Bryan Caplan  

The Draft: Who Pays the Price?

Wording the Questions... Middle-Class Squeeze...

Arnold writes:

The draft is a cruel tax, but the volunteer army does create a disconnect between the people who are fighting and the people for whom they are fighting.

What are the effects of this "disconnect" supposed to be? Perhaps I'm misreading Arnold, but it sounds like he's concerned that volunteer armies will be more likely to sent off to war because most people know that their kids won't get shot at.

Even if this were true, the soldiers have nothing to complain about ex ante. If we're more likely to send a volunteer army into combat, we'll have to pay volunteers more to compensate for the risk. The main people whose interests aren't being taken into account are not our soldiers, but citizens of countries that might get attacked.

Empirically, though, it seems like volunteer armies discourage war, precisely because the price of recruiting is high, and increases with risk. So the only people who should worry about the draft are those who think we're not taking enough risks as it is.

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COMMENTS (21 to date)
Matt Peppe writes:
Empirically, though, it seems like volunteer armies discourage war, precisely because the price of recruiting is high, and increases with risk. So the only people who should worry about the draft are those who think we're not taking enough risks as it is.

The government of a wealthy country like the US has practically unlimited funds to spend as long as it keeps the population content. A volunteer army only costs money, a draft angers the population. For a democracy whose citizens don't want to be drafted, needing to hire an army is less of a disincentive than needing to draft an equivalent force.

Steve Sailer writes:

The problem is that a volunteer army can be hijacked by special interests into fighting wars that are not in the general national interest. It's not hard to find a moderate number of men who will volunteer because they love war. See Medal of Honor-winning Marine Corps Gen. Smedley Butler's bitter reflections in old age, after the testosterone had receded, of all the Latin American countries he had personally invaded in the early 20th Century to boost the profits of various corporate and Wall St. special interests like the United Fruit Company.

Ragerz writes:

"[S]oldiers have nothing to complain about ex ante."

Of course they don't. Idealistic teenagers know what war is like, and they have calculated the probability of death and multiplied it by the expected cost of death appropriately in a rational cost-benefit analysis before signing up. We assume consumers are rational, why not young soldiers who are disproportionately drawn from lower socioeconomic backgrounds?

And of course, what could be easier to calculate than the probability of the President deciding to commit troops to war.


Or maybe, just maybe, our young men and women who volunteer to serve our country out of a sense of duty, and loyalty and patriotism. I wouldn't expect Caplan to understand. One of the externalities of the sacrifices made by our soldiers is the provision of liberty to academics so they can spew nonsense.

You know what would be interesting. If Caplan was in the military and had one of his buddies die in his arms. Then he could assert that he had nothing to complain about ex ante.

drtaxsacto writes:

I am not sure what the debate is about. The draft, at least as it has ever been implemented in the US, is destructive of liberty. Although a lot of people suggested when we eliminated it that it would result in only the poor serving - the evidence seems that the attraction of service seems to balance out things better than the draft with a bunch of exemptions.

I am not sure which kind of government is more likely to start wars. Isn't that what a responsible congress should do? There is little evidence that since we abolished the draft that we were more likely to get into conflicts overseas.

I guess Arnold does not remember Vietnam - I do.

Niclas Berggren writes:

Keller, Poutvaara and Wagener argue that the draft has everyone pay a price in the form of lower economic growth: "Military Draft and Economic Growth in OECD Countries".

El Presidente writes:


To be fair, Caplan is correctly describing the contractual nature of the soldier's agreement in a volunteer force. I come from a military family and members of my family still serve. I have chosen to serve my country out of uniform. I can only imagine you think that makes me a coward. I couldn't care less.

Before shipping off to boot camp, my brother received some sage advice from a family friend, veteran of two wars, and retired Marine. The man said, "When you get in a tough spot and you feel like you aren't sure whether you can make it through, remember, . . ." and he leans in closer, ". . . you signed the paper."

I was opposed to our current military involvement in Iraq as we were gearing up for war. I am still opposed to our foreign policy with regard to Iraq. My brother is an Arabic linguist and a sniper who will, no doubt, end up in the region. I can wish he isn't sent, I can hope he returns safely, but I cannot belittle his decision by making him out to be a sucker. He is patriotic, he is brave, he is mindful of the tremendous problems we have in our foreign policy and military strategy. He opposes the current administration's decisions, but he honors his commitment, and in doing so he honors himself, his family, and his country.

