David R. Henderson  

Would Conscription Reduce the Odds of War?

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Note: I wasn't planning a special Labor Day-oriented blog post. I wanted to write this one. Then I realized that this is a Labor Day-oriented blog post. What better defense of labor could there be than a defense of laborers' right to choose their jobs?

An increasingly common argument for the draft, though, and one made especially by foreign policy intellectuals, is that the draft would put the children of the rich and powerful at risk and, therefore, cause their parents to raise more objections than otherwise to military adventurism. That argument is superficially plausible. But a careful look at economic incentives shows that the case for using a draft to prevent a war is weak. In any plausible draft, the rich and powerful would have a cheaper and surer way to shield their children from harm than by devoting resources to stopping or preventing a war.

This is from the Econlib Feature Article for September, "Would a Return to Conscription Substantially Reduce the Probability of War?"

A while ago, my colleague Chad W. Seagren and I published an academic article saying why we think this is a weak argument. Since then, I have seen this particular case for conscription crop up again and again. I like to refer people to our academic article, but there are two problems with it: (1) it's long, and (2) it's gated. It's also substantially improved from the SSRN version. So I saw a hole in the market and wrote this one.

Also, in thinking the issue through, a couple of years after our first article, I realized that there is an important moral objection to this argument for the draft. Here, from the current piece, are the two paragraphs that give that argument:

Before I get to why this argument is weak, it's important to make a moral point. Most of us think that it's wrong to use innocent people as human shields in war. The immorality is due to two factors: (1) those innocent people's lives are put at risk, and (2) they do not get to choose whether to risk their lives. We don't make our moral judgment conditional on the consequences. We tend to believe that using people as human shields is wrong even if it prevents the other side from firing.

Similarly, it is profoundly immoral to put innocent young people at risk so that their parents will get politically active. Those who advocate conscription as a way to avoid war are advocating that innocent people become "human shields." Even if it can be shown that reintroducing conscription would reduce the chance of a war breaking out, it still is wrong to force people to put their lives at risk.


I thank philosopher Peter Jaworski for looking over that argument, and Charles L. Hooper and Chad W. Seagren for suggested improvements on the whole thing, many of which I used.


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COMMENTS (20 to date)
mike w writes:

One of the biggest victories for freedom to which economists contributed in the last third of the 20th century was the abolition of military conscription.

That seems to be giving economists too much credit for even their small contribution. It is more likely that the public's awareness and aversion to mass casualties, the need for an educated military able to use technology and the changed nature of modern warfare (from set-piece battles for control of territory to insurgency actions) have contributed most to the *suspension* of conscription.

I think, *suspension* is a better description of the current state of the draft than "abolition" because in the event of a large scale mobilization the government would probably have to resort to conscription. And "large scale" would only be a need for manpower slightly more than our most recent conflicts in Iraq/Afghanistan. Those actions stretched our military so thin that the government engaged in a backdoor conscription...i.e., multiple and extended overseas tours.

JK Brown writes:

A while back I was reading Gen. Sherman's memoirs. He supports your position on conscription as relates to the superiority of volunteers and the best course to raise the pay to gain recruits in his chapter on lessons from the Civil War:


But the real difficulty was, and will be again, to obtain an adequate number of good soldiers. We tried almost every system known to modem nations, all with more or less success —voluntary enlistments, the draft, and bought substitutes — and I think that all officers of experience will confirm my assertion that the men who voluntarily enlisted at the outbreak of the war were the best, better than the conscript, and far better than the bought substitute.

When a regiment is once organized in a State, and mustered into the service of the United States, the officers and men become subject to the same laws of discipline and government as the regular troops. They are in no sense " militia," but compose a part of the Army of the United States, only retain their State title for convenience, and yet may be principally recruited from the neighborhood of their original organization. Once organized, the regiment should be kept full by recruits, and when it becomes difficult to obtain more recruits the pay should be raised by Congress, instead of tempting new men by exaggerated bounties. I believe it would have been more economical to have raised the pay of the soldier to thirty or even fifty dollars a month than to have held out the promise of three hundred and even six hundred dollars in the form of bounty.
Toward the close of the war, I have often heard the soldiers complain that the " stay-at-home " men got better pay, bounties, and food, than they who were exposed to all the dangers and vicissitudes of the battles and marches at the front. The feeling of the soldier should be that, in every event, the sympathy and preference of his government is for him who fights, rather than for him who is on provost or guard duty to the rear, and, like most men, he measures this by the amount of pay. Of course, the soldier must be trained to obedience, and should be " content with his wages ; " but whoever has commanded an army in the field knows the difference between a willing, contented mass of men, and one that feels a cause of grievance. There is a soul to an army as well as to the individual man, and no general can accomplish the full work of his army unless he commands the soul of his men, as well as their bodies and legs.

