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.


A draft is also a tax in that it reallocates the costs. Right now those (and their families) who have few other options or a higher sense of "duty to country" are paying a disproportionate share of this war. The draft will cause everyone (nearly) to have to consider the true costs of going to war (Romney's sons still won't go; Cheney et al didn't). It's too bad that we have to discuss a draft before people really think about the war being necessary.


It is kind of peculiar that the US spends more than the rest of the world combined on its military, and yet very few of us will ever serve in the military, particularly as compared with counties that have mandatory service. Peculiar, for example, that so few in the Bush Administration, for all their bellicosity, ever served.

We seem to have a bit of a bifurcation of our society based on service in the military, not only in that those families and castes that do not generally serve in the military might be more cavalier about sending the military off to war, but also in that the families and castes that often make careers of the military, political views worthy of Bismarck often take hold.

The economics of the draft are no doubt exactly as Prof. Levitt says, but I can't help but think from time to time about how common it has been since even before Roman times that the military has taken over the government. Our biggest protection against tyranny, I think, is not that our military protects us from outside threats, but that the fact that our military is composed of average citizens protects us against the threat of our own military. But the more bifurcated our society becomes out of service or non-service in the military, the less viable this protection becomes. I somewhat doubt that economic theory reflects very well the possibility of the whole economic apple cart being overturned.

I think there would be a lot of good in having universal military service.


Rita: Lovely Meter Maid

Why would those people who are poor and "chose" to fight in a war (in reality: essentially forced into it because there are not many - or really any other, better options for them) necessarily become more efficient or better soldiers than those who are drafted? The issue of coercion is at stake, whether it's through the draft or through pressure exerted on those from circumstances that make it such that fighting in a war is really their best option. That doesn't mean they want to be in a war and will make great soldiers.


"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.">

In economics, popularity is the definition of correctness.


"'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."
Remembering fairly well my decision process when I chose to enlist, I, for one, do possess such an opinion.

"Taken further, only vets should be able to vote because they are the only ones who are qualified and know the true cost."
That would be a very, very bad idea -- even worse than a draft. If only vets can vote, after all, shouldn't only vets hold office? In fact, shouldn't the military just take over the show?


I think the best point Steve brings up is the lack of flexibility with the employment process run by the US Military.
If soldiers were given a reasonable opportunity to opt out (and not be called a deserter) the government would have to be much more careful of the wars we get ourselves into.
A pay that is commensurate with the risk these soldiers take on, would also discourage wasteful wars.
I see the market failure occurring, partially as a result of the Patriotic bull that runs through our society and leads many to make irrational decisions.


Levitt's premise as always is interesting and probably true, but I personally feel that there should be a universal draft for public service, one component of which would be military service. I agree with him that the draft is inefficient, and I believe in a war, like the one in which we are now engaged, it would only breed insubordination from those that resent the premise, no matter which rung on the economic/class ladder one may be from. Having lived through the Vietnam war, I have seen this in historic terms.
On the other hand the lack of community awareness and responsibility that has been apparent for many years now, I believe could be engendered if every citizen were required to give in some way; it would give everyone a sense of participation in our democracy, and make America more than just a place to make money.


We should have two-year universal service for young people but give them the choice of either fighting in Iraq or working to elect Mitt Romney.


Hi Steven. I can see that this article is important. I can mostly follow it. But I am hanging on by the edge of my mental fingernails. Can you come up with a catchy topic that will give you an excuse to define efficiency and inefficiency for us?


