David R. Henderson  

Me on Economists and the Draft

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Last week, Larry White interviewed me on the role of economists in ending the draft. It's now on-line. What led to the interview is this article that Econ Journal Watch published in 2005. Aside from my heavy breathing in places, I thought it came out well. In it, I referred to the Economists' Statement Against the Draft, which I wrote and circulated in 1980 when Senator Nunn was trying to reintroduce it. During the campaign for president in 1980, Ronald Reagan had come out squarely against reintroducing the draft and in favor of ending draft registration, which Carter had started earlier that year. After Reagan was elected but before he took office, Tom Moore of the Hoover Institution and I had a press conference in San Francisco in which we released the statement along with the 300 or so names of signers. Our goal was to try to force Reagan's hand so that he would keep his promise to end draft registration. Unfortunately, Reagan reneged.

Here's the statement:

We, the undersigned, oppose moves toward the reimposition of the draft. The draft would be a more costly way of maintaining the military than an all-volunteer force. Those who claim that a draft costs less than a volunteer military cite as a savings the lower wages that the government can get away with paying draftees. But they leave out the burden imposed on the draftees themselves. Since a draft would force many young people to delay or forego entirely other activities valuable to them and to the rest of society, the real cost of military manpower would be substantially more than the wages draftees would be paid. Saying that a draft would reduce the cost of the military is like saying that the pyramids were cheap because they were built with slave labor.

One of my biggest disappointments was that John Kenneth Galbraith, who was a strong opponent of the draft, refused to sign. In the above interview, I meant to tell that story and forgot to. Here's the part I would have told, from an article I wrote after Galbraith died:
So what's to like about Galbraith's thinking and about his contributions to society? A number of things. First, Galbraith was a strong opponent of military conscription. Writing in his autobiography about the debate over renewing the draft before the attack on Pearl Harbor , Galbraith used his rapier wit to score a point against advocates of the draft: "[T]he draft involved only the life and liberty of the subject. Price control involved money and property and thus had to be taken more seriously." Later, in the 1960s, he wrote, "[T]he draft survives principally as a device by which we use compulsion to get young men to serve at less than the market rate of pay." In the interest of full disclosure, though, I should point out that when I asked him in 1980 to sign "The Economists' Statement Against the Draft," which I had written and got almost 300 economists, including Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan, to sign, he had his secretary tell me, "Professor Galbraith will not be signing."


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COMMENTS (3 to date)
Doc Merlin writes:

Why didn't he sign? Did he just want to continue using it as a weapon against conservatives?

Yngvar writes:

It's not all about government lording over people. It can serve community cohesion, especially in small countries. Israel got conscription, they're not doing to bad. Finland have involuntary military service for all males, and based on past experiences, maybe that have kept them safe from being intimidated by their saber-rattling big neighbor?

Kurbla writes:

Perhaps he didn't signed because it is not sustainable policy against dangerous enemy. How much would you ask for fighting at Stalingrad, life expectancy 24 hours? I wouldn't for whole US GDP. Still, as long as there is no dangerous enemy on sight, conscription can be at least temporarily abandoned. It can be even seen as step toward total disarmament.

I think that only consistent behaviour for libertarians in case of war is to leave the country. You can recognize that, say, USA "government" is lesser evil than enemy that just invaded Florida, but as long as you're anti-collectivists, you'll not be able to find "incentive" to risk your life for a case of lesser evil.

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