[An updated version of this article can be found at Conscription in the 2nd edition.]
Most nations, including the United States, have used military drafts at various times in their histories. Regardless of one's views on military or defense policy, a draft has many economic aspects that are inherently unfair (and inefficient) and repugnant to most economists. Hence, the question of whether to have a draft is whether any expected benefits outweigh those inequities.
A military draft forces people to do something they would not necessarily choose—serve in the military. With a draft in place, the military can pay lower wages than it would need to raise a force of willing volunteers of the same size, skills, and quality. This reduction in pay is properly viewed as a tax on military personnel. The amount of the tax is simply the difference between actual pay and the pay necessary to induce individuals to serve voluntarily. If, for example, pay would have to be $15,000 per year to attract sufficient volunteers, but these volunteers are instead drafted at $7,000 per year, the draftees pay a tax of $8,000 per year each.
Before the draft was abolished in the seventies some of its supporters argued that an all-volunteer force would be too expensive because the military would have to pay much higher wages to attract enlistees. But the draft does not really reduce the cost of national defense. Instead, the draft shifts part of the cost from the general public to junior military personnel (career personnel are not typically drafted). This tax is especially regressive: it falls on low-paid junior personnel who are least able to pay. Moreover, the tax is paid not just by draftees, but also by those who still volunteer despite the lower pay. In other words, it is a tax on military service, the very act of patriotism that a draft is sometimes said to encourage. The President's Commission on an All-Volunteer Force estimated that the draft tax during the Vietnam War was over $6 billion per year in 1991 dollars.
Every time a draft has been imposed, the result has been lower military pay. But even in the unlikely event that military pay is not reduced, a draft would force some unwilling people to serve in order to achieve "representativeness," or "equity." In recent years, for example, some have advocated a return to conscription because today's all-volunteer force supposedly has too few college graduates or too many blacks. How to decide which of today's volunteers to turn away is never addressed. The unwilling conscripts who replace the willing volunteers would bear a tax that no one bears in an all-volunteer force. Because these conscripts do not necessarily perform better than the volunteers they displace, this tax yields no "revenue." Because the conscripts are part of society, the tax they pay is simply a waste to the country as a whole. And some who are qualified and would like to enlist are denied and forced into jobs for which they are less well suited or that offer less opportunity.
To make matters worse, a draft also encourages the government to misuse resources. Because draftees and other junior personnel seem cheaper than they actually are, the government may "buy" more national defense than it should, and will certainly use people, especially high-skilled individuals and junior personnel, in greater numbers than is efficient. This means that a given amount of national defense is more costly to the country than it need be.
In 1988, for example, the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) studied the effects of reinstituting conscription and concluded that an equally effective force under a draft would be more expensive than the current force. With a draft a larger total force would be needed because draftees serve a shorter initial enlistment period than today's volunteers. Therefore, a larger fraction of the force would be involved in overhead activities such as training, supervising less experienced personnel, and traveling to a first assignment. The GAO estimated this would add $2 billion to $3 billion per year to the defense budget.
A draft forces some of the wrong people into the military—people who are more productive in other jobs or who have a strong distaste for military service. That has other serious consequences for the country: the military and society are both weaker. Society is weaker because a draft inevitably causes wasteful avoidance behavior like the unwanted schooling, emigration, early marriages, and distorted career choices of the fifties and sixties. The military is weaker because the presence of unwilling conscripts increases turnover (conscripts reenlist at lower rates than volunteers), lowers morale, and causes discipline problems.
U.S. experience since the end of the draft in 1973 validates all these arguments. Military personnel in the early nineties are the highest quality in the nation's history. Recruits are better educated and score higher on enlistment tests than their draft-era counterparts. In 1990, 95 percent of new recruits were high school graduates, compared to about 70 percent in the draft era. Fully 97 percent scored average or above on the Armed Forces Qualification Test, compared to 80 percent during the draft era. Because of that and because service members are all volunteers, the military has far fewer discipline problems, greater experience (because of less turnover), and hence more capability. So, for example, discipline rates—nonjudicial punishment and courts-martial—are down from 184 per 1,000 in 1972 to just 76 per 1,000 in 1990, and more than half of today's force are careerists—people with more than five years' experience—as compared to only about one-third in the fifties and sixties.
Based on this experience, most military leaders are thoroughly convinced that a return to the draft could only weaken the armed forces. And a draft would not even reduce the budgetary costs of the military. While cutting pay of junior personnel can reduce budgetary costs, these "savings" would be offset by higher training costs and the costs of maintaining more military personnel to compensate for the lower experience of a drafted force.
In short, an all-volunteer force is both fairer and more efficient than conscription. The U.S. decision to adopt an all-volunteer force was one of the most sensible public policy changes in the last half of the twentieth century.
Christopher Jehn is vice-president for government programs at Cray Inc. He was previously assistant director for national security of the Congressional Budget Office. At the time of writing, Christopher Jehn was the assistant secretary of defense for force management and personnel. He was formerly director of the Marine Corps Operations Analysis Group at the Center for Naval Analyses in Alexandria, Virginia.
Anderson, Martin, ed. Conscription: A Select and Annotated Bibliography. 1976.
Bowman, William, Roger Little, and G. Thomas Sicilia, eds. The All-Volunteer Force after a Decade. 1986.
General Accounting Office. Military Draft: Potential Impacts and Other Issues. 1988.
The Report of the President's Commission on an All-Volunteer Armed Force. 1970.