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The economic case against national service is even more stark than you present. It is not the first year of employment that is lost, but that last one - a much large economic impact.

Additionally, the claim of solidarity is somewhat suspect, not just because of the diversity of the work, but also because of its compulsive nature. Having witnessed firsthand the level of buyer's remorse present in many of the units of the US military today, I would imagine that a significant fraction of those pressed would feel resentment, not solidarity.

james Hamnley

I think that the article is really good but at the core of the issue is either USA or Canada immigration and USA and Canada visas. Illegal workers should be stopped at mexico or the Philippines. a good write up can be seen at www.jobandvisa.com


Is it possible that by holding young people out of the work force for a year, there would be a positive effect on the market for somewhat older workers, which would make up for at least some of the cost? For example I could imagine it resulting in an increase in wages for parenting-age workers, since they'd be facing less pressure from new entrants into the market. In turn the 18-yr olds would enjoy higher pay when they themselves reach parenting age (a time when that money will be more important, anyway).


It seems unwarranted to assume, with no evidence presented here, that national service would diminish one's future volunteering. Do we really know that for sure? On the whole I agree with your points though.

Also what nordsieck pointed out above is an important point. The person could still do the first year of their job...just later. It's the last year, when they would be earning far more, that they lose.


Very pragmatic post by Judge Posner. There are points aplenty on which one might take issue. But for now let's suggest a minor clarification of the point Posner makes in but his concluding paragraph, as follows:

"In a candid moment proponents of universal national service might respond that its real purpose is to take rich kids" -- other than their own kids -- "down a peg by forcing them to work for a year with minimal compensation."


It's possible whatever "solidarity effect" that universal national service would create would be more than offset by the "individual born and raised in a free society being pressed into unnecessary and menial slave labor" resentful and demotivating effect associated with the draft even in times of national emergency.

Whether that resentment would translate into the repeal of the program is uncertain. Most 18-20 year-olds resent not being able to drink alcohol, but seem to think it's a wise policy when they're older.

But one cannot overstate the importance to the leaders of any group of people doing a very difficult and demoralizing task of being able to tell their team "Remember, you're all volunteers, you all signed up for this knowing, more or less, what the deal was and what you were in for".

At one time, Milton Friedman's recommendation of a military without conscription was thought unworkable, but today we know that a volunteer force is an immeasurably superior human institution because it is voluntary - people who hate the Army aren't forced to join, and people who join that discover they hate the Army can quickly depart leaving a community of dedicated public servants. That's real solidarity.


The primary benefit of universal national service would be the changes in military policy. The political resistance to sending our troops into war would be far greater if the troops consisted of a cross section of socio-economic groups. The military currently consists primarily of those from the lowest economic groups of our society. Those in the lowest income brackets usually have the least political involvement and clout. Anyone who is facing the possibility of sending a family member into a war wants to make certain that the conflict is necessary. If a wayward President were to try to send our troops into an unjustified war the political pressure against the conflict would be greatly magnified if the armed forces contained young people from all income levels.

Armed forces comprised entirely of volunteers leads to an inappropriate bias towards entering conflicts. In weighing the potential benefits of an armed conflict against the casualties, one has to determine if the benefits outweigh the dangers. It is easy to presume that an all volunteer force is “getting what they asked for” when they signed up for armed forces service. We are more likely to send an all volunteer army into battle with less hesitation. The fact that they volunteered for service ironically makes us more likely to unnecessarily place them in harm’s way.

Because a large portion of each vintage of 18 year olds would not serve in the military a lottery would need to be imposed to select those who would enter the military versus those who would do civilian work. This would make certain that the military contained a random cross section of socio-economic sectors of our society.

Also there would be considerable savings in the reduction in military reliance on part-time reservists. A larger than necessary supply of full-time employees at the ready each year would enable the military to focus its training dollars on those who would be available full-time.

Axel Kassel

Wouldn't a national-service program require amending the Constitution to lift the ban on slavery? If the State is confiscating your time, assigning your work, and dictating your pay, and if you are neither a volunteer soldier or a convict, then it certainly sounds like being a slave. Perhaps there are still some Americans who would object to being enslaved, whether for "the good of the Nation" or for private advantage.

