Remember When ‘Liberals’ Were Liberal?

Nick Kristof devotes his NYT column today to wishing that American society were organized like the U.S. military. The armed forces “live by an astonishingly liberal ethos,” he gushes, and closes the column by suggesting that ”as the United States armed forces try to pull Iraqi and Afghan societies into the 21st century, maybe they could do the same for America’s.”

(I swear I’m not making this up.)

Kristof looks at the military and sees the ideal United States:

The military helped lead the way in racial desegregation, and even today it does more to provide equal opportunity to working-class families — especially to blacks — than just about any social program. It has been an escalator of social mobility in American society because it invests in soldiers and gives them skills and opportunities.

The United States armed forces knit together whites, blacks, Asians and Hispanics from diverse backgrounds, invests in their education and training, provides them with excellent health care and child care. And it does all this with minimal income gaps: A senior general earns about 10 times what a private makes, while, by my calculation, C.E.O.’s at major companies earn about 300 times as much as those cleaning their offices. That’s right: the military ethos can sound pretty lefty.

…The military is innately hierarchical, yet it nurtures a camaraderie in part because the military looks after its employees. This is a rare enclave of single-payer universal health care, and it continues with a veterans’ health care system that has much lower costs than the American system as a whole.

How times change. Four decades ago, folks like Kristof were marching on the Pentagon and burning their draft cards. Today they want to enlist.

More seriously: Racial equality, social mobility, and freedom from concerns about health care and child care are laudable goals. (Among the virtues of free markets is that they move society toward such goals.) Also, the U.S. armed services have helped improve many people’s lives, giving them careers, skills, education, and other benefits.

But, granting all that and assuming Kristof’s view of the armed forces isn’t romanticized (I know, but assume), he overlooks two important points:

First, the U.S. military is an all-volunteer force, which means that service members freely choose to take on both the obligations and benefits of military life. Yet lots of people choose not to live that life, for many reasons — including that they’re displeased with the benefits. Kristof gushes about how the military treats its members (again, assume); but what’s the difference between the military offering benefits that its service members like, and the private sector offering different benefits that its workers like? (Remember the lament that public employees receive lower wages than similar private-sector workers.)

It should also be noted that, until the U.S. military became an all-volunteer force, it compensated and treated its service members more like cannon-fodder. But once the services had to compete for labor in a free market, they expanded the benefits that Kristof now hails. Private-sector employers have to compete in that same marketplace.

Second, the U.S. military is the U.S. military. That is, it is financed through taxation, directed by politicians, and operated as a rigid hierarchy. Costs and the individual preferences of its service members are not of high concern. The social changes Kristof favors can be implemented by force in such a world. But that coercion is out of place in a world where costs matter and people have freedom.

Such a world most certainly does not have “an astonishing liberal ethos.”