David R. Henderson  

Conscription During World War II and Milton Friedman

The Incredible Vanishing Minar... Henderson, Meckling, and Fried...

Over at Cafe Hayek, Don Boudreaux has written a passionate statement against the draft: "My Son Will Never Be a Conscript." I love the last paragraph:

Fortunately, what is perhaps Milton Friedman's greatest legacy remains in place: actual conscription does not now exist in America. Yet let it be known that if conscription of any sort returns and if anyone or any group tries to conscript my son, they will fail. My son will not be forced to sacrifice for anyone or anything, and least of all for any government.

It reminds me of a letter I wrote to the Winnipeg Free Press (which was published) when I was 18 announcing that if there were a draft in Canada, as Secretary of State and Pierre Trudeau buddy Gerald Pelletier had proposed, I would refuse. BTW, when I thought it through afterwards, I realized that I wouldn't. I've always made the best of a bad situation and the prospect of being drafted looked less bad to me than the prospect of going to prison. I probably would have figured out a way to avoid going to war and, of course, as we now know, Canada wasn't in any wars during the period (late 1960s and early 1970s) that I would have been drafted.

If you read Milton Friedman on the draft carefully, as I have (I'm not saying that Don hasn't), you'll see that even though he regarded the draft as slavery, he was alright with it when the government "needed" a large percent of the relatively young male population to be in uniform. The basic argument is that as the percent of the population "needed" rises, the tax rate to raise the funds for the military rises and so does the deadweight loss. Recall that the deadweight loss from a tax is proportional not to the tax rate but to the square of the tax rate. So the deadweight loss from having the "wrong man in uniform" that we get with the draft can be below the DWL that we would get from the high tax rates required to get the same number of people in uniform.

Here's how Milton put it in the article that Don cites:

If a very large fraction of the young men of the relevant age groups are required--or will be used whether required or not--in the military services, the advantages of a volunteer army become very small. It would still be technically possible to have a volunteer army, and there would still be some advantages, since it is doubtful that literally 100 per cent of the potential candidates will in fact be drawn into the army; but if nearly everyone who is physically capable will serve anyway, there is little room for free choice, the avoidance of uncertainty, and so on. To rely on volunteers under such conditions would then require very high pay in the armed services, and very high burdens on those who do not serve, in order to attract a sufficient number into the armed forces. This would involve serious political and administrative problems. To put it differently, and in terms that will become fully clear to non-economists only later, it might turn out under these special circumstances that the implicit tax of forced service is less bad than the alternative taxes that would have to be used to finance a volunteer army.

Hence, for a major war, a strong case can be made for compulsory service. And indeed, compulsory service has been introduced in the United States only under such conditions--in the Civil War, World War I, and World War II. It is hardly conceivable that it could have been introduced afresh in, say, 1950, if a system of compulsory service had not so recently been in full swing. As it was, the easiest thing to do when military needs for manpower rose was to reactivate the recent wartime technique.

I don't buy that argument, by the way. I buy that there's a tradeoff, but here's the problem: the DWL from the draft is infinite for the simple reason that there are at least a few people--and there need be only one--to whom you have to pay infinity to get into a volunteer military. The DWL from very high taxes, by contrast, although very high, is finite.

Milton doesn't quite say, but seems to say, in the quote above, that a draft during World War II was acceptable. I never found him saying it wasn't--until I got him to say so at a 1979 conference. More on that in a later post.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (17 to date)
Quinn writes:

I think for a lot of people my age, myself included, the idea of conscription is a bit strange. I never experienced the debate, and through my childhood was raised that individual freedom is the most important value. So the concept of the US government coming and telling me I have no choice but to join the military to fight a war, regardless if I agree with it or not, is unacceptable.

Conor writes:

I don't think the infinite DWL argument works. Sure, there are people who would give up whatever it took to avoid conscription, but there are also people who would give up whatever it took to avoid being taxed to fund a war. And on the other side entirely, there are people who would give up all they have and then some to see the enemy crushed.

Lots of potential infinities pulling in multiple directions.

