what I classify as a struggle for the survival of our society, you kind of throw up your hands and you tax everybody 100 percent.
DAVID HENDERSON: Not everybody. Every young male.
RICHARD HUNTER: You say in fact tax everybody 100 percent and assign people to go work in factories where they didn’t want to work before. All kinds of things can happen. You can even go out and not pay people money. That happened during periods of threat in some countries. The more serious the threat is–the more likely it is to destroy the society–the more you throw out all the rest of your social institutions and fight for survival. That’s the kind of context in which we feel that you would have to mobilize not just for the military but for the whole society, the whole production capability.
GARY NELSON: You know, I’ve always thought that in the case of a total mobilization there would be a very good ex-ante case of market failure–that there would be no market, no real probability of a market wage being set that would in fact produce the very large number of people you would need in the short term. You simply couldn’t do it. I’ve become very comfortable with the notion of not worrying about how to do it, and, instead, just going ahead and conscripting.
DAVID HENDERSON: What about the fact that in both the First World War right from the start and the Second WorId War after 1942 they didn’t allow volunteers? They never gave it a chance.
GARY NELSON: That was because the cost of failure was unacceptable.
DAVID HENDERSON: Well, you’re saying why they didn’t give it a chance. [I emphasized “why.”]
GARY NELSON: The cost of failure to execute the war properly was unacceptable, and you wanted to mobilize the whole population base. You didn’t want to waste time trying to sort out and manage and do all those things. That’s my perception of it.
DAVID HENDERSON: Well, you have to sort in any case. The point is, those people were volunteering.
RICHARD HUNTER: You didn’t want the whole New York Police Department to volunteer and leave. You wanted to pick some people and leave some here. You wanted to manage the manpower force of the United States.
DAVID HENDERSON: Well, can I ask you this question, then? Are you saying that you think it’s infeasible, or are you saying that people think it’s infeasible to have a volunteer force during war-time?
RICHARD HUNTER: I’m only saying that, as I understand the plans of everybody involved in the debate and the Congress and the administration, the assumption is that this is a peacetime program and that normally in peacetime in our nation’s history we have worked with volunteers. Congress, in its power to raise armies, and maintain navies, has done it through volunteers. And every time we’ve gotten involved in a major war, we’ve moved to some kind of conscription–and some kind of more or less management of the civilian manpower force. As I see history, that’s the context of this issue. I think that if a massive war started this morning, none of us would be here. We would all have been called out. We would start immediately figuring out ways to mobilize the entire society. And Bernie’s budget would go up faster than the whole rest of the country combined by a hundredfold.
THOMAS MOORE: We’re really running out of this morning’s time. I’d now like to let Bernie Rotsker have the last word, since this is his job.
BERNARD ROTSKER: Just to answer some specifics, I think the developing position in the Defense Department would be to continue a volunteer system, as long as it could be sustained, and certainly over the first several months. Conditions in WorId War II were different. The Selective Service System was truly choosing people with an eye to maintaining a home base, and volunteer rates were much higher than could be absorbed. This questioned the sustainability of the domestic infrastructure, so the system really was sorting out who could go. It was selective in a way that we don’t understand today. The question envisioned by selective service today would be the equalization of the burden. We would be going to a random selection process in which we did not recognize occupation deferments. It’s a very different concept than was exercised in WorId WarII, and really comes out of the social experience of the Vietnam era, when there was a severe tax on the system in that the bright, and the wealthy, did not go.
(VOICE FROM THE FLOOR): Would you allow the purchase of substitutes? [Note: even though I helped Marty Anderson by identifying the voices, somehow I failed to identify this one. Which is amazing because 35 years later I can remember it clear as a bell: It was Robert Tollison.]
BERNARD ROTSKER: It’s not for me to allow the purchase of substitutes, but right now that certainly has not entered the debate. I think the notion is much more that of spreading the burden without any reference to a market solution, or any reference to the kind of problems that developed for the British at the end of World War I, where the elite, the intellectual leadership or that country, was largely decimated. This was one of the main reasons for selective service with continued student deferments during World War II. But there is no plan for continuing deferments under any resumption of the draft that I know of.
The session then ended. In the next session, Milton Friedman, one of the participants in the audience but not one of the presenters (at the end of the second day he debated Congressman Pete McCloskey on the draft in front of a general audience), got up to the microphone and, after commenting on another issue, said:
While I’m here, I want to make one more statement in support of David Henderson this morning. I am also one of those who are by no means persuaded that there is any case for a draft, even in time of all-out war. And I just want to go on record as agreeing with him on that point.