By Marc Joffe
In late April, the House Armed Services Committee voted to extend draft registration to women. As this measure now advances through Congress, Representatives and Senators should realize that this is not a matter of women’s equality; it’s about government waste, meaningless foreign policy symbolism and individual liberty.
Between 1980 and 2015, the federal government spent a total of $822 million on the Selective Service System with another $22 million budgeted for the current fiscal year. Since no one was drafted during this time, the cost might charitably be seen as a very expensive insurance policy, but is more properly understood to be a boondoggle.
President Carter restarted draft registration to show resolve in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Now that there is no longer a Soviet Union and that the US is now the occupying military power in Afghanistan, this symbolic measure has lost any meaning.
Since the US now relies on a nuclear deterrent and advanced weapons systems, it is hard to fathom how the military might use millions of poorly trained draftees. Further, if the government decided to reinstitute conscription, it wouldn’t need selective service records to do so; it could find young people to draft from social security, driver’s license and other records.
But the government shouldn’t draft anyone in the first place. Conscription is a moral outrage inconsistent not only with libertarian principles but with the US constitution. At the end of the Civil War, the US ratified the 13th amendment, which says, in part: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Since conscription is clearly a form of involuntary servitude, and since draftees’ only crime is being the wrong age, the draft is clearly unconstitutional.
The dangers of conscription were on display when the Johnson Administration ramped up the war in Vietnam. American troop strength in Indochina skyrocketed from 23,000 soldiers in 1964 to 536,000 in 1968. Because young American men were readily and inexpensively available, Johnson and McGeorge Bundy could afford to waste their lives in fruitless combat. Not only did we lose 58,000 American soldiers during the war, many more were physically and psychologically wounded – with some still lying on our city streets today as a result of the trauma they suffered on the battlefield.
The benefits of an all-volunteer army were demonstrated in America’s next foolish large-scale troop deployment - forty years later in Iraq. Troop levels there peaked at 158,000 and American military deaths were limited to “only” 4500. This lower death count was largely attributable to medical advances, but even if you consider our 32,000 wounded in Iraq, the body count still pales in comparison to the carnage in Vietnam. The need to convince people to volunteer and the necessity to pay them a competitive wage places important limits on the government’s ability to waste young people’s lives on military follies.
I suspect that some Democrats voted for expanding registration because they see it as a necessary precondition for universal service. Under universal service all young people would be required to spend a year or two working for the government, choosing either a military or civilian role. But adding non-military options doesn’t remove the compulsory nature of universal service: it is still involuntary servitude. Also, given the disorganization that plagues many government projects, it is easy to imagine many young people seeing their time and energy wasted on ill-conceived initiatives and make-work jobs.
I agree with the House Armed Services Committee that women and men should be equal: neither should be compelled to join the military or civilian work gangs. Let’s abolish draft registration for everyone and shut down the Selective Service System once and for all.
Marc Joffe is the Principal Consultant at Public Sector Credit Solutions, a research group that analyzes government bond credit risk. Before starting PSCS, Marc was a Senior Director at Moody’s Analytics. He has also held management roles at a number of money center banks. Marc holds an MBA from New York University, where he studied under Israel Kirzner.