Walter E. Williams bio photo

Walter E. Williams

Bradley Prize Winner 2017

Professor of Economics.
(703) 993-1148
D158 Buchanan Hall
Department of Economics
George Mason University

Related Sites:
The homepage of George Mason University.
Homepage of the Department of Economics at GMU.

Congressman Charles Rangel plans to introduce legislation calling for reinstatement of the military draft. He says, “There’s no question in my mind that this president and this administration would never have invaded Iraq, especially on the flimsy evidence that was presented to the Congress, if indeed we had a draft and members of Congress and the administration thought that their kids from their communities would be placed in harm’s way.”

Rep. Rangel, D-N.Y., has it completely backward in terms of incentives created by the draft. Let’s apply a bit of economic logic to it, but first get a pet peeve of mine out of the way: The term “draft” is a euphemism for what is actually “confiscation of labor services.” The Defense Department can get all the military personnel it wants on an all-volunteer basis; it could simply raise wages. Indeed, there exists a wage whereby even I would volunteer my services.

The draft is needed when the military wants to pay soldiers wages lower than those earned in the non-military sector of our economy. When we did have a draft, as in 1950s, look at who was and was not drafted. The commander in chief at that time, President Dwight Eisenhower, wasn’t drafted. Neither were members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Generals and other high-ranking officers weren’t drafted.

Who was drafted? Recruits, and it’s not hard to understand why. A newly inducted recruit’s pay was $68 a month. The pay of the commander in chief, Joint Chiefs of Staff, generals and other officers were many multiples higher than a recruit’s pay. It’s not difficult to understand why drafting recruits was necessary.

Some argue that depending on an all-volunteer military is too expensive. That’s wrong. The true cost of having a man in the military is what society has to forgo, what economists call opportunity costs. Say a man worked producing televisions for which he was paid $1,000 a month. If he’s drafted, he’s not producing $1,000 worth of televisions. The sacrificed $1,000 worth of televisions is part of the cost of his being in the military whether he’s paid $68 a month or nothing a month.

One effect of the draft is to understate the full cost of military operations. In 1959, prior to my being drafted, I drove a taxi for Yellow Cab Company in Philadelphia earning about $400 a month. In August that year, I started earning $68 a month. The military budget saw a cost of $68 as opposed to the $400 worth of taxi services society had to forgo. Simple economics suggests that if the cost of a resource is understated, there will be bias toward greater and more wasteful use of that resource.

Contrary to Rep. Rangel’s assertion, a draft would tend to give rise to greater, not less, use of the military. Today’s all-volunteer military consists of high-quality soldiers and fewer misfits than yesteryear. I speak from experience; I was one of those misfits. Being drafted meant lower wages and a waste of my time.

To make matters worse, my basic training was at Fort Jackson, S.C., and afterward, I was stationed at Fort Stewart, Ga. This was 1959, and I didn’t have a very good orientation on Southern customs and its standards for blacks. There were many self-created adjustment problems associated with my activities, such as: organizing black soldiers to go to the post dance on the “wrong” night; sloppy soldiering; being court-martialed and winning; investigations of me, at least being tailed, by the military authorities; and at-home FBI inquiries of neighbors about Mrs. Williams.

The military draft is an offense to the values of liberty, causes misallocation of resources, and there’s a higher risk of getting a bunch of misfits. The all-volunteer military does none of this.