Your comment to Caplan would undoubtedly offend him. He DOES wear a uniform so people like Caplan can have the freedom to think of ways we can make better decisions. It's not an unfortunate positive externality of juvenile bloodlust. It is his conscious and sober intent. Please quit berating Caplan and other academics for trying to find solutions and answers to hard questions so that we can fight less and live more. That's what my brother wants me to do. If you have something meaningful to offer, please get over yourself and contribute.

Ragerz writes:

El Presidente,

First of all, I would not criticize anyone who chose to serve their country out of uniform. However, I would reserve extra praise for those who choose to serve in it.

Second, if you look at military service as merely a contractual obligation between the government and the soldier, the liberty that is gained is a mere externality. To say, as Caplan does that our soldiers have "nothing to complain about ex ante" because we "pay volunteers more to compensate for the risk" misunderstands the nature of military service. It would be as though our obligation to a soldier and his obligation to his country runs no deeper than mere words on a contract, and the whole transaction were simply one for mutual gain. As if the soldier is compensated, via money, for the risks he takes. As if the soldier is engaged in economic maximization, and performs a cost-benefit analysis to determine whether he is being compensated enough to risk dying for his country. As if the liberty gained by third parties, such as Caplan, were a mere externality, rather than central to the whole enterprise.

In the real world, of course soldiers do not engage in sophisticated cost-benefit analysis. If they did, far fewer would serve. One cannot dismiss the sacrifices they make by saying that they were compensated with money that was adequate to compensate for the risk to their lives from an ex ante perspective.

Military service is not simply an economic transaction. It runs much deeper than that. We owe our soldiers something much more precious than money; we owe them our liberty. To say that soldiers have "nothing to complain about ex ante" is to assert that they have already been paid everything they are owed, as though the military service can be reduced to a purely economic transaction.

The soldier who risks his life for his country is owed much more than mere money. He is owed our eternal gratitude and respect for protecting our lives and liberty. He is owed a bond that arises from our reciprocal sense of duty, loyalty, and patriotism that transcends any purely economic conception.

There are many reasons to support a volunteer army over a drafted army. For example, a volunteer army is more professional, and this, not incendentally, helps ensure the safety of our soldiers as well as our country. However, the sense that we have compensated our soldiers with enough money, from an ex ante perspective, to compensate for the hardships they endure in war and the risks they take defending us is not among the reasonable justifications for a volunteer army. On the contrary, no amount of monetary compensation will ever be enough. Military service is not merely an economic transaction.

All of us who have our freedom as United States citizens will always owe our soldiers our eternal gratitude. And it is our duty to remember and respect the sacrifices they made for us. And it is our duty to likewise sacrifice for our country, if ever called upon, in any capacity that we are able.

Tom West writes:

Another point is that the document signed by the soldiers would be illegal if anything other than the government offered it.

I'd certainly be ticked if the company I left 15 years ago had the right to suddenly recall me from my current job (at my old rate of pay) when it decided it needed my services.

Of course, in a Libertarian world, an 18 year old certainly could sign a contract like that with any company and it *would* be binding...

Don Robertson writes:

All volunteer miltaries are made of mercinaries, mostly those who simply need a job or seek advancement otherwise not available to them. In many cases "Dad" or the courts run these kids into the military, like it's a finishing school for the fat, lazy little bastard.

Draft-made armies are made child warriors, each stolen from their homes by warlords seeking to use them.

There's nothing noble about either warrior. Military life is like being stuck on a Greyhound Bus heading endlessly to no where. There's an education on that bus, but it's a Jack Kerouac, Gunther Grass and Joseph Heller education.

If war is so noble, so necessary, and such a good thing when needed, then why is it illegal merely to advocate waging war against our own government? Our government it seems is always fighting a war somewhere! Why not right here where the people in this country can actually choose the goal of such a war?

Vermont is right now lightly discussing secession. The Vermonters, the non-flatlanders, could declare war on the U.S. and get better results I would think. At least there'd be quicker results!

War in the current instance in Iraq and Afghanistan is made of the misguided belief, based upon some historic analogy to WWII, that it is the only thing that will pull the country out of the depression it currently is experiencing.

