Thomas Ricks's Fiasco
By David Henderson
In late June, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the former commander of international forces in Afghanistan, called for reinstating the draft. “I think if a nation goes to war, every town, every city needs to be at risk,” he said at the Aspen Ideas Festival. “You make that decision and everybody has skin in the game.”
This was the first time in recent years that a high-profile officer has broken ranks to argue that the all-volunteer force is not necessarily good for the country or the military. Unlike Europeans, Americans still seem determined to maintain a serious military force, so we need to think about how to pay for it and staff it by creating a draft that is better and more equitable than the Vietnam-era conscription system.
This is from Thomas E. Ricks, “Let’s Draft Our Kids,” New York Times, July 9.
I don’t have time to criticize all the mistaken and or woolly thinking in his target-rich op/ed. I will note two things, though.
First, by quoting McChrystal up-front and never gainsaying his statement, Ricks pretty clearly agrees with McChrystal that, with a draft, “everybody has skin in the game.” That’s the opposite of the truth. The draft allows the government to shift the cost of manning the military from the taxpayer in general to the draftee. Economists for the Gates Commission in 1969 and 1970 estimated that the implicit tax on draftees, average not marginal, was over 50%. The way to have everybody have “skin in the game” is with general taxes to pay for war, not with taxes that single out people who are “unlucky” enough to be young and healthy.
Second, Ricks states:
And libertarians who object to a draft could opt out. Those who declined to help Uncle Sam would in return pledge to ask nothing from him — no Medicare, no subsidized college loans and no mortgage guarantees. Those who want minimal government can have it.
Do you see the “the hell with you” tone he has? It seems pretty clear that he’s not taking objections from libertarians very seriously. First, it wouldn’t be only libertarians who object. The draft issue is a quintessentially libertarian issue: who owns your body, after all? But you don’t have to be a libertarian to object to the draft. Second, is he actually saying that the only way you can get out of the draft is by giving up all the benefits of the welfare state but none of the other costs, such as the taxes that pay for them? I think so.
Finally, although Ricks doesn’t say it in the op/ed (although he comes close in the last paragraph), I think Ricks’s argument, and McChrystal’s, is essentially that when the rich and powerful have their kids drafted, they’ll suddenly start paying critical attention to foreign policy. I used to accept this argument. That didn’t make me favor the draft because I always thought it was profoundly unfair–even uncivilized–to put millions of innocent people in involuntary servitude so that their parents would become politically active.
But fairness and civilization aside, the argument doesn’t stand on its own grounds, as Chad W. Seagren and I have shown here.