Bring back the draft

We have had troops on the ground in Afghanistan for nearly a year and the administration continues to press for a war with Iraq that would involve calling up a quarter of a million reservists.

This is a good time to revisit a policy issue that has stayed quiet for 25 years. Namely, we should bring back the military draft.

Now there is an assertion that won’t bring in a flood of positive e-mails. But I believe it merits consideration.

In modern industrial societies such as ours, compulsory military service is economically preferable to an all-volunteer system.

I’ll acknowledge at the outset that this assertion is not conventional wisdom among economists. Milton Friedman, a Nobel laureate and far brighter person than I, argued just the opposite. But I think his analysis is incomplete.

Friedman argued that compulsory military service constitutes a tax on young men. While the tax was superficially uniform in that the draft was for two years of service for all, it was highly unequal in the “disutility,” or loss of satisfaction, experienced by different individuals.

Friedman’s logic is impeccable and his argument is sound as long as you accept at least two assumptions: First, there is no “information problem”; the 18- and 19-year-olds who choose to enlist have complete knowledge of all the potential costs and benefits of their decisions. And second, one has to assume there are no “externalities” associated with either compulsory or voluntary systems; that is, there are no unintended or collateral costs or benefits to society as a whole resulting from the draft.

Both assumptions are false. Like Friedman, I am influenced by personal experience. I enlisted in the Army just after my 17th birthday and a few months after completing high school. With 35 years of hindsight, I would probably do it all over again. But it also is clear that virtually none of the 52 men in my basic training platoon – volunteer or draftee – possessed a complete idea of what lay ahead.

I think the draft clearly had spillover benefits. One was it tended to focus the attention of many households on U.S. foreign and military policy in a way that is visibly lacking today. College students who faced being shipped to Vietnam had a more personal stake than today’s young people who may or may not care about what the United States does in Iraq or Afghanistan because, terrorism aside, they do not have to worry about their personal safety.

I don’t expect any groundswell of calls for restoring the draft. But it would be helpful to think about what we lost as well as what we gained when we moved to all-volunteer armed forces.

Edward Lotterman is an economist and writer who lives and works in St. Paul, Minn.