Memoir of General William T. Sherman, Vol II, pg 387.


[formated for readability]
LD Bottorff writes:

The idea of reinstating the draft is a very bad one for a number of reasons. 1. It distorts the labor market. Compelling people at a certain age to serve in military/national service jobs interferes with the difficult job of finding your niche in the work force. The labor market rewards those who find work that they can do productively, and forcing people out of that market hurts overall productivity. 2. It distorts the incentives for the military organizations to properly deal with their soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen. In a war that actually requires huge numbers of expendable fighters, a case can be made for a draft and for treating the soldiers as expendable. In an era of highly technical military organizations, you need a motivated force during peacetime to keep your people, systems, and equipment ready for the war. I could go on, but the bottom line is this: I don't want to return to a peace-time draft on the slim chance that it might prevent a war. I prefer my nation be economically strong so it can support a military that is well trained and well equipped.

Andy writes:

Pretty much all the arguments made by proponents of the draft are wrong. There is no evidence that a draft reduces the chance of war. The notion that the "rich and powerful" will not be able to create exemptions to a draft is a massive rift in the entire argument. Historically, the rich and powerful have almost always had the option to exempt themselves going back to at least Roman times. The exceptions are those cases where martial experience is a requirement to become rich and powerful.

I think the evidence supports the conclusion that the draft increases the chance of war, length and cost of war. The reason is because the draft provides the manpower necessary to wage war.

Just one of many examples: We would not have been able to fight in Vietnam without the draft. Without the draft, and the additional manpower it provided, our leaders would have faced a strategic choice to defend Europe and Asia or send those forces to fight in Vietnam. With the draft, they didn't have the make that choice - they could simply order up the manpower required to satisfy both requirements. Although there were protests against Vietnam they were never significant enough politically to end the war and were only able to end the draft once the war was over.

Colombo writes:

Would conscription into boarding schools of all people from age 0 to age 25 reduce the odds of drug wars?
It is very likely.

Also would likely increase infant mortality, as kids tend to be rebellious, and bureaucrats tend to not have patience.

Such measure would reduce the chance of overpopulation, income inequality, garbage accumulation, bad music, global warming, desertization of the rainforest, original thinking, and many more dangerously unpredictable things.

More importantly, it would also reduce greatly unemployment in all nations, as many adults would be hired to guard the inmates from the evil influence of families.

Seriously now. The problem with conscription is that people tend to put in practice what they learn. Those who learn the art of war, would likely want to see the real thing. Other victims of conscription would learn to be pirates, or to be slaves, or to be spies, or assasins, or learn to act mad in order to protect their lifes. Not one of these abilities are useful in a free society. So conscription could potentially reduce the odds of some forms war, but at the cost of reducing the odds of developing a free and open society.

These are my impressions. I have no data to back them up, and I would rather prefer that nobody ever collects actual empirical data to determine if my impressions are correct or wrong.


I believe everyone who enjoys the liberties of a freer society has a moral duty to defend those liberties and those societies. But defense has many faces. In my opinion what free-market economists do with their blogs and their books is a much better defense of our society than what those in the military do. Knowledge brings strength and resillience, and authority brings fragility and insecurity.

mike w writes:

This piece seems to me to be tilting at straw men...or maybe just academics arguing hypotheticals. The "many intellectuals [that] have made this new argument for the draft" references just two, Stanley McChrystal and Andrew Bacevich.

McChrystal's commentary seems more about making the case for shared sacrifice...or at least more awareness...by the American public when we go to war than it is about supporting a draft (“I think if a nation goes to war, every town, every city needs to be at risk. You make that decision and everybody has skin in the game.”).

