Joshua Hall on the Decline of Conscription
By David Henderson
This month’s Feature Article on Econlib is “The Worldwide Decline in Conscription: A Victory for Economics?” by Beloit College economics professor Joshua C. Hall. Josh, who is a co-author of Economic Freedom in the World, shows that one component of economic freedom, an all-volunteer military rather than a partially drafted military has increased enormously in the last twenty years. Even France, the country where Napoleon introduced the modern draft, has ended conscription.
Josh attributes the decline in conscription, especially in the United States, in part to the systematic case that passionate economists made against it in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
In 1970, a U.S. Presidential Commission–on which three of the 15 members were economists (Milton Friedman, W. Allen Wallis, and Alan Greenspan) and whose staff was composed largely of economists–drafted a report on the all-volunteer army. It is not surprising that the third chapter of the report is titled “Conscription is a Tax.” The amount of the tax, from the viewpoint of the conscript, is the difference between the minimum amount of pay he would have insisted on to join voluntarily and the actual amount he is paid. In 1968, Mark Pauly and Thomas D. Willett estimated this tax to be 42.5 percent to 72.5 percent. Note that this is not a marginal tax rate but an average tax rate. Like all taxes, conscription has distortionary effects that create deadweight losses. During the Vietnam War, for example, draft dodging and college enrollment motivated by draft avoidance created deadweight losses. More recently, World Bank economists Michael Loshkin and Ruslin Yemtsov estimated that 90 percent of eligible men are able to avoid Russia’s draft through a variety of means.