Restore the Draft? What a Bad Idea

A long report in Time magazine a few weeks back carries the headline: “Restoring the Draft: No Panacea.”

Milton Friedman must be turning over his grave at the mere suggestion of a draft. If the problem is that not enough young people are volunteering to fight in Iraq, there are two reasonable solutions: 1) take the troops out of Iraq; or 2) compensate soldiers well enough that they are willing to enlist.

The idea that a draft presents a reasonable solution is completely backwards. First, it puts the “wrong” people in the military — people who are either uninterested in a military life, not well equipped for one, or who put a very high value on doing something else. From an economic perspective, those are all decent reasons for not wanting to be in the military. (I understand that there are other perspectives — for example, a sense of debt or duty to one’s country — but if a person feels that way, it will be factored into his or her interest in military life.)

One thing markets are good at is allocating people to tasks. They accomplish this through wages. As such, we should pay U.S. soldiers a fair wage to compensate them for the risks they take! A draft is essentially a large, very concentrated tax on those who are drafted. Economic theory tells us that is an extremely inefficient way to accomplish our goal.

Critics might argue that sending less economically-advantaged kids to die in Iraq is inherently unfair. While I wouldn’t disagree that it’s unfair that some people are born rich and others poor, given that income disparity exists in this country, you’d have to possess a low opinion of the decision-making ability of military enlistees to say that a draft makes more sense than a volunteer army. Given the options they face, the men and women joining the military are choosing that option over the others available to them. A draft may make sense as an attempt to reduce inequality; but in a world filled with inequality, letting people choose their own paths is better than dictating one for them. As a perfect example of this, the Army is currently offering $20,000 “quick ship” bonuses to those who are willing to ship out to basic training within 30 days of signing up. (This bonus likely has something to do with the fact that the Army just hit its monthly recruiting goal for the first time in a while.)

It would be even better if the government was required to pay fair wages to soldiers during war time — i.e., if combat pay was market-determined and soldiers could opt to leave whenever they wanted, like most jobs. If that were the case, the cost to the government would skyrocket and more accurately reflect the true costs of war, leading to a truer assessment of whether the benefits of military action outweigh the costs.

Critics also argue that, if more affluent Caucasians were in the military, we wouldn’t be in Iraq. That is probably true, but it doesn’t automatically mean that a draft is a good idea. A draft would make fighting wars much less efficient, which should mean fewer wars. But it may be the case that, if you can fight a war efficiently, it is worth fighting — even if it’s not worth fighting inefficiently. Just to be clear, I am not saying this particular war is necessarily worth fighting — just that, in theory, this could be true.

As a side point, the current system of relying on reservists doesn’t seem like a good one, either. Essentially, it involves the government overpaying reservists when they aren’t needed, and underpaying them when they are needed. This setup shifts all the risk from the government to the reservists. From an economic perspective, such a result doesn’t make any sense, because individuals shouldn’t/don’t like risk. Ideally, you would want a system in which the payment to reservists is extremely low in peace time, and high enough in war time that they would be indifferent to being called up or not.


Why is it "probably true" the "if more affluent Caucasians were in the military, we wouldn't be in Iraq"?

It also seems like you are assuming that being in Iraq is somehow undesirable, economically or otherwise. That may be the popular opinion, but popularity doesn't mean correctness.


"And everyone who talks about how awesome it is that golfers were able to play golf during the summer heat for thousands or millions of dollars is totally right: I mean, they weren't even allowed to wear shorts.
In other news, thousands of soldiers and Marines woke up in Baghdad today for the 47th consecutive day of 110+ degree heat. Then they put on their body armor, helmets, and 40 pounds of gear each and went on patrol in a Humvee without air conditioning. When asked to comment, they said that the extra $150 a month for combat pay made it all worthwhile."

Jim Walsh

Economics only goes so far. While I certainly do not advocate a draft, this post fails to account for many variables. This current war is UNnecessary but what if it were truly necessary. Would we then still apply your efficiency criteria? If we paid soldiers a fair wage for their true value, risking death, they would all be millionaires. Sometimes, society cannot pay a market rate, and government must intervene. What is the true value of a cardiac surgeon? If we really compensated them according to supply and demand, they would have ALL of the money.
Everyone who supports the war should be required to fight it. Taken further, only vets should be able to vote because they are the only ones who are qualified and know the true cost.


The benefit of a draft would be, like some taxes, its redistributive element in which it would guarantee that the army would be composed of demographics that are similar to those of the United States and would certainly include more people from the decision making classes. While your solution of using market forces to show the "true" cost of war would probably be better, it is also harder to implement because of the Government's reluctance to pay fair wages and allow the soldiers the freedom this solution would require.

will perkins

There's a better argument for mandatory military service (of the kind employed in Israel or Germany for example) than for a draft. With mandatory military service in a democracy, voters would take the risks of military action more seriously.

At the same time, military service itself would be more appealing, since you wouldn't 'get behind' during your time in service. Right now, one large reason the military does not appeal to more wealthy, educated people, is that the time away from school or work seems to put you behind your peers. If everyone had to do it, no one would be behind.


A draft would simply weaken the military and, once again, force Congress to stop payment as the national morale plummets i.e. Vietnam.

Wait... Maybe it is a good idea.


