Paul Pillar

The Functions of Conscription

Still another purpose of conscription, which is one of the main grounds on which Ricks defends his proposal, is to provide a supply of cheap labor to meet national needs, including needs of the military, at low cost. Here is where we need to think of the question in the same terms of burden sharing and economic equality or inequality that we use to think about tax rates and other aspects of fiscal policy. I commented earlier this year, when Ricks previously advanced the idea of reinstating the draft but did not offer a specific proposal, that the wealth and inequality in the U.S. economy are necessary conditions for the all-volunteer army to work. We are wealthy enough to provide the pay and benefits to help attract people to the difficult and dangerous military profession. The inequality means there are enough people whose alternative opportunities are sufficiently modest or downright bad for them to be attracted to the military without our having to make military pay and benefits sky-high. One way to phrase the current question of whether to reinstate a draft is: Should a significant part of the levy that the federal government imposes on its citizens be, in addition to the income and payroll taxes that people pay, an in-kind levy in the form of modestly compensated labor in young adulthood?

There are several reasons that favor an affirmative answer to that question. Required national service would be a noble way of counteracting the inequality that the current all-volunteer system for the military exploits. In a sense the in-kind levy would be a progressive tax, in that the career-delaying opportunity costs would tend to be relatively greater for those already enjoying a higher economic status. The burden of such service generally would be easier to carry at that stage in people's lives—and it would be a paid job, after all—than, say, higher taxes on many older middle-class adults. The government also would get more bang for its buck. As Ricks puts it, think of how much could be saved “if a few hundred New York City school custodians were 19, energetic and making $15,000 plus room and board, instead of 50, tired and making $106,329.”

Then there is the advantage of not being burdened with all the ideological baggage that burdens the discussion of taxes—the money kind, that is. As long as Grover Norquist does not expand his no-tax-increase pledge to cover in-kind levies of national service, maybe we actually could have an intelligent public debate on the subject. It is a debate we ought to have. Thanks to Ricks for encouraging such a debate, even if his own proposal is flawed.