Fairness Has Nothing to Do With a Draft


The country’s main reaction to the need for more troops in Iraq is that we should get other countries to help us out. In other words, draft foreigners. But events in Iraq have revived rumors and predictions that the real draft is coming back, and they have provided one of the periodic opportunities for advocates of a draft to make their case.

That case has two parts. One is fairness: When you’re asking young people to disrupt their lives and risk dying for their country, that burden ought to be spread across society, not concentrated among those who may have volunteered out of desperation. The second argument is democracy: An important test of the system is whether war-and-peace decision makers have skin in the game. If the children of politicians and business leaders are at risk, isn’t a war less likely?

The Pentagon insists that the all-volunteer military actually is a pretty good cross-section of society. But that is hard to believe. And the power elite that draft enthusiasts are talking about is probably too small to be reflected in the Pentagon surveys. At the very least, the sons and daughters of the elite don’t have to sign up for any reason except a real desire to serve in the military. By contrast, economic pressure and a lack of other opportunities may lead a poor kid to join the Army even if, on balance, he might prefer a career in investment banking.


So is this unfair? Yes, of course it’s unfair. But replacing the volunteer Army with a draft is an odd way to address this unfairness. The practical effect might be to deny a poor kid the opportunity he or she is currently taking, without creating new opportunities to replace it. Meanwhile, someone else who doesn’t need or want this opportunity would be forced into it. Result: Two people doing something they don’t want to do.

Another problem. Even if we need more soldiers in Iraq, we don’t need as many as a universal draft would produce. The legendary unfairness of the Vietnam-era draft was more the result of the government looking for ways to reduce the number of draftees than of actual draft dodging. Draft enthusiasts have two solutions to this dilemma. One is a universal mandatory service program for young people in which military service would be just one option. This is truly the tail wagging the dog. You start with demographic concerns about the military and end up with a vast new government bureaucracy dedicated to forcing people against their will into jobs that mostly have nothing to do with the military. The notion of every young citizen devoting a year or two to public service is a pleasant one. But is this pleasant notion reason enough to justify a vast social engineering experiment and a vast bureaucratic machine to run it? Does experience offer any reason for confidence that a government agency dedicated to implanting higher values into millions of young people by finding inspirational tasks and forcing the kids to do them could actually pull this off without embarrassment and scandal?

The other way to equalize a draft is a lottery. Everyone registers, then whether you get called is a matter of luck. In a way, of course, that’s how it works now. If you’re lucky enough to be born prosperous or well connected, you don’t have to serve. The advantage of a draft lottery is that it would redistribute the luck for at least this one occasion. The disadvantage is that it’s still luck, and still unfair. Arbitrary unfairness is better than systemic unfairness. But now you are disrupting lives and closing off opportunities in pursuit of a goal far short of actual fairness.

During Vietnam, the columnist Nicholas von Hoffman wrote, “Draft old men’s money, not young men’s bodies.” His point was that in the United States, when you want more of something -- even soldiers -- the way to get more is to pay more. Any kind of draft allows the government to pay less for soldiers than they would cost in the free market. It is, in essence, a tax on young people. Or a pay cut for those who would have volunteered anyway. What kind of fairness is that?

As for the contention that a draft would make it harder for a president to start a war, that one can be argued both ways. A draft ensures that decision makers have a personal stake in a war. On the other hand, a volunteer Army puts war-and-peace decisions to the test of the market: Can people be induced voluntarily to fight it? A volunteer Army could become a mercenary force operating at the president’s whim. But a draft Army, always at the ready, also encourages imperial whimsy.

It’s true that democracy has almost disappeared from this country’s decisions about going to war. Presidents of both parties assert, with little challenge and even less justification, near unilateral war-power authority. Congress should reassert its war powers. That would do more for democracy than drafting the president’s daughters.