06 December 2010

Why Not a Volunteer Army?

Last week I delivered a lecture at Cal State East Bay in Hayward about the power of the all-volunteer military.

It was really a blast. Well attended, according to the organizers, it was part of a series of lectures on free-market ideas.

Naturally, I set out to ground my thesis—that the All Volunteer Force (AVF) is better than its conscript alternative—in economic arguments. I think I was successful to the extent that I was trying to make economic sense of something that really has more aspects.

In fact, I concluded that the AVF is more powerful and more appropriate than its alternative for five reasons:
  • It is the natural byproduct of our national history.
  • It is constitutional.
  • It is more economical.
  • It is more effective.
  • It better represents our culture, tradition, and values.

During the course of my research, however, I was surprised to learn how many intelligent and well-meaning men prefer conscription. Yes! There are prominent folks who would like to see a draft reinstated! Charlie Rangel is in the latter category, but not the former.

They contend that theirs would be the more economic force, that it would be more equitable, and that it would act as a check on the government’s war making ability.

I won’t argue the economics, but neither do I concede. The equity is demonstrable, and in study after study, the military is about as representative of the U.S. population in key areas as any institution. The last point, that a conscript force would cause Congress to think harder about engaging in war, or to regain some of its authority over the executive branch, is hollow.

If anything, as I have argued before, a military composed of volunteers is a natural check on government abuse, simply from a free market labor standpoint. This deserves more treatment later, but in essence, if the public doesn’t like what the government is doing with the military, instead of burning draft cards in grandiose exhibitions of dissent, people simply won’t enlist.

My comments and answers to questions at the lecture reflected as much, but I wanted to make the point again here.


  1. Most volunteers and their families support wars like the current ones, so the force of anti-war sentiment is blunted. People who disagree vehemently with the current wars but who don't have a personal stake, may grit their teeth and regret what they see as policy mistakes, as well as the outrageous percentage of our national budget which goes to war-making and defensive purposes, but they are less likely to actively protest. If there was a draft, anti-war sentiment would more closely resemble that of the Vietnam era, where people's lives were at the mercy of the government's war. In earlier wars, the entire nation was expected to make sacrifices, but in the current situation, most of the nation blithely goes on enjoying the good life, not giving serious attention to the effects of these wars on the nation's well-being now and in the future.

  2. Some volunteer because they want to fight. Just like an employer looking for that employee that wants to be rewarded for their effort. Employee makes money for company and company rewards them for the effort. Pay those who wage war well and it only takes a fraction of the people to do the job since they want to do the job than if you had those who were required to do the job. Big government is a great example. It is human nature to be lazy. If you provide a road to laziness it is that much easier and more will be lazy. A volunteer force with a sense of pride will almost always beat out a comparable conscripted force.