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A Desperate Argument for the Draft



When America’s first peacetime draft began on Registration Day, June 5, 1917, the Wilson administration treated it as a patriotic holiday. Secretary of War Newton Baker wrote to Wilson that he would “make the day of registration a festival and patriotic occasion.” The new conscripts who had “volunteered in mass,” to use Wilson’s Orwellian phrase, were celebrated with a pageant of marching bands, flags, and whipped up nationalism.

Today, as Thomas Ricks tells us in the New York Times, we need a draft because it will... save us money. Friends of liberty should smile that apologists for the draft must now resort to “vulgar” economic arguments rather than the lofty exhortations of past generations. With the post-Vietnam consensus that America will not tolerate an army of slaves, draft apologists have a long way to climb. But while the draft may have a new frock, its arguments remain just as wrong.

Ricks’s proposal will not conscript men and women to fight. Instead, he retains an all-volunteer force, but conscript an army of serfs to do the military or government’s sundry work. Conscripts will spend 18 months filing “paperwork, painting barracks, mowing lawns, driving generals around” in lieu of professional soldiers, spend 2 years doing “national service”, or opt out in exchange for refusing any government handouts. Presumably their taxes would still pay for other people’s handouts. The savings, Ricks promises, would come from more efficient use of military/government manpower and fewer costly private contracts.

The economic flaws of such a proposal are easy enough to spot. Ignoring Bastiat’s lesson, Ricks focuses on the seen and ignores the unseen. The costs of menial labor aren’t “saved” because conscription won’t make the military more efficient or eliminate waste. Instead, they are unloaded onto unwilling third parties. And in addition to the substantial cost of administering the new bureaucracy, cost shifting doubles the price to society: the hapless conscripts must pay the opportunity cost of the two years of their lives—time that could be spent educating themselves or gaining skills.

Ricks clearly draws inspiration for his “national service” proposal from opt-in programs like Teach for America or Americorps. But the achievements of those programs arises precisely from their voluntary nature—the enthusiasm and shared ethos of many choosing to join in pursuit of a common end. Take away their voluntary, self-selecting nature and you destroy the root of the programs’ success.

Mr. Ricks deserves partial praise for his candor. The logic of the draft has always been to conceal the real human costs of war by creating a pool of cheap, exploitable manpower. If Ricks followed the logic of his argument, he would realize the absurdity of his claim that the draft will prevent unnecessary wars by giving everyone “skin in the game.” It takes seriously magical thinking to believe that a political class that does not pay the full costs of war will be less rather than more likely to wage war. In cases such as World War I drafts have consistently made war easier for government and onerous for ordinary people.

What is perhaps most embarrassing about Ricks’s proposal is its naked call to serfdom. No longer will a generation of Americans be called to sacrifice for some great undertaking—they will be conscripted because a bloated military cannot keep its own financial house in order. Slavery is immoral in any form, but particularly in the service of venal ends.

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