RIP Economist and Cato Friend Walter Oi: An Advocate for Liberty and the Volunteer Military

With most people focused on the coming of Christmas, the death of economist Walter Oi received little attention.  Educated at the University of Chicago and appointed professor at the University of Rochester, Oi was an outstanding labor economist.  He was no mere ivory tower advocate of liberty.  He was a Nisei, or second-generation Japanese-American.  At age 13 during World War II his family was interned in California.

Life didn’t get easier for him.  His eyesight steadily deteriorated, and he could not read text upon entering college.  He fully lost his sight in 1956.  Yet he went on to gain a PhD, teach, research, serve on presidential commissions, and gain a long list of honors.  His career should embarrass the rest of us.

Moreover, like Cato’s late chairman, Bill Niskanen, Oi stood on principle irrespective of cost.  In warm tribute to the latter, economist David Henderson, a University of Rochester colleague and another Cato Institute friend, pointed to Oi’s criticism of the future prospects for agriculture when teaching at Iowa State University and opposition to proposals for government reparations for the internment of Japanese-Americans.

Oi’s research interests were many but, Henderson wrote:  “If you are an American male younger than 66, you should take a moment and give thanks to economist Walter Oi.  Walter died on Christmas Eve 2013.  Even though you probably haven’t heard of him, he has had a profound effect on your life.  He helped end military conscription in the United States.”

I am one of those who was able to choose my own way, rather than be subject to presidential diktat and sent off to fight in a stupid, unnecessary foreign war.  Tens of thousands of Americans would have been alive had the draft not been available in the 1960s to provide a guaranteed supply of cannon fodder for Lyndon Johnson’s and Richard Nixon’s misadventure in Vietnam.

Many people played critical roles in causing this self-proclaimed free society to rely on a free people for its defense.  Richard Nixon, who proposed the All-Volunteer Force.  Martin Anderson, for whom I later worked in the Reagan White House, who convinced Nixon to tackle the issue.  Milton Friedman, who served on the famous “Gates Commission,” which recommended the shift.

And Walter Oi, who served as a staff economist on the latter panel.

As Henderson, who now educates military officers at the Naval Postgraduate School, explained, Oi’s “passion for free labor markets was what motivated his work on the draft.  His contribution was to point out—and estimate two costs.  First, there was the hidden cost imposed on draftees and ‘draft-induced’ or ‘reluctant’ volunteers.  …  The second cost Oi estimated was the increased annual budget outlay needed to eliminate the draft.”

The AVF obviously was a moral triumph.  It also turned out to be a practical achievement.  The military did far better recruiting people who wanted to serve than impressing those who only wanted out.  Today America has the finest military it has ever fielded, and the best in the world. 

As I wrote in a Cato Policy Analysis:

Indeed, a draft would degrade the military’s performance, requiring induction of less-qualified personnel, who are rejected today, and raising the rate of ‘indiscipline’ by filling the armed services with people who don’t want to serve.  It comes as no surprise that the military leadership opposes conscription.

Walter Oi was sui generis.  He personally suffered from tyrannical though democratic government.  He overcame disability without complaint.  He risked job and opposed government benefits because he valued honesty and principle.  He backed his commitment to liberty with wide-ranging and quality economic research.  And he made a huge difference in the lives of tens of millions of his countrymen.

RIP Walter.