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Conscription and the Draft

Considering economic approaches to the draft.

Written by johnleemk on 2:33:15 pm Jun 15, 2007.

One of the more controversial issues I have never held much of an opinion on is the draft. There are equally strong arguments for a conscripted and a volunteer armed forces, so I have maintained a state of ambivalence on the issue.

For me, the strongest argument for a volunteer army is that this means the citizens of the state can vote, so to speak, on the validity of a war. There is something to what many on the internet call the "wisdom of the crowds" — the success of the market system is proof of this.

After all, the state is nothing more than an embodiment of the people. The state serves the people, not the other way round. If the people refuse to fight in a war, why should they be forced to?

If the war is crucial to national survival, the people will naturally fight. If they don't care about their homeland, it is a lost cause; if they do, there is no need for the draft.

There is an equally strong counterbalancing argument, however. Individuals naturally have a short-term timeframe when it comes to decisionmaking. The outcome of a war which seems unimportant now may have dramatic consequences in the future.

American military history provides a surfeit of examples. For example, because of public opinion, Dwight Eisenhower refused to prop up the French colonialist government in Vietnam and deploy American troops during the 1950s. The result? An even more disastrous war for the United States a decade later.

The Vietnam War, however, provides a counterpoint to this counterpoint. The government is not always good at predicting the impact of a war; the Vietnam War was fought on the basis of the faulty domino theory, which posited that if one country fell to communism, other countries would also fall similarly until there was not a single free country in Southeast Asia.

From an economic perspective, there is something to this argument for the draft. National security is a textbook example of the tragedy of the commons — of how the government has to step in to coerce people for the greater good of society. Without the power of the government to tax its citizens and pay for the upkeep of the military, the army would be underfunded and the consequences disastrous.

It's not difficult to see how a similar reasoning can be applied to the question of conscription. Unless the government can obtain the appropriate resources to maintain its military, society may be undermined.

However, there is a third way which I don't recall having heard before — simply raise the soldiers' wages. If the question of military service is one of individual choice and of the tragedy of the commons, the government already has the resources of the taxman at its beck and call.

All the government has to do to get more soldiers, then, is to raise taxes and pay for a larger military. People join the military of their own volition, and the armed forces do not go wanting for manpower.

This of course does not address the issue of whether all citizens should be forced to serve in the military — something common in many small states such as Singapore and Israel. However, that is a question which probably deserves a separate piece of its own.

The draft is a perturbing question to me, because there is really no simple answer. All of life's questions are complex, but some are more complicated than others, and the draft is one of the latter.

The alternative I have proposed may be one workable solution; on paper, it certainly works, given the right conditions. But there is no way to be certain about how it would turn out in reality unless it is actually tried out.