Would Conscription Reduce the Odds of War?
By David Henderson
Note: I wasn’t planning a special Labor Day-oriented blog post. I wanted to write this one. Then I realized that this is a Labor Day-oriented blog post. What better defense of labor could there be than a defense of laborers’ right to choose their jobs?
An increasingly common argument for the draft, though, and one made especially by foreign policy intellectuals, is that the draft would put the children of the rich and powerful at risk and, therefore, cause their parents to raise more objections than otherwise to military adventurism. That argument is superficially plausible. But a careful look at economic incentives shows that the case for using a draft to prevent a war is weak. In any plausible draft, the rich and powerful would have a cheaper and surer way to shield their children from harm than by devoting resources to stopping or preventing a war.
This is from the Econlib Feature Article for September, “Would a Return to Conscription Substantially Reduce the Probability of War?”
A while ago, my colleague Chad W. Seagren and I published an academic article saying why we think this is a weak argument. Since then, I have seen this particular case for conscription crop up again and again. I like to refer people to our academic article, but there are two problems with it: (1) it’s long, and (2) it’s gated. It’s also substantially improved from the SSRN version. So I saw a hole in the market and wrote this one.
Also, in thinking the issue through, a couple of years after our first article, I realized that there is an important moral objection to this argument for the draft. Here, from the current piece, are the two paragraphs that give that argument:
Before I get to why this argument is weak, it’s important to make a moral point. Most of us think that it’s wrong to use innocent people as human shields in war. The immorality is due to two factors: (1) those innocent people’s lives are put at risk, and (2) they do not get to choose whether to risk their lives. We don’t make our moral judgment conditional on the consequences. We tend to believe that using people as human shields is wrong even if it prevents the other side from firing.
Similarly, it is profoundly immoral to put innocent young people at risk so that their parents will get politically active. Those who advocate conscription as a way to avoid war are advocating that innocent people become “human shields.” Even if it can be shown that reintroducing conscription would reduce the chance of a war breaking out, it still is wrong to force people to put their lives at risk.