Bryan Caplan  

Vietnam War Draft Resistance: Huemer Worked

Grossman on NGDP shocks as pol... Boudreaux on Prosperity Pools...
In high school, I foolishly registered for the draft.  I had already arrived at the Huemerian theory of civil disobedience, according to which it is morally permissible to break unjust laws and evade the punishment for doing so.  Since I had no doubt that military slavery was unjust, the crucial question was merely one of prudence: Do the benefits of breaking the unjust law exceed the expected punishment for doing so?  I only registered because I greatly overestimate the federal government's eagerness to enforce the law: No one has been prosecuted for draft evasion since 1986.

Question: What about evading the draft during the Vietnam War?  Would a prudent Huemerian have evaded involuntary military servitude then? 

First, consider the risks of compliance.  About 2.7M Americans served in Vietnam, and roughly 58,000 died there.  That's roughly a 2% fatality rate. 

Second, consider the risks of conviction for draft evasion.  During the entire Vietnam War era, about 206,000 Americans were reported delinquent by the Justice Department to the Selective Service.  Under 9000 were convicted.  It's hard to tell what fraction of the delinquent were ever reported, but even if it were 100%, that's only a 4% conviction rate.  The typical sentence was around five years - that's what Muhammad Ali got.

As an upper bound, then, a non-compliant man was twice as likely to go to jail as a compliant man was to be killed.  Morally, you may disagree with my assessment of draft evasion.  But prudentially, it was a no-brainer: Violent death is clearly more than twice as bad as a five-year jail sentence. 

Happily, it's hard to imagine the modern U.S. reinstating the draft, and as I said, the law hasn't been enforced for decades.  If a draft ever does come back, however, legal avoidance (as opposed to illegal evasion) will be much harder than the last time around.  As the Selective Service Administration explains:

Before Congress reformed the draft in 1971, a man could qualify for a student deferment if he could show he was a full-time student making satisfactory progress in virtually any field of study. He could continue to go to school and be deferred from service until he was too old to be drafted.

Under the current draft law, a college student can have his induction postponed only until the end of the current semester. A senior can be postponed until the end of the full academic year.

What should you do?  As always: Learn the facts, then do the right thing.

COMMENTS (8 to date)
john hare writes:

Then there is the percentage of draft dodgers that spent years on the run with their life screwed up for years. And then there are the ones that served that were mentally or physically damaged from the experience.

And yet again there are those that found a sense or purpose and pride from serving.

One dimensional arguments fail to take into account that all else is never equal.

Pajser writes:

Imagine the biker's gang which decides to do something morally bad. What biker who doesn't agree with that decision should do? Is it enough to vote against and complain? Is it enough not to take part in executing that morally bad decision? No, because through membership in the gang, he still supports it - through fees, direct work, externalities, including personal example. He has to leave the gang completely.

The same for state. One should leave it.

Alternatively, one can stay and take part in some resistance. He can spy for enemies, for instance. However, it is hard to be so active in resistance to have influence that prevails over one's support through membership.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Bryan Caplan,
You’re making an implicit assumption that’s wrong. You’re assuming that everyone drafted went to Vietnam. Not true. That means that you’ve left out another option: figure out how, if you’re drafted, to go somewhere other than Vietnam or, to avoid the draft, volunteer for a part of the military where you’re unlikely to be at risk. So, for example, be an enlistee on an aircraft carrier.

John Hall writes:

You're not including the cost of missed labor market opportunities by evading the draft.

Marcus writes:

Adding to the suggestions above: another 75,000 people were severely maimed in Vietnam. I assume you'd want to include that into your analysis.

Also, should you consider demographics? I assume some demographics suffered more in Vietnam than others.

Also, to be thorough, do you need to balance all that against the odds of dying or becoming maimed (say, in an automobile accident, for example) of draft dodgers? Given the age group, it's probably relatively small, but it might be relevant.

Just some thoughts.

Capt. J Parker writes:

I don't think it's fair to entirely ignore the argument that war against Ho Chi Minh was a necessary part of resisting, containing and ultimately defeating communist powers whose stated aim was to use all means necessary to introduce decidedly undemocratic and very non libertarian rule. So, among the risks from avoiding the draft was the risk of eventually finding yourself subject to a lifetime of unjust involuntary servitude under new rulers. I expect most think such a risk was infinitesimal as far as Vietnam goes. Maybe so. But if those living in liberal democracies all invoked Huemer for the entirety of the 20th century would we be as free today? I bet not.

Ricardo writes:

Note also that in order to obtain a permanent job with the US Government, males are asked to provide their Selective Service number. (I don't know if anyone actually looks at the number you provide, however.)

Charles R Batchelor writes:

You also can't get student Loans either unless you register.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top