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Policy Debate: Should the U.S. reinstitute a military draft?

Issues and Background

True consent must be freely given. Joining the military, however, even without the draft, involves a major coercive element: economics. The vast majority of current recruits in the all-volunteer military do so for economic reasons. The volunteer army has been called the poverty draft. The military provides food, shelter, clothing, medical care, insurance, and the promise of job training and educational benefits. With high unemployment in the ghettos and the social safety net in tatters, the military provides one of the few apparent options for the children of the poor. But volunteering for the military because of a lack of options is not a free choice. The fact that some of the promises may be illusory only compounds the issue.
~David Chandler
We have had a volunteer army for most of our history, conscription having long been resisted here, as in England, as a Continental practice associated with Napoleonic militarism. The volunteer army was re-instituted when there was no longer a felt need for a mass of (inevitably sullen) cannon fodder. The criticisms of it ... are refuted by the public response to it in the recent war with Iraq. Only the Iraqi minister of information described our soldiers as "mercenaries." No American was heard to say that since our soldiers are paid to risk their lives, we should regard the death, the wounding, or the capture of them with the same equanimity with which we regard the occasional death and maiming of race-car drivers, lion tamers, and mountain climbers. No American was heard to say, and I doubt that any American thought, that one reason to regret heavy American casualties was that it might force up the wages necessary to attract people to a military career. The armed forces are regarded with unstinted admiration, and the recovery of the handful of captured American soldiers was greeted with national rejoicing. To contend that the voluntary character of the American military degrades the concept of American citizenship would strike most Americans as daft.
~Richard A. Posner, "An Army of the Willing," The New Republic, May 19, 2003

Shortly before the start of the Iraq war, Senator Ernest Hollings and Rep. Charles Rangel called for the re-instatement of a military draft in the U.S. This helped lead to renewed public discussion of the arguments for and against a draft. This proposal has helped spur renewed public debate concerning the advantages and disadvantages associated with an all-volunteer army.

For most of its history, the U.S. used a military draft only during times of war. The first wartime draft occurred during the Civil War. Individuals in the Northern states could escape from the Civil War draft by providing a substitute (and for a short period of time, to those who were willing to pay $300 to the federal government to buy their way out of the draft). A draft was next used during World War I. Exemptions were allowed for those with dependent families, conscientious objectors (who had to perform alternative service activities), disabled individuals, and those in particular "critical" domestic occupations.

A peacetime draft was initiated by the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940, in anticipation of possible U.S. entry into World War II. From 1948 until 1973, the U.S. relied on a draft to fill vacancies in the armed forces, during periods of both war and peace. Extensive social protests concerning the Vietnam war during the 1960s, however, helped lead to the termination of the military draft in 1973.

The U.S. has relied on an all-volunteer army since 1973. Since 1980, however, males between the ages of 18 and 25 have been required to register with the Selective Service System so that a draft could be quickly reinstituted in the event of a military crisis.

The decision to implement an all-volunteer army was based on the recommendation of the Gates Commission. This Commission was formed by Richard Nixon in 1968 to investigate the possibility of shifting to an all-volunteer military from the increasingly unpopular draft system in use during the Vietnam War era. The Gates Commission argued for the use of an all-volunteer military on the grounds that the opportunity cost of a draft is substantially higher for society than the opportunity cost of labor under an all-volunteer military. Milton Friedman and the other economists on the Commission noted that the explicit cost of the military under a draft system is substantially less than the opportunity cost of the conscripted labor. The value of the output that society gives up when a worker is drafted can be approximated by the civilian wages that the draftee would have received if he had not been drafted. Under a volunteer army, individuals who elect to join the military have a lower opportunity cost of time and society gives up less output. This argument suggests that total output increases under an all-volunteer army since individuals will self-select into occupations in which they possess a comparative advantage.

An example might help to illustrate this issue. Under a draft system, a draftee might receive an annual salary of $15,000. The equilibrium salary needed to attract workers to an all-volunteer military might be $25,000. At first glance, it would seem that the draft is less expensive to society in this situation. The situation is not, though, quite that simple. Some of the soldiers who were drafted could have received a salary of $35,000 a year. The opportunity cost to society of having such individuals in the military is the value that society places on the output they could have produced in the civilian labor force. Since society values the labor services of such individuals at $35,000, this amount is the opportunity cost to society of these workers, not the artificially low military salary. Under an all-volunteer military, however, individuals who volunteer for the military do so if the value of their time in the military is higher than in alternative employments.