Few remember that everyone predicted after Clinton's administration, during the election of 2000, the next President would be in the same shoes as Herbert Hoover. (Hoover pre-dated FDR for those who haven't discovered any good American history texts. All presidents have been he-goats, will sum it up for you, if you've just looking to have the Cliff-Notes education.)

The failure of this current war-economic policy choice is best exemplified by the persistence of the failure in the job creation numbers. There are no Rosy the Riveters in this war. Everyone is either flipping hamburgers, working at Wally-Whirled or selling some insurance scam for a telemarketing firm.

It is the continued expectation that progress will come if the country can merely show growth in the GDP. And yet history, if read it well, demonstrates clearly growth in the GDP, or as I learnt it, the GNP, does not predicate what is being sold to us as "progress". Keep hugging that flag, kids. It just isn't true. Progress blows.

Progress in the sense of the betterment of the human condition is simply a bold lie. It doesn't happen. It never has happened. And it never will happen. As economies build, populations rise, wars increase, pestilence spreads, famines get worse, and the world suffers. Those shiny empirical trinkets handed to us by empirical science are hardly worth an ounce of clear water, a breath of fresh air, the sight of a pretty girl that weighs less than 250 lbs. and doesn't have any tattoos, or the security of knowing the world has no reason to come to an end today.

But, to get to the root of it, the empirical root...

I was discussing money, coinage, with an economist recently. He described money as something that made human life easier, and more productive. Such is the view of an empirical economist. Money also helped give rise to overpopulation due to its "beneficial" attributes, and usury, and debt, and a lot of things that really suck.

Human beings, I told him, human beings have become the pecuniary animal. It has a nice ring to it. For those who don't know what pecuniary means, it's a South American pig.

I'm not arguing here, that we get rid of money, though that might be an ideal solution to what's ailing our world.

The philosophic moral imperative of life, derived not from any wierd religion but from the cogito is:

Live a life that detracts not at all from the lives others will have available to them as they enter this world.

The implications are immense, and even I am still coming to grips with the idea, and I coined the moral imperative.

The thing that seems paramount, as I write, is, the very first step on the rung in any empirical process has to involve applying the moral imperative, that is before we take the first step in any human action.

The moral imperative comes first.

Now, that's philosophy.

It's not Aristotle.

It's human philosophy.

And lighten up, the world is here for your enjoyment, just don't trash the place, okay?

Don Robertson, The American Philosopher
Limestone, Maine

Author of: An Illustrated Philosophy Primer for Young Readers - Precious Life - Empirical Knowledge - The Grand Unifying Theory & The Theory of Time All Posted online.
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Randy writes:

The primary justification for the all-volunteer military is that the American public will not support a draft. Of course, we won't support a truly "volunteer" military either. So we pay for defense services. And we will continue to do so because it works.

Lancelot FInn writes:

I'm not sure that you would have to pay soldiers more for the extra risk. To judge by Robert Kaplan's account of the US military ("Imperial Grunts"), soldiers LIKE going into war. (Every soldier he met in Colombia etc. was jealous of the guys in Afghanistan and Iraq.)

Volunteer armies may encourage more wars because the people who join the military like war. On the other hand, the lack of a draft also ensures that fewer civilians will have military experience. This means 1) they'll probably regard it with greater horror, being unused to it, 2) they'll be less informed about military affairs, less informed about what is and isn't achievable, and less able to distinguish, as voters, between good and bad military leadership.

If we had a draft, and thus a more militarilly-educated citizenry, I think we'd have 1) about an equal number of citizens who question the Bush administration's competence in prosecuting the Iraq War, 2) far fewer who imagined that the Democrats would do any better at it.

liberty writes:


wow. what a mouthful. you should check out these guys.

#1. They advocate revolution / war against the US freely and openly and are not in jail.

#2 They will help you achive your moneyless utopian society.

#3 they will help fight for the goal of lower economic prosperity and skinnier chicks.

El Presidente writes:

Lancelot Finn,

There is a sense among soldiers that they are trained, equipped, and prepared for a real engagement. In the absence of that, they begin to wonder what they are doing and whether it has value and meaning. Until military personnel and families represent a plurality of the voting population or have enough influence over congress to change their decisions on whether or not we go to war, instances of their professional envy probably do not impact policy in the broad sense. They do however change the nature of behavior once they are in-country. The behavior of a volunteer force is different than that of a draft force. Speaking in gross generalities, a draft force needs to know they are doing a good thing; the money would never be enough. The volunteer force wants to know that they are doing their job well. Their locus of motivation is weighted toward internal in the case of the draft; it's a matter of conscience. It is weighted toward external in the case of a volunteer force because they respond to inducements.

