David R. Henderson  

Would Conscription Reduce Support for War?

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A number of prominent people in recent years as well as many people I run into in academia have been arguing that one virtue of returning to conscription is that it would put the sons of wealthy and politically powerful people at more risk of going to war and would, therefore, cause those same people to be more opposed to foreign adventurism than otherwise.

On its face, this argument made some sense to me. I didn't like the argument because on other grounds I oppose conscription. But it made sense.

Some time ago, though, my colleague Chad W. Seagren and I started talking about it and we concluded that the argument is very weak. We've now written an academic paper on it, "Would Conscription Reduce Support for War?", that is sitting for review at an economics journal. Here's are argument in a nutshell:

Successfully avoiding war for a nation is a public good and is, therefore, subject to the classic free-rider problem. The under-provision of anti-war agitation from those seeking to avoid the draft is exacerbated by the fact that seeking a deferment provides an alternative with a superior private payoff. Resources that an affluent or politically powerful person devotes to preventing or stopping a war will not likely have a noticeable effect on the overall outcome. In contrast, resources spent to secure a deferment or non-combat assignment for a loved one have a tangible effect on a private good. Empirical findings from the Vietnam War era and more recent history are consistent with our thesis.

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COMMENTS (31 to date)
dand writes:

Two things have changed since Vietnam. Wars are less bloody and the public is more sensitive to the loss of life. These two factors simultaneously lower and raise the bar for war. As long as the war is relatively bloodless, the public will support it. Expense does not appear to be an important factor. Hence the proliferation of strategically unimportant, expensive but relatively low-fatality wars. Would a draft serve to stop these kinds of wars? Cindy Sheehan was an effective agitator against George Bush and the war. Imagine 100 Cindy Sheehans.

Thomas Boyle writes:

This is abhorrent. Weren't we in kindergarten when we learned that "two wrongs don't make a right"? You don't look for "good public policy reasons" to reintroduce slavery any more than you would for reintroducing witch trials. (Regrettably, many people still can't grasp that conscription is slavery, but I expect you to.)

What's more, conscription has very negative consequences for volunteers. Why should the military invest in pay, benefits, safety equipment and morale, when it has a semi-infinite supply of replacements if the supply of volunteers shrinks? Military service has become much safer, better-paid, more highly-skilled and more focused on good morale since the move to an all-volunteer force. Conscription is bad for our heroes.

Finally, it is conscription that creates the "free rider" problem. When conscription is available, those who stay at home can free ride on the conscripts. An all-volunteer force requires raising taxes and cutting benefits for those who are at home not fighting, to pay for those who are. Conscription limits pay and protections for those who ARE serving, to protect the incomes and assets of those who are not. If it is not possible to raise taxes enough, and cut benefits enough, to pay for enough volunteers, then society has already concluded the war isn't worth the cost, and the moral (and socially beneficial) thing to do is stop.

Ken B writes:

This seems to me to be very culture dependent. But there is good reason to think David has this right.

It is widely and wrongly assumed for instance that the lower classes did the dying in WWI. In proportional terms for Britain and Germany (the only combatants I have seen data for) this is quite untrue; the officer class suffered much higher casualty rates than the grunts, and the death rate amongst the aristocracy and peerage in the UK was the highest since the Wars of The Roses(!).

The enthusiasm and participation of the Junker class in Germany is proverbial of course, and in this case the impression fits the facts.

In much of European history armies were small, and the leadership drawn almost exclusively from the upper classes. I can't say for sure but I would bet that meant a higher proportion of rich were battle casualties.

Grant Gould writes:

I think the worry is precisely backward, but for a slightly subtle reason. Although the elimination of conscription has not reduced the probability of war or the number of wars, it has dramatically reduced the intensity of war: Fewer Americans (and, not incidentally, foreign civilians and conscripts) are killed by war each year these days than back when vast conscript armies faced off.

Nor should this be surprising. While starting a war may seem like a easy thing without conscription, the government will pay a lot nearer the market price for at least the American lives it spends (it still doesn't internalize the foreign deaths, of course). Moreover the the Alchian-Allen effect means that each volunteer soldier, once paid for, will be better trained and equipped on the field.

