What’s Fair About a Draft?
Michael Kinsley asks, “What’s Fair About a Draft?” in a column in today’s WaPo. (Why the editorial page editor of the LA Times is publishing in WaPo rather than, say, the LA Times is not explained.)
The country’s main reaction to the need for more troops in Iraq is that we should get other countries to help us out. In other words, draft foreigners. But events in Iraq have revived rumors and predictions that the real draft is coming back, and they have provided one of the periodic opportunities for advocates of a draft to make their case. That case has two parts. One is fairness: When you’re asking young people to disrupt their lives and risk dying for their country, that burden ought to be spread across society, not concentrated among those desperate enough to volunteer. The second argument is democracy: A volunteer army is too easy to send to war. If the decision makers of society — politicians, business leaders, and so on — had children at risk, a war would be a lot less likely.
The Pentagon insists that the all-volunteer military actually is a pretty good cross section of society. But that is hard to believe. And the power elite that draft enthusiasts are talking about is probably too small to be reflected in the surveys the Pentagon is talking about. At the very least, the sons and daughters of the elite don’t have to sign up for any reason except a real desire to serve in the military. By contrast, economic pressure and a lack of other opportunities may lead a poor kid to join the Army even if, on balance, he might prefer a career in investment banking.
I don’t deny that this is theoretically true. On the other hand, there are certainly other ways that an able bodied high school graduate who comes from modest means could choose to advance himself besides the military. Indeed, getting a job in the construction industry or as a house painter would be substantially more lucrative.
So is this unfair? Yes, of course it’s unfair. But replacing the volunteer Army with a draft is an odd way to address this unfairness. The practical effect would be to deny this poor kid the opportunity he or she is currently taking, without creating any new opportunities to replace it. Meanwhile, someone else who doesn’t need or want this opportunity would be forced into it. Result: two people doing something they don’t want to do.
Quite right. It’s rather like telling a child he should eat his remaining Brussels sprouts because, after all, children in China are starving.
Kinsley offers a free market solution to the problem:
During Vietnam, the columnist Nicholas von Hoffman wrote, “Draft old men’s money, not young men’s bodies.” His point was that in America, when you want more of something — even soldiers — the way to get more is to pay more. A draft allows the government to pay less for soldiers than they would cost in the free market. It is, in essence, a tax on young people. Or a pay cut for those who would have volunteered anyway. What kind of triumph of fairness is that?
Good question. Of course, this doesn’t solve the initial problem. Higher wages make the risks of military service attractive to those on the low end of the opportunity scale and, depending on how high they are, they even make it a viable alternative to a person with opportunities who wanted to join up but was deterred by the low pay. It doesn’t do much to attract the sons of the truly wealthy, though.
I don’t see why that should matter, though. No one seems to complain that virtually all of our cops and firefighters come from middle class and lower backgrounds. Or, indeed, that our janitors and trash collectors come almost exclusively from the ranks of the very poor.