The Skeptics

News Flash: Public Cares More about Policies that Impose Costs or Confer Benefits

For the more academically inclined reader out there, two recent journal articles may be of interest.

First, Michael Horowitz and Matthew Levendusky do some experimental work to attempt to determine whether a military draft influences citizens’ attitudes toward war. Their conclusion?

Using an original survey experiment, we find strong support for the argument that conscription decreases mass support for war, a finding that replicates in several different settings. We also show that these findings are driven by concerns about self-interest, consistent with our theory. We conclude by discussing the relevance of these findings for debates about how domestic political conditions influence when states go to war.

Robert Erikson and Laura Stoker do some work on the Vietnam war and the draft’s effect on support for that conflict and find that:

Males holding low lottery numbers became more antiwar, more liberal, and more Democratic in their voting compared to those whose high numbers protected them from the draft. They were also more likely than those with safe numbers to abandon the party identification that they had held as teenagers. Trace effects are found in reinterviews from the 1990s. Draft number effects exceed those for preadult party identification and are not mediated by military service. The results show how profoundly political attitudes can be transformed when public policies directly affect citizens' lives.

As somebody who thinks America should fight a lot fewer wars, these findings are of interest to me. As somebody who thinks there is no right more fundamental than self-ownership—and by extension, the right to refrain from killing on behalf of one’s state—I do not think conscription is morally justified or remotely necessary.

But for people like me, who want fewer wars and no conscription, it does raise a question: Given the fact that large chunks of the public are insulated from the costs of war through voluntary service and deficit spending, how can we make the public care about whether to go to war? Further, how can we make them care enough to vote on the issue, given the variety of policies that governments pursue that touch people’s lives much more directly?

John Stuart Mill once wrote that “a good cause seldom triumphs unless someone’s interest is bound up with it.” The question we need to answer is how to get people’s interest bound up with refraining from unnecessary warring.