Conscription puts a price ceiling and supply floor on something with vast negative externalities; we don't even need to mention that the product is war to know that that is a perfect storm of economic evil.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Thomas Boyle,
You write:
Regrettably, many people still can't grasp that conscription is slavery, but I expect you to.
I assume you’re addressing that to me. You’re bringing coals to Newcastle. I’ve written precisely that in the past and I still think it’s true. Moreover, nothing in our article contradicts what you and I agree on.
Now, given that you and I agree that conscription is slavery, don’t you think it’s important to take on the arguments that people have made for conscription? I know that if I were an 18-year-old American male, I would feel better, all other things equal, if I knew a 61-year-old man and a 30-something Marine Captain were out there taking on the modern advocates of conscription.

Chris Steele writes:

Few seem to remember that Bobby Kennedy's position on the draft was:
1) Keep the draft,
2) Eliminate deferments,
3) Put every mother's son at risk

The need to use reserve forces absent a draft was the military's attempt at #3 to reduce the urge by politicians to send others' children to spill blood on foreign soil. This didn't work, obviously.

Kennedy's draft idea, one which I embraced, probably wouldn't have worked either.

[For decades I resented how others with greater economic wealth avoided military service while I did not/could not. By the time middle age had arrived, I realized that I was in the fortunate group. Those who did not experience what I did (8 years on submarines) missed something important beyond words.]

Randy writes:

Re; "...one virtue of returning to conscription is that it would put the sons of wealthy and politically powerful people at more risk of going to war and would, therefore, cause those same people to be more opposed to foreign adventurism than otherwise."

I do not believe that the history of conscription supports this contention. The sons of the wealthy have always been able to avoid conscription. If they sign up at all it is only because of peer pressure - and even then they go in mostly as officers. Conscription allows the use of cannon fodder. It has no other purpose.

Thomas Boyle writes:

@ David,

Glad to hear it, and apologies for not knowing your position (or taking the trouble to look it up) before writing.

I'm not sure what you mean by your last sentence, above, but I can assure you that a) I am well beyond any (even expanded) draftable age range, but the idea of conscription by our country makes my blood boil; and b) some of my colleagues, who were officers both during and after the conscription era, the youngest of them now over 50, are vehemently opposed to its return, having seen the change it made to the military itself when conscription was eliminated. It's my (small sample) impression that you won't find many senior military personnel who have seen both, and think conscription a good idea from a military perspective.

As for those who think that conscription is a good way to reduce the propensity for war, it can't: it reduces the direct cost of war, and when things cost less you get more of them. Some people have noted that the low casualty rates of modern wars make war more likely, and that's true as far as it goes: they're more likely than they would be with high casualty rates, all other things being equal. BUT the reason for the low casualty rates is that it's so expensive to recruit people: the military is taking greater care not to get people killed. The fact is, it's now MUCH more expensive for the military to get Americans killed, and (surprise!) far fewer Americans are being killed. Conscript cannon fodder, lower the cost, and more Americans will be killed - even if we have marginally fewer military engagements. And, there's still the morality of it to consider: enslaving people so that it's cheaper for the rest of us to fight wars. It's truly abhorrent.

As for the deaths of enemy (or if you wish, other-side) personnel, that's a valid thing to talk about and I haven't thought it through - but I don't think that the pro-conscription side is trying to undermine two millennia of progress on civil rights, and get more Americans killed, in order to save lives on the other side.

Ken B writes:

I used to think conscription was slavery but now I learn it's just a tax on your time.

MingoV writes:

Support for war would diminish rapidly if each month every individual had to pay his share of the direct costs of the war. Assuming a USA population of 300 million and a war that costs 9 billion dollars a month (our approximate costs for the war in Afghanistan), a family of four would pay a monthly war tax of $120. Congress would be pressured to quickly end an unpopular war. A popular war (such as the war in Afghanistan in 2001-2003) would lose popularity if it dragged out for years, and Congress would succumb to voter pressure and end it.

Spreading war costs among everyone would be a greater deterrent to war than conscripting a small percentage of young adults (who already are being screwed by our Ponzi scheme entitlements and don't deserve enslavement).

