American policymakers use the U.S. military too promiscuously, and even as promiscuity goes, too stupidly. They do so because they face few impediments to doing so, and a number of powerful inducements. If you’re interested in creating more impediments, or removing some of the inducements, you get desperate.
Desperate enough to consider how conscription would factor into policymakers’ calculus.
What’s clear at present is that the policymaking elite views the all-volunteer force in the same way that a mafia don views his street thugs: as a tool. Useful but replaceable.
What’s also clear is the the military, serving as it does as a powerful agent for social mobility in an era where there are fewer and fewer such agents, socializes its members and their families to accept what would otherwise be appalling and unacceptable sacrifice without complaint. Since they bear a disproportionate share of the cost of interventionist policies, one naturally would look first to servicemembers and their families in an effort to impose penalties on policymakers who incurred those costs, but the socialization inherent in military life make this an unlikely avenue for success.
Finally, whatever wealthy political donors may think about foreign policy, only those with a hawkish orientation care deeply enough to make it central to their political action. On the left, tangential causes such as nonproliferation have replaced peace as a political end, and on the right, a few donors care enough to see that noninterventionist op-eds get printed, but none will fight with their hawkish colleagues on the issue, much less defenestrate warmongers like Senator Tom Cotton.
If the argument is right so far, and I think it is, one really starts reaching for any way to impose new costs on war-making. And say what one will, conscription would be an additional cost.
The scholarly research backs this up. Two studies in recent years, one large-N and one experimental, make clear that conscription raises the perceived cost of war among those subject to it.
The experimental piece gave study participants various scenarios with and without a draft, and found
strong support for the argument that conscription decreases mass support for war, a finding that replicates in several different settings. We also show that these findings are driven by concerns about self-interest, consistent with our theory. We conclude by discussing the relevance of these findings for debates about how domestic political conditions influence when states go to war.
A lot of people understandably get squeamish about experimental studies, so there is also a large-N, historical study that came out around the same time, using Vietnam draft lottery status as a predictor of hawkishness or dovishness. The findings?
Males holding low lottery numbers became more antiwar, more liberal, and more Democratic in their voting compared to those whose high numbers protected them from the draft. They were also more likely than those with safe numbers to abandon the party identification that they had held as teenagers. Trace effects are found in reinterviews from the 1990s. Draft number effects exceed those for preadult party identification and are not mediated by military service. The results show how profoundly political attitudes can be transformed when public policies directly affect citizens’ lives.
That last sentence should stick with us. In the absence of a draft, war rarely directly affects citizens’ lives. If war rarely directly affects citizens’ lives, how or why are those citizens supposed to force their rulers to tolerate peace?
To be clear: I think there almost certainly is not a libertarian case for conscription. Conscription, let’s remember, made no less a statist than Thomas Hobbes a bit squeamish. It’s tough to imagine a more despotic act in a country as unthreatened as the United States as that of an executive commanding, at threat of imprisonment, his subjects to go abroad and kill on behalf of his conception of the national interest.
But for the economically-minded, if peace is an important objective, and if politics is as much about incentives and disincentives as other aspects of human society, we might want to look at conscription, if as nothing more than a thought experiment for how to discourage policymakers from making war.