The Justice of an All-Volunteer Military

Military boots and camouflage trousers of many soldiers in uniform.

Recently during the cocktail hour before a large dinner party, I listened to an intense young woman make the case for the United States to reinstate military conscription. “Most American soldiers today come from lower-income groups, and they’re disproportionately minority. That means that poor and working-class young black and Hispanic adults bear the brunt of the burden of America’s military needs. It’s unfair and unjust! A draft would more equitably distribute this burden.”

I politely expressed my disagreement, on both economic and ethical grounds, with her call for conscription. But the room was noisy and crowded and the conversation soon turned in another direction. I don’t recall the young woman’s name or her institutional affiliation, if any. But driving home later that evening I thought more carefully about what I would say if I were to bump into her at a coffee shop and she gave me a few minutes of her time.

It’s understandable to think that, if the enlistees in America’s military come disproportionately from lower-income groups, the all-volunteer nature of the military results in lower-income individuals bearing a disproportionate share of the burden of providing America’s military services. It’s understandable, too, to suppose that conscription would spread this burden more equally across income groups. But economics reveals that this way of thinking is mistaken. The most equitable and just sharing of the burden of America’s military is assured by its all-volunteer nature, and that conscription would be inequitable and unjust.

Here’s a true story: I recently mounted a flat-screen television onto a wall in my home. Actually, technically speaking, I didn’t personally, with my own hands and time, affix the tv to the wall. Instead, I paid Ernesto, a handyman, to perform that physical task on my behalf.

Especially because I come from a long line of excellent amateur carpenters and handymen who taught me much along these lines during my boyhood, I certainly could have performed this task personally. But I estimated that the time and aggravation that I would spend to personally attach my tv to the wall would have been greater than the amount of time and aggravation that I could spend to earn enough income to pay Ernesto to perform this task for me. So I did some economics teaching and writing – tasks at which I have a comparative advantage – and earned payment for my outputs. I then offered some of the income that I earned to Ernesto in exchange for his promise to affix my tv to a wall in my home. Ernesto accepted my offer. Exerting a fair amount of personal effort and an hour of his time, Ernesto did a splendid job hanging my new tv.

Importantly, as genuinely nice a guy as Ernesto is, I’m sure that had I asked him to perform this task for me in exchange for nothing more than me saying “gracias” he would have politely declined. You see, spending his time and effort affixing tvs to walls is indeed burdensome. And Ernesto understandably is unwilling to bear this burden for my benefit. Because the person who wants my tv attached to my wall is me and not Ernesto, the person who by right should bear the burden of attaching it is me and not him.

And so it came to be. My paying Ernesto a sum of money sufficient to make it worthwhile for him voluntarily to spend his time and effort to hang my tv on my wall ensured that the person who ultimately bore the burden of carrying out this task was not Ernesto, but me. Ernesto gained by this transaction; my paying him means that his time and effort were fully compensated. Therefore, the cost – the “burden” – of attaching my tv to my wall did not settle on Ernesto; it settled on me, which is where it belongs.

Put differently, the payment Ernesto received from me was greater, in his estimation, than would have been the payoff he would have secured for himself had he spent his time doing something else – say, growing his own food or cobbling together his own shoes. Ernesto uses the money he earns by working as a handyman to purchase food, shoes, and countless other items from other people – from other people who spend their time and effort producing food and shoes (and socks and medical care and smartphones and gasoline and on and on and on) for Ernesto’s consumption. Had I (and his other customers) not paid him for his time and effort for his work as a handyman – were he unable to earn income by specializing in some task – he would have had to spend what he judged to be even more time and effort at growing food, producing clothes, manufacturing smartphones, concocting fuels, etc., etc..

By being part of a market economy in which each person specializes in that task for which he or she enjoys a comparative advantage, and then voluntarily exchanges the fruits of his or her efforts for the countless fruits of the efforts of hundreds of millions of other individuals who are also specialized as producers, each of us exchanges burdens with each other. And in the process, we greatly lighten each other’s burdens. It’s less of a burden for me to teach economics and then to exchange some of my income with handymen (and others) to perform tasks for me than it is for me to perform for myself all of the tasks that must be performed for me if I am to enjoy my current standard of living. Ditto for Ernesto. It is easier for him – a lighter burden for him – to perform handyman tasks and then exchange the fruits of his labors for the many things that he buys for his and his family’s consumption.

A person who voluntarily enlists in the military obviously believes that that employment option is the best one for him or her. In exchange for his or her performance of military duties, that soldier or sailor is paid an amount that fully compensates that person’s time and effort spent in the military. The payment received by the soldier or sailor comes from taxpayers, who are the ultimate beneficiaries of whatever services are supplied by the military. In an all-volunteer military, the soldier or sailor no more shoulders the burden of supplying military services than Ernesto the handyman shouldered the burden of hanging my tv on my wall.

This equitable and just reality would be undone if the US government conscripted individuals into its military. All of the many individuals forced into military service against their will would, unlike today’s servicemen and servicewomen, not be fully compensated for the time and effort they would be forced to exert on behalf of taxpayers. Conscription, in short, would enable taxpayers to steal the labor of conscripts – to impose a large portion of the burden of supplying military services on conscripts.

It would clearly be unfair and unjust for me to threaten Ernesto with violence unless he supplies the service of hanging my tv at a low wage that I arbitrarily dictate. My acting in this manner would shift the burden of hanging my tv from me (where it belongs) to him (where it does not belong). For the very same reason, it would be no less unfair and unjust for me and my fellow taxpayers to threaten violence against young men and women if they refuse to supply the service of military protection at low wages that we, through our Congressional representatives, arbitrarily dictate.

Conscription ensures injustice. The all-volunteer military promotes justice.

The post The Justice of an All-Volunteer Military was first published by the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER), and is republished here with permission. Please support their efforts.