Opponents of the all-volunteer army argue that it results in an army that is filled primarily with individuals from low-income households. Racial minorities disproportionately fill these positions. It is suggested that this is an inequitable method of allocating the responsibility and risk of maintaining national defense.

Supporters of the all-volunteer army counter this objection by arguing that those who choose military careers do so by voluntary choice. Preventing individuals from choosing their own careers limits individual freedom and harms individuals who are forced into occupations that they do not find to be optimal.

During the 1990s, the size of the military was reduced. Rising recruitment standards in the 1980s and 1990s resulted in a military that was better educated and trained than in prior decades. Rising military pay and benefits, combined with a decline in the size of the military labor force made it relatively easy for the military to meet (or at least come close to) recruitment targets. By the end of the 1990s, however, sustained low unemployment rates in the civilian economy made it more difficult to recruit. Recruitment problems diminished with the recession beginning in 2001 and the subsequent slow labor market recovery. If unemployment rates fall substantially, though, it will once again become more difficult to recruit meet military personnel requirements without raising military pay and benefits.

Primary Resources and Data

  • 15th Field Artillery Regiment, "The Military Draft and the 1969 Draft Lottery for the Vietnam War"
    This website, provided by veterans from the 15th Field Artillery Regiment, describes the history of the draft used from 1948 until 1973. Information on induction statistics, the proportion of individuals who evaded the draft, and information about the anti-Vietnam war movement are also provided on this site.

  • Selective Service System
    The Selective Service System website contains information on the current requirements for selective service registration. It also provides statistical and historical information concerning the draft..

  • Fact Monster, "Draft Riots"
    This website contains information about 1963 the draft riots that occurred in response to the introduction of a military draft during the U.S. Civil War.

  • David Card and Thomas Lemieux, "Did Draft Avoidance Raise College Attendance During the Vietnam War?"
    In this February 2002 working paper, David Card and Thomas Lemieux investigate the effect of the Vietnam-era draft on college attendance rates for males. Since college attendance delayed the age of eligibility for conscription, males could reduce the likelihood of being drafted by attending college. Card and Lemieux find that the draft raised college attendance rates for males in the relevant age groups by 4-6 percentage points compared to the levels that would have been anticipated in the absence of the draft. The effect was largest during the years between 1965 and 1970. (The Adobe Acrobat viewer plugin is required to view this document. You may download this viewer by clicking here.)

  • Edwin Moise, "Vietnam War Bibliography: The Draft, and Personnel Issues"
    Edwin Moise of Clemson University provides this online bibliography of material related to the Vietnam era draft. While most of these resources are available only in print, links to a few online resources are also provided.

  • Brian Mitchell, "Is the Draft in Your Future?"
    Brian Mitchell describes the arguments for re-instating the draft in this February 19, 1999 Investors Business Daily article. He observes that the prosperity of the late 1990s has made it more difficult for the military to meet its recruitment goals. Mitchell notes that the military prefers the current all-volunteer army to one based on conscription since turnover is lower (and training costs are therefore also lower) under a volunteer military.

  • Walter Oi, "The Virtue of an All-Volunteer Force"
    Walter Oi examines the arguments concerning an all-volunteer military in this July 29, 2003 online article. He argues that an all-volunteer army results in a greater reliance on capital and technology due to the higher price of labor. Oi suggests that this has resulted in fewer deaths among soldiers during the last few decades. He also notes that the full cost of labor is lower under an all-volunteer army than under a draft (since the wage paid to soldiers is below the opportunity cost of their time when a draft is used).

  • Leslie Hackett, "Officials Say Draft Not Likely"
    This online September 11, 2002 news article provides a discussion of history of the draft. It also presents a few student reactions to the possibility of reinstating a draft.

  • 2000 Defense Economics Conference, "What Did We Expect Would Happen?"
    This online document describes a panel discussion for which all of the participants had been members of the Gates Commission, the Commission created by Richard Nixon in 1968 to discuss the process of moving to an all-volunteer military. The panelists were: David Kassing, Walter Oi, Robert Murray, and Christopher Jehn. Panelists recalled Milton Friedman's argument that indicated that the draft imposed a heavy tax on society by paying workers less than their market wage. Individuals attempted to avoid this tax by enrolling in college, getting married, or leaving the country. (The Adobe Acrobat viewer plugin is required to view this document. You may download this viewer by clicking here.)

