David R. Henderson  

Walter Oi, RIP

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If you are an American male under age 66, you should take a moment and give thanks to economist Walter Oi, who died on Christmas eve. Why? Because he helped contribute to ending military conscription. Conscription ended on June 30, 1973. Until then, American men between age 18 and 26 were subject to it and boys younger than that had conscription to "look forward" to.

How did Oi help end the draft? The late William H. Meckling, who also played a major role in ending the draft and for whom I wrote an appreciation here, wrote:

I first met Walter twenty-five years ago on one of his regular visits to the Pentagon where he was a consultant on personnel matters. In vintage Oi fashion he was provoking officials at the highest levels in the Department of Defense by openly advocating the abolition of conscription. In order to answer those who ridiculed voluntarism as wholly impractical, Walter had committed his considerable talents to estimating the budgetary implications of such a move. That work proved to be a watershed in the cause of voluntarism. It transformed the conscription discussion from dogmatic assertion to careful study of the consequences of abandoning conscription. Competent scholars in both academe and the military research community took up the challenge, and over the next five years they produced an impressive array of analyses of military personnel requirements, the supply of volunteers, and various historical and social aspects of conscription.

Here's what I wrote in 2005 in "The Role of Economists in Ending the Draft," Econ Journal Watch, Vol. 2, No. 2, August 2005, 362-376:
One of the first empirical studies of the economics of the draft and of ending the draft was done by Walter Oi (1967a, 1967b), an economics professor then at the University of Washington and later at the University of Rochester's Graduate School of Management. In his study published in the Sol Tax volume (Oi 1967b), Oi distinguished clearly between the budgetary cost of military manpower and the economic cost. Oi granted the obvious, that a military of given size could be obtained with a lower budgetary cost if the government used the threat of force to get people to join--that is, used the draft. But, he noted, the hidden cost of this was the loss of well-being among draftees and draft-induced volunteers. Using some empirical methods that were sophisticated for their day, Oi estimated the loss to draftees and draft-induced volunteers and found it quite high-- between $826 million and $1.134 billion. While this number might seem low today, Oi's data were in mid-1960s dollars. Inflation-adjusted to 2005, the losses would be $4.8 billion to $6.6 billion.

There's so much more to say about Walter Oi, who was really one of a kind. Steve Landsburg says much of it here, and says it well. I'm writing an article on Walter for another publication and will link to it when it comes out in January.

UPDATE: Liberty Fund's Online LIbrary of Liberty has this piece by Walter from the New Individualist Review, Spring 1967. I read this about a year or so after it came out and it was the first time I had heard of him.


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CATEGORIES: Labor Market



COMMENTS (8 to date)
Mark Brady writes:

Please be advised there is no link to Steve Landsburg's appreciation. I'm looking forward to your article when it appears.

LD Bottorff writes:

Interesting. Do you think that Oi's work would have been appreciated without Milton Friedman's popularity?

As someone who faced the draft (lottery number 35) and volunteered after the draft ended, I appreciate the efforts made to end the draft.
Freedom can quickly be put aside when the nation's fate is threatened, but I believe that the maintenance of a truly professional armed force is done better with volunteers.

David R. Henderson writes:

@LD Bottorff,
Do you think that Oi's work would have been appreciated without Milton Friedman's popularity?
Yes, but not to the same extent.

MingoV writes:

I know nothing about Professor Oi, so I'm asking questions, not passing judgment. Was Professor Oi morally opposed to conscription? It's quite possible that his work for the military was solely based on economic findings, and that he would have recommended continuation of conscription if the results had been different. If the latter is true, then how much should we praise him?

balbach writes:

@MingoV, your comment is odd. Walter Oi was an outstanding economist whose work was instrumental in achieving results that you seem to consider positive. As a social scientist of integrity, Oi did not allow personal biases to influence his research, and you seem to be suggesting those biases are all that is worthy of praise.

David R. Henderson writes:

@MingoV,
Was Professor Oi morally opposed to conscription?
I don’t know. I suspect that he was, because he was a very principled man, but I never heard him address the issue.
It's quite possible that his work for the military was solely based on economic findings,
True. It’s hard to argue for below-market prices if you’re an economist.
and that he would have recommended continuation of conscription if the results had been different.
Possibly.
If the latter is true, then how much should we praise him?
I’ll let you decide for yourself. But notice that I wasn’t advocating that one praise him, although I myself do and did. I’m advocating that one thank him. I know he deserved the latter.

I can confirm that Walter was passionately opposed to the draft on moral grounds, but I think it should be clear to anyone who looks at his papers on the subject that moral considerations were irrelevant to the careful theoretical and empirical analysis on which he based his arguments.

Jim Rose writes:

Oi was one of the few whose writings on any subject were always thorough, original and always worth reading. He led life to the full

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