Joe Topp writes:
"there are at least a few people--and there need be only one--to whom you have to pay infinity to get into a volunteer military."
Is this necessarily true? I can understand people having very large reservation prices, maybe even large enough to invalidate the draft. But infinite? Wouldn't the existence of such a person run counter to the principle that incentives matter? I am intrigued by the theoretical implications.
David R. Henderson writes:

I don't think the infinite DWL argument works. Sure, there are people who would give up whatever it took to avoid conscription, but there are also people who would give up whatever it took to avoid being taxed to fund a war.
The people who would give up whatever it took to avoid being taxed would do so. The rest of the people, the vast majority, would pay taxes.
@Joe Topp,
Is this necessarily true?
It depends what you mean by “this.” If by this, you mean my claim that there are at least a few people to whom you have to pay infinity, it’s not necessarily true: it’s just highly likely to be true. Imagine, for example, asking Bob Murphy, an extreme pacifist, what he would have to be paid. He would answer, quite honestly, that there is no number that would be enough.
Wouldn't the existence of such a person run counter to the principle that incentives matter?
Not at all. Do you have children? If so, how much would I have to pay you to murder one of them? I’m guessing that no amount would do it for you. Good for you. Does this mean that incentives don’t matter? Not at all.

LD Bottorff writes:

I hope that my sons will never be drafted, and I hope that they will never be in combat, but in extreme cases, a draft is justified. I will come right out and say that I would support the draft for the kind of war effort where the existence of the country was at stake and the need for manpower was high. I'm just not sure when that theoretical possibility would occur.

Modern war can be fought with specialists who are more effective than unmotivated, quickly trained draftees.

I don't think World War I was sufficiently important to our survival to justify a draft. World War II may have been. Certainly, the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam were not sufficiently critical to our survival to justify conscription.

Phil writes:

Every action by government exacts a cost on either the citizens' property interests or their liberty interests. Conscription is simply the extreme case.

Everyday we make choices trading off these interests. For example, imagine you are driving and approach a clear intersection and you have an unobstructed view of the fact that there is no danger to you or others if you run the red light. Do you proceed to run the light reclaiming your liberty interest to travel however you wish, or do you stop anyway to avoid the potential loss of a property interest (a traffic ticket)?

Andrew_FL writes:

I could see a draft maybe making sense if a country were being invaded, as in, enemy troops literally marching through your streets. Then again, if the enemy really represents such an immediate threat, I wouldn't expect a shortage of volunteers. Maybe even some defense of the homeland Red Dawn style.

The Original CC writes:

Do you have children? If so, how much would I have to pay you to murder one of them? I’m guessing that no amount would do it for you. Good for you.

Right, but I'm not sure you're looking at the right quantity. If the gov't wanted to draft me and you asked me how much I would pay to get out of it, I might say "a billion dollars" but the fact is that I don't have a billion dollars. I might have $10,000 and be willing to pay it, so doesn't that make the DWL $10,000?

Mike W writes:

Wow, this discussion seems awfully theoretical since we have actual experience with conscription during the Viet Nam war and the alternative of a *volunteer* armed forces in Iraq.

All this talk about which wars would justify a draft and which would not seems silly in light of Viet Nam and Iraq. Our elected representatives decide when we go to war...whether the populace agrees or not...and putting that burden on only a small fraction of the US population seems to me to be self-centered, selfish and cowardly.

The US congress voted by a super-majority to go to war in Iraq and polls showed that two-thirds of the US population agreed. Then we sent *volunteers* to do the dying. Is that right?

Don Boudreaux writes:

Mike W:

Your framing of the matter is flawed. When you write "Then we sent *volunteers* to do the dying. Is that right?" you imply two things that are mistaken:

First, you imply that those volunteers (in today's U.S. military) are in fact not volunteers. But, in fact, they are volunteers. No one is forced to join the U.S. military. No one today is any more forced to put himself or herself into harms' way by joining the U.S. military than anyone is forced to put himself or herself into harms' way by joining a police force or fire-fighting force.

Second, you imply that a fairer system would be to use genuine non-volunteers - conscripts. But how can it possibly be more fair - or even as fair - to actually force people, against their will, to fight in lethal wars than it is to offer to pay people to join the military without anyone being forced to do so? How can fairness possibly be furthered by switching from a system in which the only people who join the military are those who choose to do - and who are free to choose not to do so - to a system in which many people who emphatically do not wish to join the military are nevertheless forced to do so and, thereby, forced into harms' way?

I have other thoughts on a closely related matter here:

Mike W writes:

Professor Boudreaux:

You misunderstand my comment, I was not defending conscription. I served ten years in the Marine Corps including three years overseas and a year of that in Viet Nam. I saw first hand that the draft did not work then and certainly could not work today.

My real point was that the US way of war as practiced since 2001 places the burden on a small part of the American population. If we're going to discuss what is fair, that is most definitely not. And brushing aside that glaring inequity by arguing that those who carried that burden were volunteers is disingenuous.