  • David R. Henderson, "Thank You, William H. Meckling"
    David R. Henderson, in this January 1999 Red Herring article, describes the process that lead the President's Commission on an All-Volunteer Force to recommended the elimination of the draft. He argues that William H. Meckling and Milton Friedman were particularly persuasive in swaying those who were undecided or were opposed to a volunteer army.

  • B.G. Burkett and Glenna Whitley, "Chapters: Behind the Myths of Vietnam"
    In this May 2001 online article, B.G. Burkett and Glenna Whitley debunk several popular myths about soldiers who served in Vietnam. They note, for example, that only one-third of Vietnam-era veterans had been drafted while approximately two-thirds of the soldiers in World War II had entered through the draft. Statistics are cited indicating that those who served in Vietnam were a fairly representative cross-section of the U.S. population.

Different Perspectives in the Debate

  • Richard A. Posner, "An Army of the Willing"
    In this May 19, 2003 New Republic article, Richard A. Posner provides a defense of an all-volunteer army from a position of classical liberalism. He argues that conscription significantly restricts individual liberty and results in a less efficient military.

  • Doug Bandow, "The Volunteer Military: Better than a Draft"
    Doug Bandow argues for the continuation of an all-volunteer military in this January 6, 1991 online Cato Institute Foreign Policy Briefing. As part of the discussion, he provides an historical overview of the introduction of and the elimination of the draft. Bandow cites evidence indicating that an all-volunteer military has attracted individuals who are "smarter and better educated than their civilian counterparts."

  • Sheldon Richman, "The Draft is Un-American"
    TIn this March 10, 2003 commentary, Sheldon Richman argues for the continuation of an all-volunteer army. He argues that a draft system makes it easier for the government to commit troops to war since the cost to taxpayers is kept artificially low. Richman argues, from a libertarian perspective, that: "The draft is a monstrous violation of individual liberty..."

  • Steven E. Landsburg, "Shut City Hall!"
    Steven E. Landsburg argues, in this June 4, 2002 Slate article, that policymakers should consider implicit costs as well as explicit costs when making policy decisions. He suggests that economists' arguments concerning the high opportunity costs associated with the military draft were a major factor in the creation of an all-volunteer army.

  • Morgan Rose, "Economists' Views on the Costs of War"
    In this January 28, 2002 online article, Morgan Rose examines Adam Smith's views on the use of a standing army vs. a reserve system. This discussion examines Smith's explanation of the rise of military activities as economic development occurs and his arguments in support of a professional standing army.

  • David Chandler, "A Rationale for Counter-Recruitment"
    In this online document, David Chandler raises questions concerning whether those who sign up for the volunteer army have provided informed consent. He notes that military recruiters focus their presentations on the benefit package provided by the military; they do not place much emphasis on the possibility of killing other humans or on the risk of being killed. Chandler also raises questions concerning the use of teen magazines, high school junior ROTC programs, and flight simulators to try to convince teenagers to sign up for the military.

  • Ed Lotterman, "Let's Consider Bringing Back the Draft"
    Ed Lotterman provides a case for the resumption of the draft in this online article. He first provides a discussion of Milton Friedman's arguments on behalf of an all-volunteer army. Lotterman argues that Friedman's model is appropriate only if military volunteers possess perfect information and there are no externalities associated with military service. He suggests that the use of a draft is preferable since 18-19 year old individuals do not fully comprehend the risks associated with military service. These risks, under a volunteer army, disproportionately fall on individuals with low levels of education. Lotterman also argues that a draft forces more public discussion and debate on U.S. foreign and military policy. He suggests that this is a positive externality associated with the use of a draft.

  • Roger H. Gordon, Chong-En Bai, and David D. Li, "Efficiency Losses from Tax Distortions vs. Government Controls"
    Roger H. Gordon, Chong-En Bai, and David D. Li examine the cost to society of relying on conscription in this April 5, 1999 online document. They note that there is an efficiency cost to either a draft or a volunteer army. The efficiency cost of conscription is that workers are not assigned to the tasks in which they possess a comparative advantage. While an all-volunteer army does not experience this efficiency cost, taxes must be increased to cover the higher explicit costs associated with a volunteer army. The increase in taxes raises the deadweight loss associated with tax collections. (This deadweight loss occurs because taxes alters the benefits or costs associated with the activity on which the taxes are imposed. Higher income tax rates, for example, may reduce labor supply. Similarly, higher sales taxes on specific commodities reduce the consumption of those items to a level that is below the socially optimal level.)