If there is a moral imperative underlying the use of physical force then the draft is the ultimate bluff-call. It says to policymakers that they will need to put their money where their mouths are because somebody else may have to pay the price for their mistakes, whether they signed up for it or not. It ups the stakes and should give pause to those who are ready to go to war without a thorough debate. There's a concept. A serious congressional debate about the use of force. Ahhh, the good old days. And heaven forbid we have an executive like Washington who would actually intervene and assertively declare peace in advance of portended hostilities. I guess he was a damned hippy, or pinko commie, or something. (tongue deeply embedded in cheek). No wait, that was Carter, right? Some think so. Not me.

Anyhow, The brains of the military ought to be volunteer. The braun of the military ought to be draft. That way we marry the best of professionalism in planning and execution with the best of moral character and social integrity in policy-making. If we, as a nation, decide to kill people, we ought to have a pretty darn good reason for doing it. They won't ask how we voted when they come to seek retribution. We'll all be victims of guilt by association. Unless we are all willing to pay the cost, we shouldn't hand the credit card to congress, or the president, or anybody else.

Randy writes:

El Presidente,

Re; "The braun of the military ought to be draft."

Again, the draft is irrelevant because the American public will not stand for it. And again, the idea of a truly "volunteer" military is also irrelevant. Cut the pay of the military and 80 to 90 percent would leave at the earliest opportunity.

I'm not saying that those who serve are mercenaries or that they lack patriotism. Just saying that they're true Americans - i.e., pragmatic to the core. They do what they do for the same reason you do what you do. Because they're good at it, because they like it (most of the time), and because they're being paid to do it - not necessarily in that order.

All this talk of draftees vs volunteers is fun, but irrelevant. What we have is neither draftee nor voluntary, but professional - and we don't really have any other option.

There are two issues here.

In an all volunteer military, you're supposed to get the patriots, the people who truly want to serve their country. What you actually get is people who need a job.

But either way, an all-volunteer military suffers from a fundamental flaw: it is self-selected, and not an accurate sampling of the people. I believe it is this issue to which Kling refers, but I also find a flaw in that issue - the military, by virtue of their training, effectively become a special class of humanity distinct and separate from the general population.

So no matter what you do, they will always have little in common with the people they defend, because they cannot think and act like civilians if they expect to be triumphant. Which is why I believe the all-volunteer military, while it is no more likely to be *in* a war, is more likely to be victorious.

El Presidente writes:


I wouldn't say the draft issue is irrelevant at all. It would curtail military action. That is extremely relevant. The public's unwillingness to support a draft would translate into their unwillingness to support this war on moral grounds if the draft were linked to the war. That is extremely relevant. Thank you Congressman Rangel for having the courage to point that out. It says to me that there is no moral support for this war in the first place. Bluntly, it increases the perceived opportunity cost of amorality or complacency when it comes to deciding whether we will kill other people. If that isn't relevant I don't know what is. Congressional leaders blocked procedural motions to vote on a draft; not the American people. The leaders don't want the issue broached because it raises the question of morality, supposedly their strong suit, in a context where their position is indefensible. No. On this one I'm sticking to my guns, so to speak. The draft issue is relevant whether it sees the light of day or not.

Don Robertson makes a good point about the Rosy the Riveter, economic stimulus, war is good, school of thought. The reality is that we have exhausted our reserve labor by changing our notion of the nuclear family. There is no more excess labor to draw on. It's already in the market and underpaid. The economic effects of this war are negative so far because there is no potential for growth that has been leveraged. We were operating at capacity. The draft would say to the working mothers of America, "Congratulations on your liberation from gender roles and stereotypes. Now you can work full time AND raise children only to see them killed in a foreign country for a cause you don't believe in, and leaders you don't trust." That's relevant. That puts people in voting booths.

Robert Book writes:
Arnold writes:
The draft is a cruel tax, but the volunteer army does create a disconnect between the people who are fighting and the people for whom they are fighting.