Regarding *volunteers*, I don't think most Reservists were contemplating multiple deployments and extended tours in Iraq and Afghanistan when they signed up. As it has been practiced that seems to me to be backdoor conscription.

Don Boudreaux writes:

Mike W:

It is incorrect to say that the burden of the war since 2001 has been placed only on "a small part of the American population."

The burden of war is paying for it. Because a volunteer military requires the government to pay market wages to its employees (rather pay only the below-market wages that are paid to conscripts), the burden of war is shared by all taxpayers.

Contrary to your claim, the burden of war is never borne by non-conscripted soldiers as such. These people volunteered to enlist because they found the pay attractive given the jobs. Today's military men and women bear the burden of the war only in their roles as taxpayers and not in their roles as soldiers or military officials.

Just as no one says that the burden of building a house is borne by the workers who voluntarily accept the construction jobs necessary to build the house, no one should say that the burden of the war is borne by soldiers. It is not borne by those workers (which is not to say that those military jobs are not dangerous). The burden of building the house is borne by the person(s) who finance its building - and the burden of war without conscription is borne by the people who finance its conduct (i.e., present and future taxpayers).

In fact, the only way in which it makes sense to talk of the burden of the war being borne by people in the military is if those people are conscripted into the military. Conscription is a means of shifting much of the cost - a means of shifting the burden - of manning a military and using it to wage war from taxpayers onto soldiers.

Consider again the example of building houses: if housing developers were able to conscript construction workers against their wills to build houses, then, and only then, would the burden of building houses be borne by the workers who do the building. Otherwise, again, the burden of building houses when construction workers must be enticed rather than enslaved into their jobs falls exclusively upon the people who finance the building of the houses.

As for your point about excessive deployments, etc., that might well be true. Indeed, I'm quite confident that it is. But that's a problem not with the all-volunteer force; instead, that's a problem with the Pentagon violating the terms of the contracts of its workers. Indeed, it's the Pentagon furtively resorting to piecemeal conscription! It's the Pentagon forcing people to work against their wills. The Pentagon's misuse of soldiers in this case has nothing to do with the volunteer nature of today's U.S. military and everything to do with the back-door sneaking in of piecemeal conscription.

Please understand that I deeply oppose nearly all of the military actions that the U.S. has undertaken throughout its history. But if those actions are going to be taken, the only way to ensure that the burden is shared as fairly as possible, rather than imposed by diktat upon a tiny fraction of the population, is to require the military to pay its employees market wages (and to require it to abide by the law of contract no less than other employers are obliged to abide by the law of contract).

neal writes:

Well, I have been in war. I have built houses, and ditches.
I bear the cost. No benefits, I refuse any dependency.

Now, all worn out, with Gulf War Syndromes, I now know why I refused MIT when I was twelve.

You see, there are things that can be grasped, that assure long life and prosperity.

At least some know the world of what you all think is economics is a bit more involved.

Mostly dead, but that does not factor into primitive science.

Really intelligent ones with morals and stuff to do.
Probably get to retire, with money and hubris, before death.

That is disconcerting. No fight in the lack of being.

The Original CC writes:

Good point from Mike re. backdoor conscription -- this has always bothered me(and it looks like Don B agreed on that point). Don, good analogy about building a house.

There aren't too many sites where it's worth reading the comments. Econlog really bucks the trend!

Mike W writes:

I think what Professor Boudreaux is saying is that the government's purchase of defense services is no different than its acquisition of construction services and that the same market requirements should apply to both. This seems to me to be a very academic view. As part of their duties construction workers are not expected to put themselves in life-threating situations...storming a beach under fire is not the same as nailing shingles on a roof...and that is the outsized burden that is being borne by a relatively small portion of the population on behalf of the rest.

It seems to me that market forces might allow adequate manpower to deal with limited short-term military actions but in a case of a larger scale mobilization...i.e., something not much greater than our Iraq/Afghanistan since that stretched our *volunteer* force to its limits...no amount of compensation would be enough to attract sufficient numbers of applicants out of safe construction jobs and into combat.

Thomas B writes:

Mike W,

Working in offshore fishing, and lumberjacking are both, I believe, statistically more dangerous than being in the military, and yet both industries attract voluntary workers at non-infinite wages. And the all-volunteer US military is by far the most lethal force on earth, and has been for decades.
There's nothing academic about it.

Mike W writes:

Thomas B,

It is nonsense to compare civilian jobs...even dangerous ones like police and firefighters...to combat soldiers. How much would fishing employer need to pay to hire employees to whom he could say "Jump in the water and attract the fish."

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top