A New, Improved Draft? No Thanks

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By Josh Barro

So Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and now Thomas Ricks, want to bring back the draft. Writing yesterday in the New York Times, Ricks proposes a mandatory 18 months of national service following high school. Conscripts would enter the military, but wouldn’t be deployed unless they volunteered to be. Instead, they would do things like “paperwork, painting barracks, mowing lawns, driving generals around, and generally doing lower-skills tasks so professional soldiers don’t have to.”

Or, young people could choose to do civilian service, but they would have to do 24 months of that. The conscripts wouldn't be paid much, but they would get free college tuition afterward.

Where to begin with the idiocy of this?

We can start with the fact that it is likely unconstitutional. I can see no provision in the Constitution that authorizes mandatory national service, and the 13th Amendment bars "involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted." The Supreme Court has upheld a military draft, but under Congress's enumerated power "to raise and support armies"; it is not at all clear that this power extends to mandated civilian service.

But even if the federal government can impose a peacetime civilian draft, it's still a terrible idea. One issue is whether U.S. government agencies need, at any given time, 5-million-odd unskilled and unwilling teenagers to do paperwork and mow lawns. If the military's paperwork can be done by an 18-year- old with no prior training, perhaps it doesn’t need to be done at all.

This also goes against the stated purpose of the plan. Supposedly conscription will discourage the U.S. from going to war unnecessarily. But if you know your conscripted child isn’t going to be sent to Afghanistan, but will instead be on a military base in Ohio, repainting a mess hall that was just painted three days ago because the military has so many 18- and 19-year-old painters, why should that change your opinion about sending other people's kids to war?

The plan would theoretically save money because conscripts are so much cheaper than the career employees they could displace, whether civilian or military. The article gives the example of high pay for custodians in the New York City public schools. Newt Gingrich proposed replacing school custodians with poor teenage students who want to earn extra cash. Ricks proposes replacing some of them with recent high school grads with no option but to work for the government for $15,000 a year.

Three points to make about this: The first is that, well duh, conscripted labor is cheap: because you’re stealing it. We could pass a law forcing New York Times op-ed contributors to clean toilets for free, and that would be cheap, too. The second is that, in general, well-paid employees are paid well for a reason. Work requires skills, even custodial work. So, lower pay will be offset by a reduction in worker productivity. Yes, sometimes, public employees are overpaid. But that doesn't mean we could replace them with teenage conscripts without consequence.

Finally, while the idea is presented as saving the government money on benefits (young conscripts won’t generally have kids or costly medical conditions), it would also give the teenagers free college tuition once they finish service. College, you may have noticed, is expensive. In fact four years of college can cost a lot more than 18 months of family health coverage. So in addition to being unwilling and incompetent, these conscripts may not even work out to be cheap.

The plan would also reduce GDP. It would delay workforce entry by 18 months to two years, meaning that time young people spend on national service displaces time they would spend working in their careers. Given the likelihood that conscripts would be engaged in makework and projects of dubious value, it would reduce national income.

It also might well reduce birth rates. Young people today already find it hard enough to get themselves to a point where they feel established enough to marry and support children. Introducing another two years' delay into careers would only exacerbate that trend.

Both of those sound like fairly technical objections to mandatory national service. But they are quantitative manifestations of what is so qualitatively objectionable with this plan: People have things they want to be doing with their time and their lives. Forcing them to take 18 months out -- roughly 2 percent of their expected life spans -- to work for the government at minimum wage is no small thing.

Ricks does allow that "libertarians" who "declined to help Uncle Sam" should have an out: They can skip the draft, but only if they also agree not to use any federal programs. This is perhaps the most objectionable aspect of this argument: that only a libertarian could be so rude as to insist that there is a limit to what the government can tell him to do. If the government wants to force me to work for it, it had better have a damned good reason, such as the outbreak of a world war. Short of that, I'll reserve my right to decide what to do with my time, thanks.

(Josh Barro is lead writer for the Ticker. Follow him on Twitter.)

Read more breaking commentary from Josh Barro and other Bloomberg View columnists and editors at the Ticker.

-0- Jul/11/2012 18:24 GMT