Yes, were there a draft in place we would be out of Iraq. Bush likes to talk about sacrifice, but his core constituency is untouched by the war. They keep their tax cuts and their kids go to Ivy League schools. A draft would make the insanity of the war real to mothers and fathers across the board, and equalize the sacrifice. People with influence would force an end to the blood letting.

ed lavin

I propose a constitutional amendment, mandating, upon the deployment of a specified number of US troops in any conflict, the drafting into the US Infantry the of-age children of every Congressman and Senator in the US government as well as those of the President, Vice President and Cabinet members. This limited draft would avoid the pitfalls of a general draft and the resulting large number of un-motivated draftees and would have the advantage of forcing our govt. leaders to put their patriotism where their children are, instead of just where their mouths and pocketbooks are.

beto arceo

Well I am not resident on the US but I had lived there and know a little about this. I think the draft makes an army less efficient because of the ideas that were shown above like "to most of them havent even cross the idea to enter the militia". In Spain where draft doesnt exist, lots of young guys are willing to get into the militia, that is because you do get paid really well, in fact you could own your own really nice house before you turn 30 years old, not as if you were a cashier working in a supermarket, (you would have to work as a cashier for 20 years to pay out your mortgage). I think this way is really good to get your people happy and work more effitienly.


The United States is not currently at war. Rather, the Department of Defense is currently at war. It's an important distinction.

An all-volunteer military allows the American people to blithely ignore the costs of not only the Iraq war, but also the pointless and obscene defense procurement budget. What, exactly, is the mission of the Navy's 57 nuclear attack submarines, and why do we have even more on order? Why exactly do we need two all-new fighter jet programs when not a single F-15, F-16, or F-18 has ever been lost in air-to-air combat? Why are we building new aircraft carriers when we were attacked by 19 lunatics armed with nothing more than box cutters?

Bring back the draft and make it more costly to be ignorant.


Should a market really dictate the calculations made on the relationship of the government to the people? Let's take Levitt's view to it's logical conclusion ...

It seems most people agree it's ok if higher income folks pay more taxes than those earning minimum wage. So is a bonus of $20,000 a progressive incentive to lure young citizens to fight in war? The marginal benefits of $20,000 depend greatly on the circumstances and privileges of one's birth.

Instead of the draft, what we need is some kind of "progressive mercenary system" which pays the rich and highly educated a proportionally higher bonus according to their projected lifetime productivity. $20,000 may suffice if you've dropped out of high school and have a criminal record, but if you own a successful start-up or your dad is President, Uncle Sam owes you a lot more for the privilege to risk your life.

bobby g

CPol, and not the Freakonomist, has this one right. The idea behind the draft has to do with social consensus, not winning the war. We should only be fighting the wars that society truly buys into. If we fought wars as the Founders intended, via formal declarations of war followed by raising an army by conscription if necessary, we would only be involved in those wars that we should really be fighting and would have never ventured into Iraq.

The inherent amorality, and in this case immorality, of economic theory is that it applies cost-benefit analysis to rationalize the poor taking the bulk of the death burden of war. This devalues human life.

The draft's logic specifically removes cost-benefit from the equation, thus while it is "inefficient" (talk about a euphemism!) it is ethical in that it does not play callous favorites with who lives and who dies. If you must apply economic theory, then please at the least do the mathematically fair thing and assign correct utility to having one's head blown off. Presumably, that utility would approach negative infinity.

The Freaknomist should take more seriously behavioral economics, and specifically the work of Daniel Kahneman and others who understand flaws and biases in human judgment. The youths that go over there are ridiculously overconfident in their death risk, as the young everywhere are, thus their cost-benefit equation is horrifically skewed.



I propose a constitutional amendment mandating, upon the deployment of a specified number of US troops in some foreign conflict, a limited draft into the US Infantry, including all the of-age sons and daughters of US Senators, Congressmen, the President, Vice President and Cabinet members. This limited draft would avoid the pitfalls of a general draft and would have the advantage of forcing our leaders to put their patriotism where their children are instead of where their mouths and wallets are. Mitt Romney has 5 children and supports the war. Let's see just how much he supports the war.
George Bush? We saw in Vietnam how much likes to fight his wars.


The posts seem to ignore the fact that many soldiers have suffered from a 'back-door' draft. They have not been allowed to leave, and have often served more than two tours in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Further the Army has lowered their standards (e.g., you no longer need a high-school diploma, you can have a felony conviction on your record, etc.) Hardly the efficient force structure built on market forces that has been posited.

