Tag: conscription

Service to the American People or to the American State?

One of the most persistent utopian visions over the last century and more is national service. By “national service” proponents never mean service to Americans. The United States long has been famous for the willingness of its people to organize to help one another and respond to social problems. Alexis de Tocqueville cited this activism as one of the hallmarks of the early American republic.

Rather, advocates of “national service” mean service to the state. To be sure, they believe the American people would benefit. But informal, decentralized, private service doesn’t count.

The latest proponent is columnist Michael Gerson, one-time speechwriter for “compassionate conservative” George W. Bush. Wrote Gerson:

How then does a democracy cultivate civic responsibility and shared identity? Taxation allows us to fund common purposes, but it does not provide common experiences. A rite of passage in which young people — rich and poor, liberal and conservative, of every racial background — work side by side to address public problems would create, at least, a vivid, lifelong memory of shared national purpose.

To Gerson’s credit, he does not advocate a mandatory program, where people would go to jail if they didn’t desire to share the national purpose exalted by their betters. But many people, from Margaret Mead to Senator Ted Kennedy, did want a civilian draft. Indeed, a number of noted liberals who campaigned against military conscription were only too happy to force the young into civilian “service.” 

War Is Too Easy, but a Draft Is Not the Solution

In yesterday’s New York Times, Thomas Ricks penned an op-ed calling for the draft to be reinstituted. Ricks offers that under his plan for military conscription, libertarians who object could opt out provided they don’t partake of Uncle Sam’s other goodies such as federally subsidized mortgages, Medicare, and college loans. As a libertarian who objects to a draft, but who also received an NROTC scholarship in exchange for an active-duty commission, I think that Ricks is offering conscientious objectors a raw deal.

Those opting out, of course, could not refuse to pay the taxes that are used to fund government programs. That would be great for the government—compel people to pay for services that they will never use—but it is profoundly unfair, especially to young adults.

Mr. Ricks’s plan will certainly cost more money than our current all-volunteer force, especially in the near term. For example, we can expect tuition to skyrocket as soon as college administrators realize that the taxpayers are on the hook to pay for these new conscripts’ secondary education. The long-term savings that Ricks anticipates from changes to the military retirement are likely to prove equally elusive; past attempts to rein in costs for military retirees, including changes to eligibility rules, have repeatedly failed. There are sensible ideas for fixing the problem, but the politics are still really tough.

A draft is unlikely to save us money, but it will certainly abridge young people’s freedom. It is unfair to older adults, too, who would see their taxes rise. To add insult to injury, many older adults would see their tax dollars go to pay low-wage workers who would then be competing with them for jobs. Mr. Ricks thinks it’s outrageous that a 50-year old janitor earns $106,000 a year, plus overtime; the janitor would disagree. Others who would suddenly be forced to compete with a taxpayer-funded horde of 18-year olds include day care providers, nurses, and construction workers.

Libertarians want minimal government, as Mr. Ricks claims, but his plan would dramatically expand government power, abridge individual liberty, and distort the labor market. Despite his claims that this will be beneficial to the economy, economists long ago concluded that the all-volunteer force is superior to conscription. Conscription is a superficially great deal for the government, but a net loss for the taxpayer and draftee in hidden costs, and lost freedom.

I am sympathetic to Mr. Ricks’s desire to avoid rushing headlong into other foolish wars. It is too easy for the United States to wage war and send resources—drones, special operations forces—to low-level conflicts. Congress has abdicated its responsibility to declare war and deficit spending kicks the monetary costs down the road. But the draft is not the answer. Instead, let’s begin our search for a solution by forcing the advocates for such wars to a higher standard of proof, and holding them accountable when their rosy predictions of quick success prove erroneous.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.