Is Forced Military Service Good for the Economy?
Conscription, also known as "the draft," is typically justified with appeals to values like partriotism, public service, and "sharing the burden." That's in peacetime. In times of war, of course, government claims conscription is necessary to provide the manpower needed for military victory.
Apologists for the draft keep all of these claims ready, just in case. The US, of course, has never really let go of the draft and continues to maintain the Selective Service, just in case.
Is Conscription Good for the Economy?
But sometimes, is it even claimed that conscription is an economic-development tool.
In the latest attempt at making conscription more popular among politicians, Elizabeth Braw of the Atlantic Council this week announced in the Financial Times that the benefits of conscription are "economic as well as military."
Braw proceeds to argue that even though many young people might "view military service as a burden" the state is nevertheless justified in forcing them into military service for their own good. According to Braw, involuntary servitude in the military "helps their careers" and because "military service develops general skills useful “in any sector, such as adaptation, managing and social skills."
Braw even goes so far as to call conscription an "investment" in the way that pro-tax politicians have taken to calling tax increases "investments" in recent years.
This sort of Orwellian double-speak probably sounds impressive to some policymakers in search of technical-sounding economics buzzwords to help them justify reintroducing the draft. However, when governments force people into military service and confiscate 100% percent of their labor for a period of years, it's nothing more than just another tax and another burdensome regulation. As I noted in an article titled "Conscription and Other Draconian Taxes":
“Conscription is slavery,” Murray Rothbard wrote in 1973, and while temporary conscription is obviously much less bad — assuming one outlives the term of conscription — than many other forms of slavery, conscription is nevertheless a nearly-100-percent tax on the production of one’s mind and body. If one attempts to escape his confinement in his open-air military jail, he faces imprisonment or even execution in many cases.
Conscription remains popular among states because it is an easy way to directly extract resources from the population. Just as regular taxes partially extract the savings, productivity, and labor of the general population, conscription extracts virtually all of the labor and effort of the conscripts. The burden falls disproportionately on the young males in most cases, and they are at risk of a much higher tax burden if killed or given a permanent disability in battle.
And, like all other types of taxation, conscription is not an "investment" or an opportunity to build wealth. It is merely a transfer of wealth away from private individuals and into the hands of public-sector central planners.
A Typical "We Know Best" Attitude
The central conceit of Braw's argument is that the government knows better than young people as to what is the best way for them to spend their time. Some people think their early 20s are best spent working at the family business or building job experience in a specific field? Braw disagrees: They're wrong, and they don't know whats' good for them.
Instead of allowing young people to determine for themselves how they might best contribute to their own careers or to their families, the government will decide for them how to spend their time and their energy.
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Braw dresses this reality up in the language of economic development. Conscription means conscripts can (eventually) "boast impressive skills on their CVs" and "the economy will win too."
In other words, Braw claims it is justifiable to force young people into military service because "the economy" benefits from the time, and opportunities extracted from young people as conscripts.
It is fitting that Braw is framing this as an economic development issue, because this is the same faulty argument that politicians employ when they claim that taxpayer should be forced to cough up more in taxes because an imaginary entity known as "the economy" will benefit from a shiny new taxpayer-funded sports stadium or convention center or light-rail system.
In that case, the attitude is this: "you rubes don't know how to spend your money properly. What this town needs is a new convention center to help the economy. You people will just blow that money on your families if we let you keep it."
The same is true of any other sort of central planning as well. Governments will claim that the taxpayers don't know how to spend their money properly, so taxation is necessary to fund scientific research, or high-speed rail, or a mission to mars, or a transcontinental railroad.
A Net Loss in Wealth
The problem with all of these schemes is the some problem that has always plagued central planning schemes. Instead of allowing countless market participants to use their time and talents freely — in a myriad of different ways — central planners will decide for them.
By taking money away from plumbers, office workers, and computer programmers — and handing it over to a government-funded project — the state is forcing the taxpayers to fund a project they would not have otherwise funded. That is, they've been forced to spend their money on a sub-optimal use of wealth. Had it been optimal for the taxpayers, they would have spent that money on a similar project voluntarily.
The same is true of conscripts, of course. Instead of allowing young people to engage in the activities they value most, conscription forces them to serve in the military instead. Those young people might have wanted to build a business during that time, or engage in scientific study. Instead, they're forced to devote their time and energy to projects and activities that are suboptimal to them. Had military activities been optimal, those people would have enlisted in the military voluntarily.
The net outcomes of all of this is a sizable decline in real wealth within the affected society. When plumbers, office workers and computer programmers are allowed to keep their money — and spend it on things they value — they build real wealth. Yes, that wealth remains largely invisible because politicians can't point to a shiny new facility that's allegedly good for the economy. It may be the plumber bought a new van for his work. Or the office worker installed a new water heater at home.
That's pretty un-sexy stuff, so central planners think they know how to spend that money better.
The same is apparently true with Elizabeth Braw and her ideas for helping the economy by forcing young people to forgo years of earning potential and skill-building outside the military because she decided that being in the military is best.