Why a military draft makes no sense anymore

by Francesco Olivanti

Bringing conscription back from the cold

After the suspension in 2010, in March Sweden has reintroduced the military draft. The main reason for this resides in the rising tensions in the area, mainly given by the pressure of Russia and by the recent developments in the Baltics. That is, the same reasons why Finland never suspended the system, and also why Ukraine and Lithuania have reinstated conscription respectively in 2014 and 2015 (see here and here for a comprehensive overview).

However, the debate on the draft has started again also in the US (see also here). Mainly due to a fake news circulating since 2016 saying that Trump was planning to reintroduce the draft, more than 40 years after the abolition in 1973. However, it doesn’t seem that the broad consensus for the abandonment of the system had been undermined (see also here).

In Europe, most countries have “suspended conscription for peacetime” during the 1990s. The figures in the links illustrate (1) the number of conscripts, regulars and reserves for Germany, Spain, France, and Italy in 2000 — before the respective suspensions — and (2) the different proportions between conscripts and regulars in the same countries (see here for more on Italy).

But why should a country mandate its citizens to serve for the military?

Why conscription does make sense

1 — Conscription is the best way to avoid militarism. For some, if the army is rooted in the civilian society, there is less risk of amplifying the effects of specialization, which concentrates a strong military (and aggressive) identity in a selected part of the population.

2 — Purely professional armies cost more. As the US and France demonstrate, abolishing the draft does not necessarily imply reducing defence spending. Of course, if we want to maintain the same number of troopers, having to pay them instead of forcing them to serve raises costs.

3 — It is difficult to find volunteers for senior positions. If you are not somehow forced to get in touch with the military, you would never discover the opportunities that it could give you. Highly-qualified individuals usually do not choose the military career, thus the army has to “cultivate” its ruling class starting from the lower ranks, selecting the best conscripts.

4 — Professional forces tend to be recruited largely from underprivileged groups. In Germany, today, 40% of the regulars come from the poorest regions and social segments of the former DDR. A different scenario applies to the United States: the lowest percentiles of the income distribution are under-represented in the US military, and participation in the active duty forces (ADFs) is positively correlated with the state-level GDP per capita (see here).

5 — Conscriptions ensures the continuity of democracy and instills the sense of belonging to a community. As in France after the Revolution and as it happens now in many Asian countries (KoreaSingapore, etc.), the military service is not only an instrument to defend the country from the outside, but is a way to reinforce civic values, tradition, culture, education, and discipline.

6 — “Let’s draft our kids” (2012, and 2017). According to some commentators — especially in the US — universal compulsory conscription would make people think more carefully before going to war. They underline that one of the reasons why the draft was suspended in 1973 was to reduce the pressure on the war in Vietnam, mainly exempting the children of the rich to eventually risk their life. This sort of risk-sharing mechanism would thus act as a ‘veil of ignorance’, making the population wiser.

Why actually conscription does not make sense

1 — Abolishing the mass draft is a way to reduce the defence spending. Although some nations have not witnessed this decrease, most countries — especially in Europe — actually did. The figures in the links (1234) show that, if we focus on the European countries who have suspended conscription for peacetime between 1995 and 2015, we notice that the expenditures have generally decreased if compared to the beginning of the 1990s. This is because none of these countries, obviously, removed the draft just to substitute conscripts with professionals. Their political will was clearly to move towards a downsizing of the army.

2 — Conscription does not affect the ability to act in conflicts. Conflicts — especially external conflicts — have always been the domain of a quasi-professional army. As for Germany – where modern conscription was invented, introduced in 1644 by Prussia –, for example, conscripts were not employed neither in Congo (1973, for the DDR) nor in the latest missions of the unified country, in Kosovo (1998–1999) and in Afghanistan (2002-)[1]. As Doug Bandow underlined in 2002, anti-terrorism missions require élite forces, while «masses of cannon fodder are of dubious value even in a typical conventional war today».

3 — Too short to be useful. Military commanders have acknowledged that modern conscription, with services usually ranging between 9 months and 1 year, didn’t make sense. The modern military requires specialization, while these short trainings only implied losing specialization in the civilian occupations to gain no effective improvement in defence skills or discipline.

4 — Instill militarism. Although a mass army could be a way to democratize the military, it is equally plausible that it could actually foster militarism. It brings people into an intensive contact with the ideals of war, comradeship, nationalism, self-defence, aggression.

5 — The rich can avoid it (as anyone else). In Germany, in 2005, only 14% of the conscripts actually served in the military. This raises one point: once we grant individual rights, any possible cultural or social effect of ‘forcing’ is strongly mitigated. Those who want (and are able) to avoid the service will do it, no real risk-sharing mechanism will be in place.

6 — The world is (a little bit) safer now. The demand for protection from military offence is lower, now, and people probably feel a higher need to be protected from immigration or criminal offences (see the results of the World Values Survey12345). If we look at the Global Peace Index, we notice that Europe is the safest continent on earth, together with Oceania. Of course, the Eastern problem is not completely solved. Russia, Ukraine, and the Baltics are still at risk, but the nature of the issue has evolved since the 1990s. And giving less relevance to national armies is a good way to promote further European integration, moving faster towards a European army (see also here).

7 — A long list of bad economic consequences. Conscription — in any form — has a high economic and social cost. Conscription is a huge and open violation of individual and economic freedom (Milton Friedman would explicitly define it ‘slavery’), it has a very high opportunity cost — since it diverts a considerable share of the young cohorts from their main occupations (at least partially) –, it generally delays the entry of young people in the workforce, and it makes people lose their comparative advantages, generally slowing their human capital accumulation process. As Walter Oi stated, “conscription is a tax”. It also gives low incentives to the army to invest in technological progress, in order to use more capital instead of manpower. Moreover, in several countries (see here for a literature review on this topic) conscription is related to lower graduation rates and lower individual earnings (along the entire life cycle).

A strong advocate of the reinstatement of the draft in the USElisabeth Braw (see here and here) –, however, argues that there are other relevant positive economic effects: a) to force the young to invest in human capital; b) to reduce unemployment; c) to pool together people from different backgrounds. And she advocates for a new version of the draft, of course: targeted, highly selective, and open to both men and women.

But is this what the military is for? Can we obtain these outcomes with alternative investments (in education and infrastructures, for example)? What is the social and economic cost of these results? Yes. For one simple reason: the only advantage of obtaining these outcomes through the military service resides in what is the peculiarity of the army: building an effective ‘command economy’. There are some cases (e.g. natural disasters), in which the best response a society can give to solve a problem is to instaurate a highly hierarchical social structure (for the specific purpose and context). To train people in the military is convenient only in view of this purpose, and never forgetting it is a high-cost investment.

A final note

As we have briefly pointed out, there is a new actor on the political and social stage, compared to the old times when conscription was introduced: women. Norway extended conscription to women, in 2016: how is it going? Would a reintroduced conscription be different, in view of this? What do women think about the role of the military? Answering this question would enable us to better understand how things will develop in the future. Will women help (see here, for example) in building our societies on different grounds?

[1] Also French conscripts did not back the active duty forces (ADF, the regulars) in all the missions of the national army. They were not employed in the Indo-China War (1947–1954) nor in the First Gulf War (1990–1991), but they were utilized in the Algerian War (1954–1962), formally an internal conflict.

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