I think that I agree with the main thrust of your argument: we wouldn't have a problem getting people to volunteer to fight if we paid them a wage in line with their opportunity costs (e.g. not dying, not killing, working some job). But I don't understand this:

"A draft is essentially a large, very concentrated tax on those who are drafted. Economic theory tells us that is an extremely inefficient way to accomplish our goal"

I get that you are using "inefficient" in a highly specific manner. Nevertheless, if the goal is to get bodies on the ground in Iraq, isn't a draft the least expensive (and therefore most "efficient", used in an everyday sense) way to do it? Is it inefficient because of the backlash, the draft dodgers etc, or is there some other reason?


Logan Antill

Because you know who is willing to fight in Iraq? The hundreds of thousands of private security forces whose pay dwarfs the regular Army and who are accountable to no one.

Mercenaries are the way to go. No oversight at all.


Let me get this straight: are you saying government is inefficient?


I understand that you are an economist, but putting on the political-economy hat for a moment - note that the arguments about a Draft are not really a policy suggestion.

Bringing up the draft is a low-cost (political cost...pick your proxy variable) back-door way of calling attention to drawbacks about this lengthy engagement.

Bringing up the issue of draft is also meant to prime an easy mental comparison to Vietnam, the last time that we used the Draft. This strategy to re-frame the debate is a smart tactic - since it continues to prompt journalists to help prime Americans for Vietnam comparisons with another "controversy over the Draft."

matt heintz

post 3)

cardiac surgeons are already paid a market rate...


If there was a draft people who otherwise don't need to think about the personal consequences of war would oppose the conflict. This means a lot more people expressing discontent with the war to their senators.

It could be that the personal disutility of war multiplied by the number of soldiers is less than the increase in overall utility from war, but that the personal disutility of war multiplied by the chance of being called to serve plus the disutility for those already there is not greater than the overall utility gains from war.


Isn't the volunteer army already recruiting the "wrong" people? The people most likely to join the military are those who have few good choices in life. It is inherently unfair when someone has to choose between a minimum wage job that can barely pay for rent or signing up for the military to receive a fat check (that they may or may not live long enough to spend) and a rifle. The result of this is not a correct allocation of resources -- many of these people are not suited at all to military life but are merely in it for the pay. Meanwhile there are thousands of "perfect" soldiers who would never go to Iraq because they can easily get a 9-5 sitting in a cubicle. I think the only solutions to this are to pay our soldiers an incredible amount of money to give them true compensation or to institute a draft.

I also believe the costs of war are being hidden behind the poor. When we have a draft and Mitt Romney's sons are blown up by a roadside bomb it will become much more clear to everyone in the beltway how brutal - and costly - the war really is.


Julian Garcia

Why is it “probably true” the “if more affluent Caucasians were in the military, we wouldn't be in Iraq”?

Because affluent Caucasians in power would feel more direct costs?

ils vont

if people think it is unfair than you should stop spending all day on the internet writing about how unfair things are and make them fair. if people think its unfair, do your part to fill the quota and enlist. Is working on an oil rig unfair? very dangerous work but good money. There are lots of jobs like this. Drafts are not fair. when you enlist you know what you are getting into.


I think the point of the post focused on the costs of the soldiers actually fighting the war, and not the validity of the war itself. A draft or a mandatory service would spread the costs of war to everyone, INCLUDING the people with the political power to prevent wars from happening. This would decrease the amount of wars dramatically because more of the costs would be felt.

Even though, if we did have a war with a draft, people really COULDN'T be unmotivated because they'd be killed if they were. It wouldn't be the most efficient way to do it, but it would be more efficient then the way now. If it was left up purely to market forces wages would be so high that war would be completely untenable......I guess that wouldn't be a bad thing.

Nick M.

Well said.

I'm the right age to be drafted right now and all I can hope is that the government sees things the same way.

I'm not oppose to mandatory military service though. Having peaceful people in the military instead of just those willing to risk death for lack of better options and/or what they feel is duty seems like a good idea. Presumably it's a lot harder to go to war when your troops aren't looking for a fight in the first place.


Perhaps the most efficient solution is a mixed military: draftees and pros. Draftees would carry out menial jobs (such as office clerks in Washington) while the pros would fight in the front.


"I get that you are using “inefficient” in a highly specific manner. Nevertheless, if the goal is to get bodies on the ground in Iraq, isn't a draft the least expensive (and therefore most “efficient”, used in an everyday sense) way to do it? Is it inefficient because of the backlash, the draft dodgers etc, or is there some other reason?"

It is inefficient because you forcibly take people into military service who would otherwise work. Apart from a moral argument against conscription (It being a form of enslavement) you take people who might be highly productive in the workforce (such as a computer nerd) and moving them to something they are very bad at. If 3 able bodied people could earn $100K, $40K and $25K each in the private economy, and you need two soldiers from them, picking 2 at random is bad, as 2/3 of the time you will pick the person most productive outside the military to serve.

If you pick by offering a salary high enough to get the people you need, in this example $41K, you remove from the private sector the two least productive people, and it's more efficient.



"It would be even better if the government was required to pay fair wages to soldiers during war time."

Come on, what is the point of having soldiers if they are not going to go to battle? While I find most of this blog's ideas well thought out, this one is just wrong.

Soldiers know that there is a risk of going to war. Perhaps the current cohort misjudged the hawkishness of America's neocons, but that is the risk they took and 'evaluated' when enlisting. Imagine what would happen to a military that said: Sign up--we won't even make you work! Sure you would get a lot of enlisties, but they would do nothing ... At least Keynes suggested ditch digging to spur the economy. I can hardly see how this 'optimal' outcome is more effiecent than a draft.