Friday, May 07, 2004

The Draft is a Stupid Idea

Julian Sanchez (whose enthusiasm for Howard Dean made me extremely suspicious of the soundness of his libertarian credentials) is too kind to advocates of the draft in this article of his up at Reason. Anyone who advocates a return of the draft, under any conditions short of grave and imminent national peril, is at best a misguided idiot, and at worst a totalitarian thug.

From the point of view of military effectiveness, there are myriad good reasons that the Pentagon itself prefers a volunteer force. Whatever the advantages of having more warm bodies on the field, they're almost certainly outweighed by the benefits of a willing, well-trained, professional force. Rather, a large part of the appeal of the draft seems to have its root in an egalitarian impulse. Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) sponsored the Senate version of the Universal National Service Act of 2003, and said of the bill: "We all share the benefits of life in America, and under this plan, we all help shoulder the burden of defending our freedoms." That logic has been echoed by liberal bloggers such as Daily Kos, Matthew Yglesias, and Max Sawicky, who writes:
You could argue that it's wrong to force people to serve against their will. But nobody volunteers for the military in order to get killed or maimed. Those with any sense enlist hoping they never have to shoot a bullet. Once you're in, you are no longer a free agent. You do not have the luxury of changing your mind in the face of changes in circumstances.

A draft is more democratic because it subjects everyone to these constraints on individual choice. The class bias in recruitment of volunteers could not be more obvious. It would be wrong to imagine volunteers are impoverished and join out of some economic desperation. But there should be no question that prospective recruits do not have the same life and career choices as those (including women) who would be subject to Charlie [Rangel]'s draft.
To be willing to support a draft on these grounds, one must ultimately believe that paying volunteers is more coercive and inequitable than quite literally forcing them on pain of punishment to take up arms. Something about that argument calls to mind that episode of The Simpsons where town officials plan to combat a plague of lizards by releasing Chinese needle-snakes. And when the snakes get out of control? Carnivorous gorillas.

Any time a wage is offered for a job, the people who take it will tend to be those who don't expect to make a great deal more doing something else. But if those with fewer options are "coerced" into taking (what they regard as) the best option available, then all employment, not just military service, is coercive. If that were right, it might constitute an argument for redistribution to relieve this "economic duress." But it could scarcely be an argument for trying to even out representation in the armed forces, for trying to ensure that those who would choose military service as their best option, all things considered, stay home while the unwilling are shipped off to basic training.

Max Sawicky once again shows why he is so richly deserving of the low opinion I hold of his ability to reason. There are class biases in every dangerous job in this world: should we then institute the draft for fire brigades, police departments and loggers as well?

One important thing that tellingly isn't even mentioned once, either by Julian Sanchez or by draft advocates is that for every gutless punk who signs up for military benefits and hightails it to Canada when called upon to meet the terms of his enlistment, there are large numbers of people who sign up precisely because there is nothing else in the world they would rather do than fight; as hard as it may be for peace-loving libertarians and liberals to grasp, there really are people in this world who crave the excitement of battle, and who would rather die violently on some godforsaken foreign battlefield than live their lives out in what seem to them to be boring and pointless occupations. A "fair" draft would deny many of these individuals just the sort of outlet they crave while coercing just the sort of conflict-averse types who loathe fighting the most into becoming that which they most despise.

Appeals for the reinstatement of the draft are symptomatic of what it is I find least attractive about liberalism, the attitude that not only should the state treat all its citizens as equals before the law (an unexceptionable notion), but that all individuals are interchangeable for any purpose whatsoever, like pawns on a checkers board. Only under such a worldview does the reinstatement of the draft, in an America not under peril of imminent destruction, make the slightest bit of sense as a policy proposal. The draft is a reasonable idea for a small state like Israel which is surrounded by enemies - or at best "friends" like Egypt that might as well be enemies - and even there it is arguable that its practical benefits are now outweighed by its drawbacks; for countries like America and the rest of the membership of NATO, however, it is nothing more than a politically correct name for indentured servitude.