The Decline of Conscription

Economist Joshua Hall has an interesting article describing an oft-ignored, but very important expansion of freedom over the last several decades: the declining use of military conscription. He notes that, as of 1970, some 80% of the world’s governments used conscription, including the US and many of the democratic nations of Western Europe. By 2009, that had declined to 45%, and many of those nation that still have conscription have reduced the length of conscript’s terms and made it easier to escape the draft. Even France, the nation that first pioneered conscription in the 1790s, abolished it in 2001.

Hall also gives a good summary of the economic case against conscription. Most knowledgeable people are aware of the standard points that conscription reduces the quality of the military because professionals are, on average, better soldiers than short-term conscripts, and that conscription creates major social costs by forcing people to serve who would be more productive in other occupations. Hall notes two other ways in which conscription is inefficient that are less well-known – that it creates deadweight losses by diverting people from their preferred occupations to those which have draft exemptions, and that it encourages governments to underinvest in military equipment and instead sacrifice more lives in battle rather than capital:

Like all taxes, conscription has distortionary effects that create deadweight losses. During the Vietnam War, for example, draft dodging and college enrollment motivated by draft avoidance created deadweight losses. More recently, World Bank economists Michael Loshkin and Ruslin Yemtsov estimated that 90 percent of eligible men are able to avoid Russia’s draft through a variety of means.

In his 1967 article making the case for a volunteer army, Milton Friedman argued that a volunteer army would lead the military to use more and better equipment. One consequence of an artificially low cost of military labor is that it discourages the military from substituting away from labor and towards capital. This point was perhaps best made by German economist Johann Heinrich von Thunen, in his nineteenth-century book, Isolated State:

The reluctance to view a man as capital is especially ruinous of mankind in wartime; here capital is protected, but not man, and in time of war we have no hesitation in sacrificing one hundred men in the bloom of their years to save one cannon.

In a hundred men at least twenty times as much capital is lost as is lost in one cannon. But the production of the cannon is the cause of an expenditure of the state treasury, while human beings are again available for nothing by means of a simple conscription order…

On the latter point, Hall cites a chilling quote by Napoleon, the founder of the first modern conscription system: “When the statement was made to Napoleon, the founder of the conscription system, that a planned operation would cost too many men, he replied: ‘That is nothing. The women produce more of them than I can use.'” Napoleon regarded conscripts as a “free good” and therefore didn’t much care how many of them got killed. Democratic governments tend to be more casualty-sensitive than he was. But even they tend to waste conscripts’ lives at a higher rate than those of professionals who have the right to quit. The introduction of the all volunteer force has clearly led the US military to be more careful about losses than it was in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.

In addition to its inefficiency conscription is also objectionable because it is a form of forced labor that severely undermines personal freedom. There are few more severe violations of human rights than forcing a person to do work he doesn’t want at below-market rates for years at a time. In addition, conscripts’ lives are often tightly regulated even when they are not actively carrying out their duties. And, of course, they are sometimes forced to risk their lives.

Many people resist the comparison between conscription and other forms of forced labor because they see military service as providing a great good that is essential to our society. But military service is far from unique in that regard. Historically, slaves and forced laborers often performed work that was vital to the social order. The entire economy of the antebellum South depended on crops produced by slaves. So too with ancient Rome, Russia in the era of serfdom, and so on. The key point to realize is that this work, however noble and necessary, can be performed by free laborers. Thus, the use of forced labor to carry it out is still unjust. The same goes for military service. Both the United States and other liberal democracies can field more than adequate military forces without conscription. Indeed, they can create better armies without it than with it.

One can imagine hypothetical situations where conscription might be justified even on libertarian grounds. For example, it might be the only way to avoid conquest by a totalitarian state that would impose more brutal and more universal forms of forced labor. In the real world, however, no such scenario is even remotely plausible for the foreseeable future. And it is likely to become even less plausible as military technology becomes more complex and soldiers need more and more specialized skills that are best provided by professionals rather than temporary conscripts.