Ted Craig writes:

You sort of had de facto conscription in Iraq via the National Guard. It did have an effect on public opinion.

collin writes:

Western views on war and society changed greatly after WW1&2. Success in war used to be the primary way for an ambitious man to move up in society. If you a peasant, being a soldier made you wealthier and accepted in higher society. A mid range noble with military success could be a higher noble. A high noble would become the a member of court. And a King could have power over more people. Now modern corporation have replaced this model where good things gets you promotions. (Overall this has been a good thing. I do wonder in 100 years if corporations will be the ones raising an armies if their position are at odds with governments?)

Since Vietnam, war now is a disruption of a person life. (or tax of one's time as another person put so well.) It is now likely not one President will have served in Vietnam. I can't think of another war (Mexican-American?) where that was true. So oddly enough, I suspect conscription would long term probably would slow down the number of wars.

ivvenalis writes:

This idea that conscription would lead to less support for war just doesn't hold any water historically. The levee en masse was an important contributor to the Napoleonic wars, to use one example. There's also culture. The Russians put up with an insane conscription system for about 250 years, out of sheer fatalism as far as I can tell.

Also regarding culture, I'd like to point out that just because our current ruling class are sterile cowards, this doesn't have to be true, as Ken B pointed out.

Bob Murphy writes:

David, I apologize if you've explicitly addressed this in the paper (which I don't have time to read), but anyway here's my quick reaction:

Using the strict economist logic that (say) says very few people should vote in equilibrium, it seems you can't explain why there are *ever* large-scale protests against a war, whether Vietnam or Iraq. And yet, plenty of people did (and do) protest, so it seems your model isn't working. Or, at the very least, once you fiddle with the utility function to match the observed protests, then your main result fades away.

Also, it's true that the argument, "A senator won't vote for a war if his own son is at risk" is pretty weak, since the senator's son isn't at risk even with conscription. But what if we change the argument to, "There will be massive protests with conscription, and so the politicians are much less likely to vote for the war, fearing public backlash" ?

Pave Low John writes:

This is a completely ridiculous idea. Conscription in the WWII/Vietnam sense of the word is never coming back. Warfare has completely changed, just to train an effective modern day infantryman you need a semi-fit, high-school educated adult willing to absorb at least a year of fairly complex training prior to useful deployment downrange. We have about 1.4 million people on active duty right now and it costs almost 600 billion dollars. How are you going to afford to house, feed, train and pay a conscription force without either massive deferments or a lottery system? If you think we have a deficit now, just wait until you have 30+ million people on active duty. Or are we just going to do it on the cheap and have a massive mob of half-trained cannon fodder circa the Soviet Red Army in 1939? We won't fight any more Iraq's but by god, we'll have some massive casualties if we get into a real war.

Economists need to stick to Laffer curves and 'stimulus' packages and leave military policy to people who have been trained for the job.

Alex Godofsky writes:

Others have touched on this, but it just seems silly to assume people will treat "having to go to war" as a large cost. Throughout much of history people have enthusiastically volunteered for the opportunity, particularly the ruling classes. Success in war brings prestige.

Joe Cushing writes:

For some reason people today are still very critical of those who found ways to avoid being drafted. The label "draft dodger" is still used in web comment sections of blogs and videos. This tells me that people must somehow feel the draft is not immoral. I can't imagine anyone being critical of a slave that ran away.

In agreement to your post, I'd think that most of the wealthy people would join the Air Force or find another non-combat mission to do. Wealthy people have more education and would do better on the ASVAB than non-wealthy. This means they would have more choices on what job to pick. I sure as hell would not pic infantry. I'd pick a job like I had, aircraft maintenance specialist. The closest I ever got to Iraq was 150 miles away.

Ken B writes:


Support for war would diminish rapidly if each month every individual had to pay his share of the direct costs of the war

Sometimes support for peace would diminish rapidly if each month every individual had to pay his share of the direct costs of the peace. There is little doubt that 'the rape of Belgium' boosted support for WWI, or that the Japanese atrocities in China boosted support for WWII. The nazi treatment of Europe certainly had an effect on isolationism in this country.

