Vietnam War Draft Resistance: Huemer Worked
By Bryan Caplan
In high school, I foolishly registered for the draft. I had already arrived at the Huemerian theory of civil disobedience, according to which it is morally permissible to break unjust laws and evade the punishment for doing so. Since I had no doubt that military slavery was unjust, the crucial question was merely one of prudence: Do the benefits of breaking the unjust law exceed the expected punishment for doing so? I only registered because I greatly overestimate the federal government’s eagerness to enforce the law: No one has been prosecuted for draft evasion since 1986.
Question: What about evading the draft during the Vietnam War? Would a prudent Huemerian have evaded involuntary military servitude then?
First, consider the risks of compliance. About 2.7M Americans served in Vietnam, and roughly 58,000 died there. That’s roughly a 2% fatality rate.
Second, consider the risks of conviction for draft evasion. During the entire Vietnam War era, about 206,000 Americans were reported delinquent by the Justice Department to the Selective Service. Under 9000 were convicted. It’s hard to tell what fraction of the delinquent were ever reported, but even if it were 100%, that’s only a 4% conviction rate. The typical sentence was around five years – that’s what Muhammad Ali got.
As an upper bound, then, a non-compliant man was twice as likely to go to jail as a compliant man was to be killed. Morally, you may disagree with my assessment of draft evasion. But prudentially, it was a no-brainer: Violent death is clearly more than twice as bad as a five-year jail sentence.
Happily, it’s hard to imagine the modern U.S. reinstating the draft, and as I said, the law hasn’t been enforced for decades. If a draft ever does come back, however, legal avoidance (as opposed to illegal evasion) will be much harder than the last time around. As the Selective Service Administration explains:
Before Congress reformed the draft in
1971, a man could qualify for a student deferment if he could show he
was a full-time student making satisfactory progress in virtually any
field of study. He could continue to go to school and be deferred from
service until he was too old to be drafted.
Under the current draft law, a college
student can have his induction postponed only until the end of the
current semester. A senior can be postponed until the end of the full
What should you do? As always: Learn the facts, then do the right thing.