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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Chuck says:

    This is a “Straw Man”. Draft has been categorically denied. See: Dems-More stuff to hate the Commander-in-Chief for. See: Mindless Chatter re Social Inequities contemplated by our hated administration.

  2. Cassandra says:

    Perhaps the LA Times (for once) was above publishing such utter nonsense.


  3. Amy says:

    “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.”

    Damn, am I tired of being told that as a Soldier who joined the Army out of sheer love of country and a desire to give something back… that I am “poor,” “desperate,” “economically disadvantaged” and that I joined the Army simply because no other options existed for me.

    Having been in the Army for 8 years, I would venture to guess that probably only 20-30% join the Army because “no other options exist,” not the 100% that the media would have you believe.

    What about the 60% of the force that has a degree or some higher education? Are we to believe that for 60% of the force, they simply cannot find employment elsewhere?

    Quite the contrary; educated Soldiers (particularly officers) fetch a pretty penny on the outside. Over the last few years, I’ve been offered many jobs in the commercial market that pay substiantially higher salaries. But each time I put my resume out on the street and get some offers, I change my mind. Soldiering is my calling, and this is where I am staying, regardless of how much money a civilian job can offer me.

    Most of us serve out of a patriotic calling, not because McDonald’s wasn’t hiring the day we enlisted.



  4. SFC SKI says:

    There is a large percentage of my Soldiers who obtained a 4 year college degree before enlisting, they joined the Army to pay back their college loans. Some of them either partied their way out of school or ran out of money. I wonder if anyone considered that part of the equation. Another thing, many Soldiers finish their terms of service and use their GI Bill to attend or complete college, and the career Soldiers usually gain 4 years or more of collge level education, either way, the chance for improvement of education, therefeore employability and earning improves. Would the people who cry about servicemembers being from the low economic end rather that people were just given the mony to go to college?

  5. FTA says:

    Amy, why did you post that? Do you actually think that you are unique or something? There is a word for people like you….it’s called “Sucker” and there is one like you born every minute.

  6. Amy says:

    “Amy, why did you post that? Do you actually think that you are unique or something? There is a word for people like you….it’s called “Sucker” and there is one like you born every minute.”

    Hey, I may be a “sucker” but I’m certainly not “uneducated” and “desperate” from an “economically disadvantaged” background who simply can’t get a job, and joins the Army out of desperation. That was my one and only point. So thanks for proving it for me, that no, I am NOT “unique or something.” Most of my fellow Soldiers are as educated and intellectually apt as I, and many are more so.

    I’m also not a coward, since I am willing to give my name. Which is a lot more than I can for say for you, someone who hides behinds initials but slings around insults at someone who never insulted YOU. Must make you feel good, I guess.

    Nonetheless, have a nice day.