Bacevich is a former Army colonel whose son died in Iraq and he was opposed to that war from the start. His comments about the draft seem more intended to add shock value to his anti-war writings.

James Hartwick writes:

I think the argument as presented by Henderson here is weak. (Maybe I would think differently if I read the linked papers.) I have two reasons.

1) There are superficial conceptual similarities between conscription and the use of real human shields, and Henderson points them out. But this argument pretends that the huge difference in the risk of dying between conscription and a real human shield is so great that this difference is much more important than the superficial conceptual similarities. Conscripts have a probability of dying of well less than one percent. A hostage being used as a human shield by a criminal, to make up just one plausible scenario, could have a probability of dying of more than 10%. That quantitative difference is so big as to be a qualitative difference.

2) Arguing against something on the grounds that the rich and powerful can avoid it more easily than the common man would negate most every government mandate. Rich people can avoid paying taxes more easily than the common man. Rich people can avoid having to follow laws more easily than the common man. Et cetera ad nauseam. That's not an argument against taxes or against, say, speeding laws, or whatever, and it shouldn't be an argument against conscription.

Michael Byrnes writes:

I am sympathetic to the argument that our nation's politicians and perhaps more of the public would be less willing to go to war if they had to send their own families to fight. It would be a form of "skin in the game" that they usually don't have.

A lot of those in government who pushed the US towards a second Iraq War were people who chose to avoid serving when they had the opportunity to do so (the so-called chickenhawks). I think there is something morally wrong with being willing to send others to fight (and risk death) but not being willing to personally take that risk.

That said, I think Henderson is right.

Let's say we could be certain that a draft would give members of Congress, defense department officials, etc, some real skin in the game and that this would lead to more judicious use of military force. Neither of these outcomes would be assured (or even likely), but they would represent the best case scenario for this policy. Would these benefits outweigh the harms? I think no.

Maybe instead we could just keep the all volunteer military... and also send a Congressional/defense delegation into every war zone.

David R. Henderson writes:

@James Hartwick,
Arguing against something on the grounds that the rich and powerful can avoid it more easily than the common man would negate most every government mandate. Rich people can avoid paying taxes more easily than the common man. Rich people can avoid having to follow laws more easily than the common man. Et cetera ad nauseam. That's not an argument against taxes or against, say, speeding laws, or whatever, and it shouldn't be an argument against conscription.
You missed the point. It is an argument against conscription when the argument for conscription is that it would subject the rich and powerful to conscription. If someone argues for x based on the idea that it causes y, and I can show that x does not cause y, I have made a good argument.
So, to take your example above, if someone argued for speeding laws on the grounds that it would catch rich and powerful people, and I can show (which I can’t, by the way), that it wouldn’t catch rich and powerful people, then I have refuted that person’s argument.

Nathan W writes:

Even if children of the powerful were conscripts, they would rarely see the front lines and I doubt this would have much influence on elite support for war. The children of the powerful would work as drone operators (thousands of miles from the front lines), or as "security experts" who rarely leave the library (again, thousands of miles from the front lines).

I think this cuts directly to this experimental argument in favour of maybe supporting conscription for the (non)fact of its equal distribution of the risk across classes.

IF (BIG IF) children of members on congress had the same chances of being in the front lines, THEN perhaps it would work.

I would like to think that there are better ways to reduce the probability of war than to force the children of the wealthy into service.

Perhaps if elected members of Congress were reduced to average military pay for the duration of any and all wars that would make a difference?

Peter Gerdes writes:

While *I* think your claim of equivalence is compelling people's intuitions about who is an 'innocent' don't track morally relevant facts. As I will say at far too great length I think the kind of reasoning you use also demonstrates that other things being equal in a modern total war it is morally preferential to target civilians instead of the kids they've put a gun to and thrown out to meet the enemy. Unfortunately, even when right arguments that prove things people find so unappetizing (perhaps because they would be civilians) never get uptake.

We know that if they had been conscripted enemy civilians would have fought (you probably kill more genuine conscientious objectors working as medical personal when attacking soldiers) and because of their age soldiers have far less moral responsibility for their government's actions than average civilians.