    The authors of this study argue that the efficiency cost of a draft goes down as the size of the military rises since a smaller proportion of draftees are improperly assigned to the military when a larger proportion of the age-appropriate cohort is conscripted. If the military requires nearly all workers of a given age group, then it is efficient to have nearly all workers in the military. On the other hand, the efficiency cost of an all-volunteer army rises as the size of the military grows. Because of this, it is argued that a draft is likely to be more efficient when a large share of the labor force is required for the military while an all-volunteer military tends to be more efficient when the size of the military labor force is relatively small. The size of the military labor force at which it becomes optimal to switch from a volunteer army to one based on a draft depends on factors such as tax rates, labor supply elasticities, and the distribution of various types of ability across individuals in the population. (The Adobe Acrobat viewer plugin is required to view this document. You may download this viewer by clicking here.)

  • Senate Subcommittee on Employment, Manpower, and Poverty of the Committee on Labor and Public Welfare, "Manpower Implications of Selective Service"
    This online document provides excerpts from hearings on the draft conducted in 1967. The excerpts in this document focus on the likelihood racial mix of an all-volunteer army. Of particular interest is the April 6, 1967 testimony of Milton Friedman.

  • Jeremy Barnicle, "The Military Recruitment Gap"
    In this October 1, 2004 online article, Jeremy Barnicle discusses problems faced by the Army National Guard in meeting recruitment goals. Concern is expressed over the ability of the military to fulfill its current commitments.

  • Morten I. Lau, Panu Poutvaara, and Andreas Wagener, "The Dynamic Cost of the Draft"
    Morten I. Lau, Panu Poutvaara, and Andreas Wagener examine the efficiency cost of the draft in this 2002 CEBR working paper. The use a dynamic model that examines the distortions caused by a draft on time allocation over the course of the life cycle. They find that conscription may result in substantial costs in terms of forgone GDP and in lifetime utility. (Portions of this paper are relatively technical.) The Adobe Acrobat viewer plugin is required to view this document. You may download this viewer by clicking here.

  • Donald J. Boudreaux, "A Life-Saving Lesson from Operation Desert Storm"
    In this October 1993 article, Donald J. Boudreaux argues that the use of all-volunteer army was a major reason for the low loss of American lives during the Gulf War. He suggests that volunteers are better trained and motivated than conscripts. Since the turnover rate is lower, it is optimal for the military to invest more resources in training soldiers, resulting in a more highly skilled military labor force.

    Boudreaux also suggests, however, that the higher explicit labor cost associated with an all-volunteer military causes a substitution effect that encourages "the use of more and better equipment." Under a draft, the artificially low cost of labor is expected to result in the use of more labor and less equipment to achieve military objectives. If the military attempts to minimize the cost of attaining its goals, it will use more labor and less capital under a draft system than under an all-volunteer military.

  • Gary Younge, "What About Private Lori?"
    Gary Younge argues, in this April 10, 2003 article, that minority groups represent a disproportionate share of the military. He notes that the proportion of racial minorities in the military has grown from 23% to 37% between 1973 and 2000. Younge suggests that this is an inequitable outcome that results from the low average incomes of racial minorities.

  • Daniel Buford, "Marketing the Military: Should Soldiering Be Sold Like Soap"
    Daniel Buford, in this Spring 1987 article, suggests that the military has used advertising and marketing techniques to misrepresent the reality of military service to the nation's youth. He argues that it is inappropriate to use junior ROTC programs and military public schools to market military careers to individuals aged 14 and older.

  • Raymond C. Finch, "Fall 1997 Russian Military Draft"
    Raymond C. Finch examined the use of the draft in the Russian military. He notes that tradition and a lack of funds has prevented the Russian military from moving to an all-volunteer military. Low military wages and the availability of a variety of deferments have resulted in a decline in the average quality of those serving in the military. The effects of corruption are also examined in this article.

  • Walter Williams, "The Economics of the Military Draft"
    Walter Williams examines economic issues related to the use of a draft in this May 5, 2004 article appearing in Capitalism Magazine. He argues that a draft allows the military and politicians to understate the cost of the labor used by the military. Williams suggests that the use of a draft would make it more likely that the U.S. would commit its soldiers to participation in future wars.

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