Rather than Conscript, Why Not…..?

by Don Boudreaux on December 8, 2005

in Work

Like many others, I’m appalled by the ease with which some opponents of the war in Iraq call for military conscription. Their logic is that if everyone’s sons and daughters – rather than just the sons and daughters of working-class families – were at risk of being killed in Iraq, government officials would be more likely to end the war.  A premier example of someone who takes this position is Bob Herbert of the New York Times.

There’s plenty wrong with this rationale for the draft, not least being the immorality of forcing anyone to work in any occupation that he or she does not choose to work in. This immorality becomes unspeakably vile when that occupation is one whose practitioners are called upon to kill and endure significant risks of being killed.

In response, the pro-draft/anti-war crowd might allege: "Well, in the current war soldiers are forced to stay in harm’s way longer than they bargained for when they voluntarily signed up for military service." I don’t know if such an allegation is true. If it is, then those who are forced to remain in the military longer than they contracted for are indeed being wronged; this wrong should stop immediately.

But let me make another proposal. Let soldiers supply their labor in the very same way that policemen, firemen, emergency-rescue workers – indeed, almost all other workers – supply theirs. In particular, let soldiers quit anytime they wish.

If a soldier decides that he doesn’t like the idea of being shipped to Iraq to fight, let him quit, then and there, with no legal penalty to threaten him.  Ditto if he chickens-out immediately before a battle.  Why insist on minimum time-periods of enlistment?

"Unworkable!" many will reply. "Our military ranks will be depleted before battle." I doubt it, for I doubt that the men and women who enlist in the military today are cowards. I also doubt that they are unaware that they might find themselves in awfully dangerous and gruesome situations.

If you doubt my prediction that, under my proposal, military ranks would not be seriously depleted on the eve of battles, how do you explain the fact that firefighters aren’t known for quitting their jobs just before the hook’n’ladder takes off for the big blaze downtown? Or that policemen don’t turn in their badges just when the armed robber needs chasing? Firefighters and policemen are contractually free to do so. (That any firefighter or cop who pulled such a stunt would be disgraced, especially in the eyes of other firefighters and police officers is true. And so it would be, too, with soldiers.)

One advantage of my proposal is that it might make military recruiting easier. Insofar as potential recruits today are scared away from volunteering for military service because they are worried that their enlistment terms might be lengthened or otherwise changed without their consent, the ability to quit on the spot will reduce this concern. Some people who today refuse to join the military will then do so.

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