Donald Boudreaux: Draft’s end most pro-freedom move of past 50 years
From the late 1970s through the mid 1980s the United States government somewhat loosened its grip on the American people. This liberalization — mainly meant to spur economic growth — included the deregulation of transportation and financial markets, as well as significant tax reform. Most students of these reforms conclude, correctly, that they were overwhelmingly successful.
Yet perhaps the single most important instance of liberalization over the past half-century was one not chiefly motivated by the quest for improved economic performance. It occurred on Jan. 27, 1973. That’s the day the military draft ended.
Since then, young Americans have been free of a specter that haunted their fathers and grandfathers — the prospect not only of being temporarily enslaved, but also of being forced to put their lives in peril on battlefields.
Some people will object to the labeling of military conscripts as “slaves.” But what else to call them? Conscripts are forced to work for someone else. If they resist and get caught, they are imprisoned or even executed. Although it’s only for a few years rather than for a lifetime, that’s still slavery.
The great economist Milton Friedman played a key role in persuading President Nixon to support abolition of this form of slavery. In addition to emphasizing the moral arguments against impressing people into employment against their will, Friedman debunked the economic myth that conscription is less costly than an all-volunteer force.
Friedman agreed that the government’s ability to pay its slave-soldiers less than it must pay those who volunteer to enlist softens the military’s budgetary impact. But, said Friedman, the true cost to the country of its military is not necessarily reflected in the government’s budget.
Each soldier and military pilot and sailor would produce valuable goods and services in the private sector were he or she not in the military. Therefore, the true cost of our military is the value of the goods and services that we forgo as a result of men and women serving in uniform.
With an all-volunteer force, the wages paid to military personnel accurately reflect the value of what these men and women could produce in other occupations.
Consider a woman who can earn $400,000 annually by working as a surgeon in the private sector. For government to entice her to enlist in the military, it would likely have to pay her an annual salary of at least $400,000. This salary would accurately reflect the $400,000 worth of medical services that she no longer provides in the private sector. And because her $400,000 salary would appear on the government’s budget, this budgetary entry would reflect the true cost to society of having this woman serve in the military.
But suppose this woman instead is conscripted at a salary of $35,000. While the annual cost to the government of having her in the military would be $35,000, the cost to society would remain $400,000 because society must still forgo the $400,000 worth of private-
sector medical services she would produce were she not in the military.
Conscription results in the Pentagon’s budgetary figures lying about society’s true cost of manning America’s armed forces. Even worse, conscription — by relieving taxpayers of the need to pay full price for military personnel — enables taxpayers legally to steal conscripts’ labor services. That’s slavery.
Donald Boudreaux is a professor of economics and Getchell Chair at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. His column appears twice monthly.