Charles Rangel’s Case for Conscription

If the Pentagon’s recent decision to open up combat positions to women leads conservative Dave Carter to worry that women will be drafted, liberal Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel embraces the idea and calls for the establishment of a draft that applies to both men and women:

Since January 2003, at the height of the debate on the possible unilateral strike against Iraq, I have advocated for a reinstatement of the military draft to ensure a more equitable representation of people making sacrifices in wars in which the United States is engaged….

Currently the burden of defending our nation is carried by less than 1% of the American population. The 2.2 million members of the armed forces in active duty, the National Guard and the Reserve have become a virtual military class that makes the ultimate sacrifice of laying down life and limb for our country….

Since we replaced the compulsory military draft with an all-volunteer force in 1973, our nation has been making decisions about wars without worry over who fights them. I sincerely believe that reinstating the draft would compel the American public to have a stake in the wars we fight as a nation. That is why I wrote the Universal National Service Act, known as the “draft” bill, which requires all men and women between ages 18 and 25 to give two years of service in any capacity that promotes our national defense.

Rangel’s equality argument for the draft is dubious. If we reinstate the draft, it would still be true that only a small percentage of Americans would ever actually serve in combat during wartime and take the risk of “making the ultimate sacrifice.” Even during World War II, only about 16 million Americans served in the armed forces out of a population of 132 million in 1940. And only a minority of the 16 million served in combat positions. Under Rangel’s proposal, the burden of combat duty would still fall on a very small fraction of the population: those unlucky enough to be between the ages of 18 and 25 whenever a war happens to occur. The big difference is that the small group that bears the burden will be selected by force rather than choice. Coerced inequality is no improvement over inequality created by voluntary choice. At least in the latter case, the government has a strong incentive to adequately compensate servicemembers for the risks they take, if only because they would face manpower shortages otherwise. Unequal risk of death is partially offset by extra pay and benefits and by the attractions of military life to those who find it appealing. Draftees get far less in the way of compensation for the inequality imposed on them.

Rangel’s view that the public would be more reluctant go to war with a draftee military is also questionable. During the Vietnam War, young men eligible for the draft actually supported the war at higher rates than other demographic groups. Today, veterans support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at higher rates than the general public, and post-9/11 veterans who actually served in combat are more supportive than those who didn’t. The evidence is not completely one-sided. Some recent experimental data suggests that a draft might reduce public support for war after all. Overall, however, we don’t yet have enough evidence to show that the impact of the draft on public support for war is an exception to the general rule that there is little causal connection between public opinion on political issues and narrow self-interest.

Even if the establishment of a draft would make the public less willing to go to war, it is not clear that this would be an improvement. One can certainly point to cases where public opinion was too willing to fight. But there are also plenty of examples of the opposite problem, such as the period leading up to World War II, or the period right before 9/11, when both the public and political elites were too slow to act against the threat posed by radical Islamist terrorism.

Finally, Rangel simply ignores all the major downsides of the draft, such as its tendency to reduce the quality of the military, its economic inefficiency, and the incentive it creates for governments to squander lives. Most of all, Rangel doesn’t take seriously the moral costs of the draft. Subjecting millions of people to two years of forced labor is a severe infringement of liberty that can only be justified, if at all, by some truly enormous good that cannot be achieved by less draconian means.

As I have explained elsewhere, I am not opposed to the draft under all conceivable conditions. If, for example, having a draft were the only way to avoid getting conquered by an enemy that would impose a totalitarian state on us, I would support it. The draft is a great evil. Still, there can potentially be situations where it is the only way to stave off an even greater one. But the arguments advanced by Rangel and other modern draft supporters don’t even come close to meeting the burden of proof needed to justify such massive coercion.

UPDATE: A point I made in an earlier post on conscription is relevant here as well:

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.