By Christopher Jehn
Most nations, including the United States, have used military drafts at various times. Regardless of one’s views on military or defense policy, a draft has many economic aspects that are inherently unfair (and inefficient) and unacceptable to most economists. Hence, the question of whether to have a draft is really a question of whether any expected benefits outweigh those inequities.
A military draft forces people to serve in the military—something they would not necessarily choose to do. With a draft in place, the military can pay lower wages than it would take to attract a force of willing volunteers of the same size, skills, and quality. This reduction in pay is properly viewed as a tax on military personnel. The amount of the tax is simply the difference between actual pay and the pay necessary to induce individuals to serve voluntarily. If, for example, pay would have to be twenty thousand dollars per year to attract sufficient volunteers, but these volunteers are instead drafted at twelve thousand dollars per year, the draftees each pay a tax of eight thousand dollars per year.
Before the United States abolished the draft in 1973, some of its supporters argued that an all-volunteer force (AVF) would be too expensive because the military would have to pay much higher wages to attract enlistees. But the draft does not really reduce the cost of national defense. It merely shifts part of the cost from the general public to junior military personnel (career personnel are not typically drafted). This tax is especially regressive because it falls on low-paid junior personnel, who are least able to pay. Moreover, not just draftees pay the tax; so do those who still volunteer despite the lower pay. In other words, the draft is a tax on military service, the very act of patriotism that a draft is sometimes said to encourage. The President’s Commission on an All-Volunteer Force estimated that the draft tax during the Vietnam War was more than eight billion dollars per year in 2003 dollars.
Every time a draft has been imposed, the result has been lower military pay. But even in the unlikely event that military pay is not reduced, a draft would force some unwilling people to serve in order to achieve “representativeness” or “equity.” In recent years, for example, some have advocated a return to conscription because today’s AVF supposedly has too few college graduates or too many African Americans. How to decide which of today’s volunteers to turn away is never addressed. The unwilling conscripts who replace the willing volunteers would bear a tax that no one bears in an AVF. And because these conscripts do not necessarily perform better than the volunteers they displace, this tax yields no “revenue.” Because the conscripts are part of society, the tax they pay is simply a waste to the country as a whole. And some who are qualified and would like to enlist are denied and forced into jobs for which they are less well suited or that offer less opportunity.
A draft also encourages the government to misuse resources. Because draftees and other junior personnel seem cheaper than they actually are, the government may “buy” more national defense than it should, and will certainly use people, especially high-skilled individuals and junior personnel, in greater numbers than is efficient. This means that a given amount of national defense is more costly to the country than it need be.
In 1988, for example, the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) studied the effects of reinstituting conscription and concluded that an equally effective force under a draft would be more costly, even in a narrow budget sense, than the existing force. With a draft, a larger total force would be needed because draftees serve a shorter initial enlistment period than today’s volunteers. Therefore, a larger fraction of the force would be involved in overhead activities such as training, supervising less-experienced personnel, and traveling to a first assignment. The GAO estimated that these activities would add more than four billion dollars per year (in 2003 dollars) to the defense budget.
A draft also forces some of the wrong people into the military—people who are more productive in other jobs or who have a strong distaste for military service. That has other serious consequences for the country. A draft, especially one with exemptions, causes wasteful avoidance behavior such as the unwanted schooling, emigration, early marriages, and distorted career choices of the 1950s and 1960s. A draft also weakens the military because the presence of unwilling conscripts increases turnover (conscripts reenlist at lower rates than volunteers), lowers morale, and causes discipline problems.
U.S. experience since the end of the draft in 1973 is consistent with the above reasoning. Today’s military personnel are the highest quality in the nation’s history. Recruits are better educated and score higher on enlistment tests than their draft-era counterparts. In 2001, 94 percent of new recruits were high school graduates, compared with about 70 percent in the draft era. More than 99 percent scored average or above on the Armed Forces Qualification Test, compared with 80 percent during the draft era. Because of that and because service members are all volunteers, the military has far fewer discipline problems, greater experience (because of less turnover), and hence more capability. So, for example, discipline rates—nonjudicial punishment and courts-martial—were down from 184 per 1,000 in 1972 to just 64 per 1,000 in 2002. And more than half of today’s force are careerists—people with more than five years’ experience—as compared with only about one-third in the 1950s and 1960s.
Based on this experience, almost all U.S. military leaders believe that a return to the draft could only weaken the armed forces. Nor, as mentioned, would a draft reduce the budgetary costs of the military.
For these same reasons, many countries in Europe recently have adopted an AVF or are actively considering doing so. Like the United States, the United Kingdom has had an AVF for decades. And three other large NATO countries—Spain, Italy, and, notably, France, where Napoleon invented modern conscription—recently have chosen to end conscription. Several smaller NATO members also have adopted an AVF or are considering doing so. In Germany, conscription is seen as blocking any return to twentieth-century militarism, and it provides “cheap” labor for many civilian social service agencies as well as the military. Yet some members of Germany’s governing coalition also favor adopting an AVF. And of the ten Eastern European countries that have recently become members of NATO, six—Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Slovakia, and Slovenia—plan to end conscription before 2010; and two—Romania and Lithuania—are seriously considering doing so.
These countries have elected to end conscription in part because of political pressure growing out of conscription’s inequities. And in most cases they recognize as well that an AVF will lead to a more effective and, ultimately, less costly military force. While it is too soon to pronounce conscription dead in Europe, there is clearly a strong trend toward voluntarism.
In short, an all-volunteer force is both fairer and more efficient than conscription. The U.S. decision to adopt an all-volunteer force was one of the most sensible public policy changes of the last half of the twentieth century.
Soldiers as Capital
The reluctance to view a man as capital is especially ruinous of mankind in wartime; here capital is protected, but not man, and in time of war we have no hesitation in sacrificing one hundred men in the bloom of their years to save one cannon.
In a hundred men at least twenty times as much capital is lost as is lost in one cannon. But the production of the cannon is the cause of an expenditure of the state treasury, while human beings are again available for nothing by means of a simple conscription order. . . .
When the statement was made to Napoleon, the founder of the conscription system, that a planned operation would cost too many men, he replied: “That is nothing. The women produce more of them than I can use.”
—German economist Johann Heinrich von Thünen, in Isolated State, 1850.
Economic Freedom, from the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.
Joshua C. Hall, The Worldwide Decline in Conscription: A Victory for Economics? October 2011.
David R. Henderson, Would a Return to Conscription Substantially Reduce the Probability of War? September 2015.
Fred S. McChesney, Volunteers of America: Lessons from the New Contract Army. July 2005.