Sure someone has put a soldier in a uniform. If they wear uniforms in their factories and those factories are government owned does that make a difference? A substantial fraction of soldiers don't use (or even frequently carry) weapons and only engage in logistics, procurement etc.. etc.. but somehow remain valid targets. Sure, they are trained with firearms and if push came to shove would fire but the same can be said about the civilians in texas but no one thinks that makes them an acceptable target. In a modern industrial war the factory worker, regardless of industry, is every bit as much of a participant in the struggle as the soldier but the factory worker won't get shot if he quits or disappears.

While I've said a bit more it's the same key question in both cases: do we conceptualize enemy soldiers as unwilling (or at least reluctant) human shields or as the embodiment of the enemy. Asking people to see them as human shields would force them to reach the kind of disturbing conclusion I just outlined so they won't do it.

wd40 writes:

“But if the main goal of the influential is to avoid having their children put at risk, there is a more direct way to do so: get their children exempted from the draft or, in the unlucky case that their children are drafted, use their influence to get their children relatively safe postings that are far from the battle.”

There is no doubt that in years past the rich could buy their way out of conscription, but in today’s advanced democracies, what evidence do you have that the wealthy are actually able to do this to any degree? Is it the case in Switzerland (with alternate service)? Is it the case in Israel (where there are religious and other exceptions) that the rich avoid conscription or get postings far from battle? And if it is the case, is it 2%, 20% or 60% of the rich that actually get their way. Would it be the case in the US if we brought back the draft? I do not know the answer to these questions, but I have not written an article turning a possible marginal affect into a major problem.

“Even if influential people would be against the war because their children would be at risk, two factors would cause them to invest little in preventing war. First, any resources they put towards lobbying, writing letters, etc. would only marginally change the probability of war. Second, they would risk wasting their investment because of the likelihood that others would free ride and cause the collective effort to fail. This means that they would be unlikely to contribute much to the public good of avoiding the war.”

The general theory is found in Mancur Olson’s, Logic of Collective Action, but it does not explain everything. Rich people donate millions of their own dollars to candidates and run for office. Less wealthy people organize and work for candidates. And all them can vote for a candidate who is running on an anti-war platform (although an anti-draft platform seems to be have been more successful). Again, I am not arguing that the evidence shows that conscription would reduce the likelihood or duration of wars, only that the quoted lines are not convincing.

David R. Henderson writes:

@wd40,
Again, I am not arguing that the evidence shows that conscription would reduce the likelihood or duration of wars, only that the quoted lines are not convincing.
The quoted lines were not meant to be convincing. That’s why they’re just quoted lines. They’re there to give you a flavor of the argument and then you can read the whole article from which the lines are quoted.

Henri Hein writes:

wd40:

If the rich and the powerful have no strings to pull, then this particular argument for the draft becomes moot.

If they do have strings to pull, imagine you are one of them. You can either work towards preventing the entire country from going to war, which has a vanishingly small chance of success, or you can devote the same effort towards either letting your family members out of the draft or giving them cushy assignments, which has some measurable chance of success. Which do you think you would choose?

wd40 writes:

Henri Hein: “If they do have strings to pull, imagine you are one of them. You can either work towards preventing the entire country from going to war, which has a vanishingly small chance of success, or you can devote the same effort towards either letting your family members out of the draft or giving them cushy assignments, which has some measurable chance of success.”


I like theory, but at some times you have to deal with the facts, because theory only gets you so far. That is why I suggested looking at Israel and Switzerland. But evidently, Hein wants to engage in hypotheticals. So, let me play the same game. The easiest string to pull is the voting lever. If a lot of voters are worried about themselves or their children being drafted, then they can vote for the presidential candidate that credibly promises to withdraw troops from the fighting zone. Lyndon Johnson did not run for re-election when we had the draft (albeit with deferments) because it was clear that he would not be re-elected due to his Vietnam War policy (unfortunately, Robert Kennedy was assassinated and Humphrey did not have the appropriate anti-war credibility). So it is not at all clear that there is a “vanishing small chance” of preventing the entire country from going to [or continuing the] war. Presidential elections in particular are typically won or lost by small margins. Policy, whether it is taxes or healthcare, counts at the margin and there is nothing like the possibility of being killed in war that gets peoples attention. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq lasted a long-time quite possibly because so many families were not subject to the draft.

