Conscription During World War II and Milton Friedman
By David Henderson
Over at Cafe Hayek, Don Boudreaux has written a passionate statement against the draft: “My Son Will Never Be a Conscript.” I love the last paragraph:
Fortunately, what is perhaps Milton Friedman’s greatest legacy remains in place: actual conscription does not now exist in America. Yet let it be known that if conscription of any sort returns and if anyone or any group tries to conscript my son, they will fail. My son will not be forced to sacrifice for anyone or anything, and least of all for any government.
It reminds me of a letter I wrote to the Winnipeg Free Press (which was published) when I was 18 announcing that if there were a draft in Canada, as Secretary of State and Pierre Trudeau buddy Gerald Pelletier had proposed, I would refuse. BTW, when I thought it through afterwards, I realized that I wouldn’t. I’ve always made the best of a bad situation and the prospect of being drafted looked less bad to me than the prospect of going to prison. I probably would have figured out a way to avoid going to war and, of course, as we now know, Canada wasn’t in any wars during the period (late 1960s and early 1970s) that I would have been drafted.
If you read Milton Friedman on the draft carefully, as I have (I’m not saying that Don hasn’t), you’ll see that even though he regarded the draft as slavery, he was alright with it when the government “needed” a large percent of the relatively young male population to be in uniform. The basic argument is that as the percent of the population “needed” rises, the tax rate to raise the funds for the military rises and so does the deadweight loss. Recall that the deadweight loss from a tax is proportional not to the tax rate but to the square of the tax rate. So the deadweight loss from having the “wrong man in uniform” that we get with the draft can be below the DWL that we would get from the high tax rates required to get the same number of people in uniform.
Here’s how Milton put it in the article that Don cites:
If a very large fraction of the young men of the relevant age groups are required–or will be used whether required or not–in the military services, the advantages of a volunteer army become very small. It would still be technically possible to have a volunteer army, and there would still be some advantages, since it is doubtful that literally 100 per cent of the potential candidates will in fact be drawn into the army; but if nearly everyone who is physically capable will serve anyway, there is little room for free choice, the avoidance of uncertainty, and so on. To rely on volunteers under such conditions would then require very high pay in the armed services, and very high burdens on those who do not serve, in order to attract a sufficient number into the armed forces. This would involve serious political and administrative problems. To put it differently, and in terms that will become fully clear to non-economists only later, it might turn out under these special circumstances that the implicit tax of forced service is less bad than the alternative taxes that would have to be used to finance a volunteer army.
Hence, for a major war, a strong case can be made for compulsory service. And indeed, compulsory service has been introduced in the United States only under such conditions–in the Civil War, World War I, and World War II. It is hardly conceivable that it could have been introduced afresh in, say, 1950, if a system of compulsory service had not so recently been in full swing. As it was, the easiest thing to do when military needs for manpower rose was to reactivate the recent wartime technique.
I don’t buy that argument, by the way. I buy that there’s a tradeoff, but here’s the problem: the DWL from the draft is infinite for the simple reason that there are at least a few people–and there need be only one–to whom you have to pay infinity to get into a volunteer military. The DWL from very high taxes, by contrast, although very high, is finite.
Milton doesn’t quite say, but seems to say, in the quote above, that a draft during World War II was acceptable. I never found him saying it wasn’t–until I got him to say so at a 1979 conference. More on that in a later post.