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The Cost of Conscription - PDF - / Send As Email
Besides being Immoral, Forcing People into Military or National Service is not Cost-Effective.
by William P. Field, Jr and Donald J. Boudreaux
In Reason, August 1979, pp. 38-40 - Previous Article / Next Article

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HERE IS a great deal of dis-
quieting talk in the United
States these days about re-
verting to conscription of the T nation's youth. This con-
scription is to be used not only to fill the
military ranks but also, under the dubious
title of "national service," to fill federal
government jobs or jobs designated as de-
sirable by the federal government.
Libertarians thought the battle against
conscription had been won, but statists al-
most never give up on any possibility for
increasing their power. Today, an alliance
of conservatives (who want the military
draft) and liberals (who want mandatory
national service) has created a very real
possibility that a proposal combining
both could obtain the congressional votes
necessary for passage.
Obviously, such a proposal is even more
repulsive and immoral (if degrees of im-
morality are possible) than a proposal for
a military draft alone. The technical skills
of a philosopher are clearly not necessary
in order to reject it on purely moral
grounds. Our purpose here, however, is
not to restate the moral arguments
against this draft-national service propos-
al but rather to explain the economic fal-
lacies involved. Even these provide ample
reason for opposition to the proposal.
Those wishing to reinstitute the draft
(mostly conservatives) mainly emphasize
the enormous and exploding costs of mili-
tary manpower. They argue that these
costs make it much more difficult for the
United States to finance all its needs for
military hardware and technology. This
difficulty, in turn, makes it more likely
that the United States will eventually fall
behind the Soviet Union in both areas.
Obviously, with a draft, wage rates for
military personnel could be lowered and
outlays for manpower reduced. This is
what conservatives mean by their claim
that use of the draft would lower defense
costs. Thus, they conclude that "the mili-
tary problem" could be solved, or at least
substantially alleviated, by a return to
military conscription.
This argument seems to have a kind of
superficial validity, but it falls apart com-
pletely when subjected to economic analy-
sis. Contrary to the claim of the conserva-
tives, the reinstitution of the draft would
not result in the true cost of military per-
sonnel being magically lowered from the
cost of the present all-volunteer force. The
,true economic cost of having an individ-
ual in the military is not the wage he is
paid but rather the goods and services he
could have produced in the private econ-
omy-the opportunity cost, as it is called
by economists.
The wage rate an individual earns in
the private economy is a minimum indica-
tion of his productivity there. No busi-
nessman who expects to continue in oper-
ation can afford to pay a worker more
than the value of his output. With an all-
volunteer army, individuals must be paid
at least what they could have earned in the
private economy to induce them to volun-
teer. Thus, the taxpayer has to pay the
true cost of having these individuals in the
The result of the use of the draft to ob-
tain military personnel would be that the
economic burden of the military, rather
than being reduced, would simply be
shifedfrom the general taxpayer onto the
shoulders of the conscripted individuals.
A tax break would be given to civilians at
the expense of the draftees, who would
pay a tax in the form of forgone wages and
benefits. Obviously, this would reduce the
size ofthe reported military budget, but it
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