Randy writes:

@ Pave Low. That's a term I haven't heard for awhile. My first assignment back in 1980 was with a Rescue and Recovery squadron - HC130s and HH53s.

MingoV writes:

@Ken B: "... There is little doubt that 'the rape of Belgium' boosted support for WWI, or that the Japanese atrocities in China boosted support for WWII...."

There is plenty of doubt on both issues. Most US citizens did not support direct involvement in The Great War despite the propaganda about German soldiers committing atrocities in Belgium. There also was propaganda about German soldiers raping nuns. Neither was enough for the US population to demand involvement in the war. Wilson got us into the war (at a time of his choosing) by violating neutrality and shipping arms to England. After the German navy sank a US ship carrying arms, the administration waved that "bloody shirt" to incite war mania among the population (similar to the use of the USS Maine sinking to spur a war against Spain a generation earlier).

Roosevelt wanted the USA to enter WWII, but most citizens were vehemently opposed despite Germany's multiple violations of the Treaty of Versailles, Japan's brutality in China, and Germany's rapid conquests of Poland, Netherlands, Belgium, and France. If Japan had not attacked Pearl Harbor, Congress would not have declared war on either Japan or Germany.

Joe Cushing writes:


and don't forget that the Japanese were provoked into attacking pear harbor. They didn't just do it out of the blue. There was the embargo.

steve writes:

Whether or not conscription will make any war less likely or popular depends on the war we are in. It wouldnt make much difference for a WWII. I think it made a big difference for Vietnam, but that is just based on personal experience. It would be interesting to see how you go about measuring this. Americans like going to war so much, that I think it would be difficult to make a persuasive case either way.


Chad Seagren writes:

@Bob Murphy,
If I may. Our goal in writing the paper was to show that the pro-conscription argument we described (and advanced by, for example, Congressman Rangel) fails on its own merits. While we do not disagree that groups of individuals do, on occasion, successfully overcome the collective action problem, we know that there exists an incentive to free ride in such situations. In this particular case, the politically powerful are not only faced with a strong incentive to free-ride, but they have at their disposal an alternative with a private payoff: to seek a deferment. We demonstrate that existence of this alternative further erodes their ability to overcome the collective action problem and lobby against the war.

Those making this particular pro-conscription argument do not suggest that the draft would work to reduce support for war by generating massive protests against conscription, so we don't necessarily take this particular aspect head-on...except to suggest that it was not exactly all that effective in ending the Vietnam war. A war that was far bloodier, more intense, and longer in duration than what we have experienced in recent years.

Chad Seagren writes:

@Pave Low John,

If I understand your comment, I think you may have misread David's post. David and I are both vehemently opposed to the draft on moral reasons and set out to demonstrate how the latest pro-conscription argument is substantially overstated. So, I think you're preaching to the choir.

You write: Economists need to stick to Laffer curves and 'stimulus' packages and leave military policy to people who have been trained for the job.

I respectfully disagree. Economists have a duty to speak out - and provide sound economic analysis - against lousy policy, especially morally reprehensible policy like conscription.

stuhlmann writes:

"You sort of had de facto conscription in Iraq via the National Guard. It did have an effect on public opinion."

The National Guard was no more drafted than any of the all volunteer active duty soldiers were. When you join the Guard, you sign an contract, and somewhere in all the fine print, it says that you go to war if called.

I spent a year in Iraq as an involuntarily mobilized reservist. I didn't have any legal way to refuse the mobilization and deployment orders. I could have gone to jail for refusing to go. When you sign your contract, you never know where you will end up or how it will affect your life. Imagine joining the Guard or Active Army the day before 9/11. You would have had no idea what you just volunteered for. The main point is, that having signed the contract, you now have no way out, or rather the military alone dictates the way out. Any other job you can simply quit, and the worst that can happen is you get sued for breach of contract. With the military, you can go to Leavenworth. Is this a form of slavery? If so, no one is complaining about it.

I am against conscription. Whatever minimal influence it might have on the decision to go to war would not be worth the moral price. Still conscription = slavery seems a little overblown. I agree with the term "tax" mentioned above. And I think that taxes should be kept low.