What are the effects of this "disconnect" supposed to be?

I can't speak for Arnold, but as an economist who works with the military, I can say that some people with miltary experience are concerned about the "disconnect" in the following sense: Since the percentage of people who serve in the miltary is so small, most Americans don't have family or friends in the military, and therefore have little understanding of what the military is about, what miltary life is like, what military people do, or what the military is capable (and incapable) of. The has at least two potential negative effects: first, people's ignorance leads them to advocate policies that are stupid and ill-informed; and second, the military members and their families develop an insular culture, which may in the extreme (and extremely unlikely) case lead to abuse of miltary power against American civilians. (Remember, this concern was expressed by someone on the military side!)

The first concern is definitely valid -- I never cease to be amazed at how different the military is from the public perceptions.

One example: I understand that in theory military pay is supposed to compensate for the risk involved, but the fact is, military pay is generally much LOWER than pay for civilian occupations requiring comparable skill. If the risk premium were the driving factor, the pay would be higher, not lower. The fact is, for most military members, non-monetary factors are more important. The pride of serving their country and doing what they think is right and important gives them a huge amount of utility -- enough to accept much lower pay than they could get in the civilian sector.

This is nowhere more obvious than in the case of officers with more than 20 years of service -- they can retire and receive retirement pay at around 50% (or more) of their actual pay, which means their "marginal pay" for remaining in the military is less than half their actual pay. Their outside employment options are certainly more than the less-than-half-pay they would give up by retiring, and probably more than their actual pay. Yet, most of these people stay in as long as they can, and retire only when they fail their second promotion board and are essentially required to retire (promotions at that level are rather difficult to obtain).

Now, I bet most of you civlians didn't know that -- which is part of this "disconnect." ;-)

Randy writes:

El Presidente,

Re; The draft would curtail military action.

That has not been the case historically. Once the a draft has been implemented, the government has been more than willing to use conscripts to fight wars - and quite often, to use them as cannon fodder. Historically, the implementation of a draft is part of the mobilization process. Also, I can think of no instance in the U.S. or elsewhere in which the conscription process has not been weighted towards selection of the lower classes.

But my point is simply that the American public will never again allow the draft to be implemented. Many Americans, if not most, are politically opposed to sending even our "volunteer" soldiers to fight foreign wars - under any circumstances. And these will be violently opposed to the conscription of themselves, or their sons and daughters. And no politician with an interest in holding public office will ever again seriously propose it. From a philosophical perspective, the draft is indeed a relevant and interesting topic. But from a pragmatic perspective, it is not a real option.

That said, what if we find ourselves in conflict with an enemy that truly threatens our survival? First, this is highly unlikely. Second, we do have a significant stock of ICBMs, and we will use them if seriously threatened. Third, in the event that the nukes fail, I don't doubt that we would have plenty of volunteers. Finally, if the volunteers fail to show, then we deserve to lose.

Shawn Mallison writes:

The price of recruiting is high and does increase with risk. We have seen evidence of this in the last couple of years. Although we know this to be true from past wars we seem to forget until we are committed to a conflict. So maybe a volunteer military does cause us to act hastily. If so we may create the necessity of a draft to deal with emerging conflicts that appear to be of higher priority than those to which we are already committed.

El Presidente writes:


Here's to hoping that a "politician" can care more about doing the right thing than holding onto their position (or maybe care about both). You should like people like me. We could be friends. In my more pragmatic moments I think ocassionally it is necessary even for the basest politician to infuse value into their office by doing the right thing. Term limits probably interfere with this incentive a great deal. Call it investment spending relative to the Political PPC if you like. Perhaps we've been too heavily weighted toward the consumption end of that curve lately. You heard The Man in '04, didn't you? He said he wanted to spend his political capital.

Randy writes:

I hear you El Presidente. But what is the "right" thing when it comes to military service. Do we really want to live in a nation where those who do not believe that preparing for war is the best use of their time are forced to do so anyway?

I see defense as roughly equivalent to road building. When we want to build roads, we hire skilled people to build them. If we started conscripting our road builders, it might indeed cause a public outcry which very well might result in fewer roads being built. But many roads need to be built - and many wars need to be fought.

And as an aside; since those who serve will be primarily of the same demographic regardless of method, it seems to me that the "right" thing to do is to pay them.

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