What's the Correct Number of Women Commandos?
The Daily Mail reports that an 18-month publicity campaign to encourage women to join the Royal Marines has ended after managing to recruit just one candidate to its elite training program. The campaign was a follow-up to David Cameron’s decision a year ago to lift the ban on women serving in close-combat roles.
It’s unclear how much the campaign cost, or what its target recruitment level was, but the results are being treated as a clear failure. Predictably—this is the Mail, after all—the coverage seems intended to rehearse some tired conservative talking points about women in the military. Yet fortunately, by missing the mark in a specific way, this kind of reporting actually helps to make an important economic point about the problems of military spending.
With that in mind, let me pose some questions: how do we know that the recruitment campaign was a failure? What would the “correct” number of women commandos have been? Five? Ten? Ten thousand? In other words, what is the value to society of each new recruit, and what is the cost?
The answer is simple: we don’t know.
The reason we don’t know is that there is no objective way to measure the costs and benefits to society of recruiting new soldiers, just as there’s no way to know how many ships, aircraft, or tanks to build, or how to build them (assuming the numbers would actually be positive, which is unlikely).
Military spending is only another application of Mises’s famous argument about economic calculation. Without prices, there is no way to express the value of production to society. The price system, in which entrepreneurs speculate from moment to moment about the future values of land, labor, and capital, is the indispensable tool by which we learn how best to use these scarce resources. Without this social appraisement process, however, we’re left groping in the dark.
The military can’t rationally allocate resources because it can’t properly price them. Its funding is determined by the political process without any consideration for how much spending is required in order to provide defense “services,” and certainly not by any consideration of consumer needs. Military R&D projects are even worse, as seen in the recent debacle over the F-35 fighter jet.
The logic is the same when it comes to human resources: people are heterogeneous, and without a way of making their efforts commensurable, there’s no way to know the costs of using different people in different roles (this is perhaps one reason why military training programs are often designed to make recruits more homogeneous). In the market, entrepreneurial competition prices labor, but military organizations must make decisions without such guidance, often based solely on political objectives.
Again, there’s no way absent a market to figure out how much should be spent on these projects, or when to know that one has failed and needs to be cancelled. Competitive bidding for government contracts and other seemingly market-driven policies are no better: they simply muddy the water by inviting rent-seeking firms to “play market,” or to be more accurate, to “play merchants of death.”