Monday, October 3, 2011

The Worldwide Decline in Conscription: A Victory for Economics?

by Joshua C. Hall

Library of Economics & Liberty

October 3, 2011

Conscription is the compulsory enlistment of individuals into government service. Historically, however, conscription has referred primarily to the military. While governments since antiquity have conscripted people into their militaries, the conscription of a large segment of a country's citizens to meet military goals is a fairly recent phenomenon. Prior to the French Revolution, conscription occurred but was fairly rare.

Beginning in 1793, however, Napoleon took conscription to an entirely new level. The recently expanded French administrative state with its armies of bureaucrats and its extensive information about citizens lowered the cost to Napoleon of implementing a draft. Mass conscription allowed Napoleon to raise an army of over 750,000 men by 1794. Napoleon then instituted a draft in regions under French control, such as the Italian Republic and the Kingdoms of Naples and Westphalia. France's subsequent success on the battlefield led other countries to see conscription as the source of Napoleon's military prowess, and they were quick to imitate—leading to mass conscription throughout Europe.

Over time, the forced enlistment of citizens into military service became both widespread and systematized, with conscription becoming the primary method of military recruitment worldwide during and after World War II. The U.S. government, for example, instituted a military draft in 1940 in response to the outbreak of the war in Europe and, for the next thirty-three years, with the exception of an eleven-month period spanning 1947 and 1948, the government used conscription to staff a portion of its military.

President Nixon's 1973 decision to end the draft and move to an all-volunteer army was an important step towards the worldwide elimination of conscription. Nixon's decision reflected, in part, underlying changes in citizens' attitudes towards the draft arising from the Vietnam War. But it also resulted from a better understanding of the costs and benefits of conscription relative to an all-volunteer army, thanks to the efforts of economists such as Milton Friedman and Walter Oi. In addition, a segment of the population that bears most of the cost of the military draft—18- to 20-year-olds—received the right to vote in 1971. Because an increasing number of countries are eliminating or considering eliminating military conscription, it is worthwhile to revisit the economic arguments against the draft and the role of economic analysis in its decline.