Genki writes:

There are a lot of issues on conscription. I believe there is one misconception at the argue. Conscription does not exist for war, the system of conscription exist due to protection of their nation and it is a part of education. Conscription clearly has possibility to directly relate with Ideology and philosophy of the country. From my point of view of conscription, conscription is a method of teaching their country's ideology. Therefore, people of the military service and their family would easily understand what their country think on some policy. If so, conscription would not reduce support for war.
For example, my country "Japan" is arguing a existence of conscription at present time. Some politicians have interesting approach that is revival of conscription. There are a lot of reason of revival of the policy. One is educational point of view. Japanese are increasing lack of moral and culture level. And, another one is the number of Japanese military tend to decrease every year. Unfortunately, Japan is surrounded by great power of nations such as, China and Russia. Therefore, some extreme politician as, the hawks claim the need of conscription. Japan has this kind of extreme idea, however, if politician speak this, we would not think that conscription have power to reduce support for war. And, there is no argue that there is no argue about to reduce support for war on conscription issue in Japan.
So, I believe that conscription does not have power for reducing support for war.

[broken url removed--Econlib Ed.]

Genki writes:

[Comment removed pending confirmation of email address. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring this comment. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Ken B writes:

MingoV makes a revealing error:

@Ken B: "... There is little doubt that 'the rape of Belgium' boosted support for WWI, or that the Japanese atrocities in China boosted support for WWII...."
There is plenty of doubt on both issues. Most US citizens did not support direct involvement in The Great War despite the propaganda about German soldiers committing atrocities in Belgium

Only US opinion matters it seems. Read my remarks carefully and you will see my point was not restricted to just American opinion. Or use logic.

As for shrinking isolationist support, you should learn some history. Wilkie was no isolationist, and a key issue in the election of 1940 was who would be tougher on the Japanese and Germans. Wilkie was hurt by his party's record of isolationsim. Lend-lease was popular. There is simply no doubt at all the isolationist feeling declined sharply after 1939. That was my point after all, that it declined not that it disappeared. (It didn't disappear even after Pearl Harbor as I think is evident from the postings of several on this board!)

Ken B writes:

Bob Murphy:

Also, it's true that the argument, "A senator won't vote for a war if his own son is at risk" is pretty weak, since the senator's son isn't at risk even with conscription.

Quentin Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt Jr, Yakov Dzhugashvili. It is simply wrong to blandly assume that powerful people exempt their sons from military service. As I have noted above this is very often the reverse of the truth. So much depends on the culture and how it views military service. In much of history being the son of the rich and powerful would place you at greater risk. It was often a perquisite of wealth and power to have a military career.

Pave Low John writes:

@Chad Seagren

My apologies if I sound like I was directing that remark at the authors, I was responding more to the 'pro-conscription' folks, in a general sense, who think a draft is an answer to all kinds of social ills (never mind how it effects the actual military forces on the ground). When I was on active-duty (just retired a month ago), it used to drive me nuts to see calls for conscription pop up in the media every 2 or 3 months, usually from some academic or politician with a particular ax to grind (Iraq, Afghanistan, etc...)

The dig at economists was more of a reminder that the gigantic monetary costs of a modern conscription are never mentioned or questioned, something that you think people with an economic focus would pick up on. We just flat-out can't afford it. The U.S. Army, right now, is showing people the door in order to lower it's personnel costs. So the whole idea of a draft, in any shape or form, is the modern equivalent, in my mind, of debating how many angels fit on the head of a pin.

The monetary costs of a new draft. Now THAT is an NPS paper I would read, you could title it "Paying the butcher's bill" or something equally eye-catching and get it published by the WSJ or Bloomberg...

James Wilson writes:

Support for war, and willingness to fight, may be diminishing whether there is or isn't conscription.

It could be a result of life just being better: more pleasures, more wealth, more choices, etc. The incentives to sign up and fight just aren't there.

Perhaps in the past, killing and dying to advance the self-interest of politicians made some sense because life tended to be nasty, brutish, and short anyway. Now, life is pretty good in the USA in more and more parts of the world.

When life is fun, why fight?

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