Walter Oi, RIP
By David Henderson
If you are an American male under age 66, you should take a moment and give thanks to economist Walter Oi, who died on Christmas eve. Why? Because he helped contribute to ending military conscription. Conscription ended on June 30, 1973. Until then, American men between age 18 and 26 were subject to it and boys younger than that had conscription to “look forward” to.
I first met Walter twenty-five years ago on one of his regular visits to the Pentagon where he was a consultant on personnel matters. In vintage Oi fashion he was provoking officials at the highest levels in the Department of Defense by openly advocating the abolition of conscription. In order to answer those who ridiculed voluntarism as wholly impractical, Walter had committed his considerable talents to estimating the budgetary implications of such a move. That work proved to be a watershed in the cause of voluntarism. It transformed the conscription discussion from dogmatic assertion to careful study of the consequences of abandoning conscription. Competent scholars in both academe and the military research community took up the challenge, and over the next five years they produced an impressive array of analyses of military personnel requirements, the supply of volunteers, and various historical and social aspects of conscription.
Here’s what I wrote in 2005 in “The Role of Economists in Ending the Draft,” Econ Journal Watch, Vol. 2, No. 2, August 2005, 362-376:
One of the first empirical studies of the economics of the draft and of ending the draft was done by Walter Oi (1967a, 1967b), an economics professor then at the University of Washington and later at the University of Rochester’s Graduate School of Management. In his study published in the Sol Tax volume (Oi 1967b), Oi distinguished clearly between the budgetary cost of military manpower and the economic cost. Oi granted the obvious, that a military of given size could be obtained with a lower budgetary cost if the government used the threat of force to get people to join–that is, used the draft. But, he noted, the hidden cost of this was the loss of well-being among draftees and draft-induced volunteers. Using some empirical methods that were sophisticated for their day, Oi estimated the loss to draftees and draft-induced volunteers and found it quite high– between $826 million and $1.134 billion. While this number might seem low today, Oi’s data were in mid-1960s dollars. Inflation-adjusted to 2005, the losses would be $4.8 billion to $6.6 billion.
There’s so much more to say about Walter Oi, who was really one of a kind. Steve Landsburg says much of it here, and says it well. I’m writing an article on Walter for another publication and will link to it when it comes out in January.
UPDATE: Liberty Fund’s Online LIbrary of Liberty has this piece by Walter from the New Individualist Review, Spring 1967. I read this about a year or so after it came out and it was the first time I had heard of him.