I know that some readers will come up with counter arguments, but I can come up with counters to the counter-arguments as I have done here. And so we could go on and on. As it turns out, while I think that a universal draft would reduce the likelihood of the country engaging in war (or reduce its duration), I am not a strong believer that this is the case. What strikes me is that most of the commentators are so sure that the draft would not reduce the likelihood of war even though their arguments and evidence are very weak (as is the case for the opposite side). So for me, the interesting question is why individuals are so sure that they are right on certain policies when the arguments and evidence supporting their position is so flimsy.

ivvenalis writes:

We know that conscription doesn't prevent war because of how many aggressive wars have been fought using conscript armies (including all of the biggest ones).

Ditto, although to a lesser extent, for requiring military service of the elite. This one's more subtle: just because the elite right now are Brahmins doesn't mean this is always the case. Again, this is a matter of historical fact. Were the Spartans peaceful because even the rulers were expected to go to war? The Cossacks? Charles XII got Sweden into quite a bit of trouble before he took a bullet to the forehead.

NZ writes:

Seems to me that conscription doesn't have much effect either way on whether the conscripting nation goes to war. If your goal is to prevent war, choose a different tactic, or at least don't load your hopes on conscription.

However, conscription does seem to have a few benefits. The one that's always seemed most obvious to me is that it exposes a lot of young men to an ordered life of discipline for a few years, during which time they also have the opportunity to learn some very practical skills.

Sure, it comes at a cost of a few years of their lives in which they could be working in the labor force, but realistically a lot of them don't anyway: unemployment rates among 20-24 year-olds are something like over 11%, and among 19 and 20 year-olds it's something like twice that.

Instead of having them sitting in their moms' houses playing video games or sitting in lecture halls learning politically correct BS, why not give them guns or shovels or mops and teach them to march in step?

wd40 writes:

Ivvenalis: “We know that conscription doesn't prevent war because of how many aggressive wars have been fought using conscript armies (including all of the biggest ones).”

If the operative word is “prevent” this statement is correct. But that is not the operative word. The argument is that conscription “reduces the likelihood and duration of wars.” And I might add a few specifics where this statement would be most apparent, such as “when the benefit of going to war is not clear as would be the case where the war is fought in a far off land and the enemy is of little threat to the aggressor country and the financial rewards of winning are small.” Just as finding examples where quantity demanded increases when price increases does not disprove the law of downward sloping demand curves, finding examples of war occurring when there was conscription does not prove that conscription has no effect on the likelihood of war. It is not a trivial task to prove that conscription does or does not decrease the likelihood of war. One might find a study that supports one side of the argument or the other, but the question is whether the supporting assumptions are correct and whether the results are general. The law of downward sloping demand curves (keeping income constant) has been shown to be the case in numerous situations and in a great many sophisticated econometric studies. I doubt that one can get such a clear-cut set of results as to whether conscription does or does not reduce the likelihood of war. And none of the comments have mentioned studies that are persuasive to a more neutral person even if the studies are not dispositive.

Our current military structure heavily relies on mobilizing the National Guard and the Reserves in the event of long term, sustained major combat. In the aftermath of 9/11 and the invasions of Afghanistan and then Iraq, this system put a good bit of strain on the National Guard and the Reserves.

The thing to keep in mind is that this was intentional. It was put in place on the theory that if any prolonged conflict required mobilizing the Guard, it would also require a large degree of public support. Hence, in theory, prolonged military conflict without public support would be a lot less likely.

Since that has worked so well in practice, a draft would work a lot better, right? Right? </sarcasm>

ivvenalis writes:

@wd40

Well, speaking of downward-sloping demand curves, conscription reduces the cost of soldiers. Whether or not it makes war more or less likely probably depends on circumstance, but in general mass levies of soldiers are a common historical prelude to war, and many expansionist states (Napoleonic France, Imperial Russia, ancient China, e.g.) have found conscripted soldiers to be a reliable enabler of aggressive warfare.

On the other hand, conscription hasn't turned South Korea or Switzerland into belligerent would-be empires. So it depends. My vote would probably be that conscription generally promotes warfare by effectively subsidizing the cost of raising armies, but there might be situational mitigating factors that cause it to reduce the odds of a given state going to war.

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