I was talking to a friend today who recently saw the movie Napoleon. She said that she hadn’t known much about Napoleon. I told her that I thought he was one of the most evil men in the 19th century. The reason: he was the inventor of the modern version of conscription, where men could be drafted and send over a thousand miles away to fight. As a result he got a lot of his own soldiers killed.

What I had in mind was the point made by German economist Johann Heinrich von Thunen in 1850.

Here’s what he wrote:

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: “[Ce n’est rein.] That is nothing. The women produce more of them than I can use.”

This is at the tail end of Christopher Jehn, “Conscription,” in David R. Henderson, ed., The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.

The picture above is the famous one by Minard that Edward Tufte uses to show how disastrous Napoleon’s move on Russia was. The thickness of the line shows the number of soldiers alive at a particular place. You can see that it goes from a fire hose at the start to a tiny straw at the end of the return.

Postscript: I remember reading, although I can’t find the source quickly, that by instituting the draft and getting a lot of his fellow Frenchmen killed, Napoleon reduced the average height of the French population by about half an inch. Why? because the draft tended to get big guys.