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Joshua Hall on the Decline of Conscription

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This month's Feature Article on Econlib is "The Worldwide Decline in Conscription: A Victory for Economics?" by Beloit College economics professor Joshua C. Hall. Josh, who is a co-author of Economic Freedom in the World, shows that one component of economic freedom, an all-volunteer military rather than a partially drafted military has increased enormously in the last twenty years. Even France, the country where Napoleon introduced the modern draft, has ended conscription.

Josh attributes the decline in conscription, especially in the United States, in part to the systematic case that passionate economists made against it in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

One excerpt:

In 1970, a U.S. Presidential Commission--on which three of the 15 members were economists (Milton Friedman, W. Allen Wallis, and Alan Greenspan) and whose staff was composed largely of economists--drafted a report on the all-volunteer army. It is not surprising that the third chapter of the report is titled "Conscription is a Tax." The amount of the tax, from the viewpoint of the conscript, is the difference between the minimum amount of pay he would have insisted on to join voluntarily and the actual amount he is paid. In 1968, Mark Pauly and Thomas D. Willett estimated this tax to be 42.5 percent to 72.5 percent. Note that this is not a marginal tax rate but an average tax rate. Like all taxes, conscription has distortionary effects that create deadweight losses. During the Vietnam War, for example, draft dodging and college enrollment motivated by draft avoidance created deadweight losses. More recently, World Bank economists Michael Loshkin and Ruslin Yemtsov estimated that 90 percent of eligible men are able to avoid Russia's draft through a variety of means.

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CATEGORIES: Labor Market

COMMENTS (8 to date)
Lars P writes:

When Sweden abandoned conscription, the main argument was that huge armies of men with guns are no longer important in war. 50 guys in airplanes can kill a million guys on the ground. Therefore what you need is a high tech armed force with well trained professionals manning the equipment.

I suspect this change in the usefulness of conscripts in warfare is a much bigger factor than the economist argument.

Joshua Hall writes:


Thank you for the background about Sweden. I think it would be interesting to do a much larger statistical and case study of the decline in conscription.

steve writes:

Of course, it could have something to do with either the size of the war or more likely in my opinion the actual threat posed by the enemy.

This would imply that the lack of significant pressure for the return of the draft shows that militant Islam is not really viewed by our rulers as a significant threat to themselves or the continued existance of the United States.

guthrie writes:

Is it possible that the increase in efficiency of intelligence gathering and, spring-boarding from Lars P's point, increased efficiency and range of weaponry has done as much as arguments of economists to limit conscription? Can it be considered a 'win' that we can kill more people from further away, even though we're using fewer of our own soldiers?

BTW steve, 'militant Islam' may not present a threat any more significant than 'Aryan Nation' or 'Black Panthers' or any number of extant and extinct home-grown groups who have been attempting to exterminate the US for decades.

Randy writes:

I think it is foolish to believe that conscription is in decline. The law is still in effect, and the power of the political organization is on a dramatic incline. I expect that in the next major conflict most of the population, male and female, young and old, will be conscripted. Further, the propensity of the political organization to meddle is almost certain to provoke said conflict in the not too distant future.

That's true that conscription as declined but this has been replaced, at least in France, by what we called (literally translated) civil service . Men and women aged 16 years old still have to report to the city hall for the citizenship census. They are given a card to attend to the mandatory (I think) Citizenship and Defense Day and you are also required to have this card to take any state or public exams (which means you can pass the Driver's license exam or the High School Baccalaureat.
Since I haven't followed this since I left, I can't provide much information but I am pretty sure that from an economic viewpoint resources are being wasted if not more given that it's no longer only males who are subject to this law but all citizens regardless of gender.

Jake S. writes:
Josh attributes the decline in conscription, especially in the United States, in part to the systematic case that passionate economists made against it in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Emphasis added.
guthrie writes:

@Jake S, thank you! My apologies, I glossed right over that...

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