Our forces on the ground have been stretched close to the breaking point. If this conflict is worth fighting then we must all sacrifice. The draft will make people realize that this is for real.


I agree that the draft is a bad idea from an economic perspective; however, the side effect of the all-volunteer military from a sociological aspect is the government sponsored creation of an elite that does not share the values and ideals of the population at large. The United States was partially founded on the idea of the citizen-soldier. Of course this ideal was based on the idea that American militias would be fighting to defend their own land, not fighting on lands far removed from their own. The idea of keeping standing militias as opposed to a centralized force was a vital part of the founders ideal of keeping certain factions from controlling the behavior of the government. However, the disorganized militias and navy of the War of 1812 went a long way to the establishment of a centralized military bureaucracy, especially the officer corps – who are the actual maintainers of military doctrine and tradition.

That being said, you will notice that most countries with compulsory military service are defensive forces (by defensive I mean that they do not forward deploy): Israel comes to mind first, along with many European countries. Those militaries also have a professional officer corps, trained through academies, to maintain doctrine and steady leadership. Despite the 1984ish “Department of Defense” moniker, the Pentagon has been, for some time, an offensive organization.

The draft is not needed to keep volunteer levels at suitable levels. Increased wages and benefits are enough to maintain those. The military offers many things that your normal Wal Mart job does not, that is: free health care for your entire family, non-taxable money for housing, and the GI Bill for college. I usually wouldn't talk about myself in a random blog, but people here are extremely misinformed: As a 26 year old officer, I make 80K a year with free health care and I went to college and grad school for free…not a bad deal considering I have 2 more years of obligated service before I join the real world. My salary is unfortunately much more than an enlisted man in the same position, but then again, re-enlistment bonuses are upwards of 100K for in-demand enlisted jobs (tax free in a combat zone) and there are literally hundreds of enlisted to officer programs (which of course include free college education).

As opposed to what many here tend to think, people in the Pentagon are not stupid. They know exactly what to pay personnel to maintain troop levels, and they know exactly how and who to target for recruitment. I can't quote the exact number, but about 40% of the military budget is spent on personnel. Why would they bang on the doors of Central Park West and send recruiters to Choate (although a good friend of mine from school went to Phillips Exeter) when they can get all they need from the small towns of Texas and the midwest?

This all being said, what has been happening for some time is exactly what the founders feared: the professional officer corps and military is becoming an increasingly politicized faction with extreme power in Washington to affect decision-making. The more the military is isolated from the opinions of society, through professional education or demographic targeting by recruiters, the more organized and elite they will become. Who do you think runs Defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman? Harvard grads? No, Naval Academy and West Point grads. What schools have the highest percentages of corporate CEO's: again, service academies. And they are just as smart and driven as any other elite group in this society, except they make and operate billion dollar weapon systems and are extremely homogenized in their professional and political beliefs.

I guarantee you: if the military does not want a draft, there will never be a draft.


Rita: Lovely Meter Maid

Steven Levitt writes: "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."
I completely agree with these ideas. This would make enlistment a much more fair process. You'd have to fight notions of "patriotic duty", however, to get them enacted, especially the opting out part.


Mr. Levitt is overlooking the great benefit to the country of the draft, in that so many young men will go to college and graduate school (as did Cheney and Rumsfeld), or into community service such as the Peace Corps or Vista, or join the stateside Guard (as Bush did), or work in defense industries, or thinking up other clever ideas, to avoid the draft. By having more young men work so hard to avoid the draft, the whole country benefits from this economic incentive.
Besides, a new, modern draft would also include equal rights for women. Thankfully, the Bush twins and Lynne Cheney are by now past the age to be considered for the draft, so that is OK.
After all, if President Bush couldn't convince his own daughters about their patriotic duty and the need for them to enlist and serve in the war in Iraq, then we had better install the draft, because otherwise it will be too hard to persuade other young people without so many privilges of the need to serve.