Will Punting

In the context of this discussion, it is perhaps interesting to look at other Western countries which have national service:
While France has recently abolished the draft, Germany still has compulsory military service. There is the possibility of doing alternative (civilian) service -- mostly in hospital and care homes.
This 'non-military' option, introduced in the 1960s, was designed specifically for conscientious objectors and was presumed to be a rare exception.
By the 1990s, around 70% of young Germans had
opted to do civilian service, despite the slightly longer service time (13 months civilian; 10months military).
As a result, German hospitals and care homes
were flooded with, and became dependent upon, cheap labour (the salary of civilian servicemen in the 1990s was ~$10 per day; overhead paid by the government).
After 2001, the German army realized that its new mission -- fighting global terrorism -- would require a change in recruitment (the short tenure of conscripts was incompatible with the professional training now required).
Since then, there have been many discussions
about abolishing compulsory military service:
The army is all for it, but hospitals and care homes have issued concerns because they would lose
access to the cheap leabor. It has been argued that abolishing the draft would lead to a cost explosion and staff shortages in the health care sector.

St. Darwin Assisi's cat

I am emotionally elated with Judge Posner's writing -- taking rich kids down a peg, now there's a thought -- M&M, 50 Cent, Anna Nicole, Paris, Lindsay, Britney -- a year of service to our country -- Madonna's kids can join too (early)... is anyone watching Ken Burns' emotional archaeology on WWII -- public TV 8-10 pm Sept 23-26 and Sept 30-Oct 2...did anyone see 11TH HOUR? Hopefully everyone has read NOT A SUICIDE PACT (Posner, 2006).



The situation as it stands results in people with education getting high ASVAB scores and ending up (in general) with jobs that do not require direct enemy engagement. While it is true that some "rich kids" volunteer for the infantry, I think you will find that on the whole, enlisted who are removed from the front lines occupy a higher socio-economic strata than average.

With the increased political pressure due to a draft, I cannot imagine that this situation would become anything but less egalitarian.

If you are suggesting doing away with even that minimal aptitude testing, and randomly slotting people into jobs in pursuit of ideological goals, that sounds very close to the definition of treason.

Charles N. Steele

I believe "anon's" reply to nordsieck's first comment misses the point. Holding young people out of the workforce for a year might raise wages for older workers, but this is irrelevant. The loss from complusory service is that the draftees spend one or two years doing useless makework at the cost of a year or two of productive market work. The higher wage, if any, received by older folks who now have less competition in no way makes up for this.


Among other issues that are omitted, is that a universal draft might sharply reduce the likelihood of events such as Abu Ghraib (and many others that are not reported). Also, physical training may have a beneficial long-term effect on obesity and medical costs. Third, if there were a significant chance that their own kids and acquaintances might be made to fight a war, the probability of entering into another Iraq might be significantly reduced. There are far more than simple economic issues involved.

Lanny Arvan

"A possible exception is tutoring children, since education produces significant social benefits. But only a small fraction of the 4 million national service conscripts could usefully be employed in that activity."

It would be good to quantify that piece as you've quantified the other pieces in your argument, to do the full calculation better.

Also, there may be non-tangible benefits to the providers of the service, getting an appreciation of how others in society live and about what might be done to reduce poverty.

Finally, I believe your argument presumes that labor market entry and retirement decisions are made efficiently at present. Would your conclusion change if, instead, it were agreed that too many in society retire earlier than is efficient, because many current retirement packages, including social security, are based on historically determined norms in age that are no longer relevant for determining the efficient retirement age but that do continue to affect when actual retirement occurs? If that's right and a year of two national service at 18 or 21 pushed back the retirement age by a commensurate amount, wouldn't that be win-win?


When I look back on my life, I see that in many ways I am a very different person now than I was in my younger days. The decisions that I would make now, as the "older me", are quite different than the decisions the "younger me" would have made.That raises an interesting question. Suppose the younger me decided to enter into a contract that the older me would not have entered into, should the older me still me bound by the terms of the contract?Suppose the younger me entered into a contract that gave the younger me $100 dollars but now the older me is obligated by the contract to dig a ditch? If that fair to the older me? Or, is that somewhat coercive to the older me?It seems to me that the more interesting question with respect to the current topic is not whether there should be coercive military service for all young men but instead whether the current recruitment system could be made less coercive to the "volunteers" who are currently serving?Could there be some kind of system where a member of the military is paid their salary at the end of each day and, if any time they feel that they are not being compensated adequately, they can just "walk away" in good standing.Rather than having some guy compelled to serve by the terms of a contract that he signed as a younger (and possibly much different person), the guy could make a decision of whether to continue to serve based on who he is right then at that moment.


Wes, I wouldn't like to be relying on your flexible exit criteria in the event of a war.

On your older younger thesis: the younger me signed a contract with a bank to the effect that I will pay them a huge chunk of my earnings for the next 30 years or they'll take my house. The older me has to stick with it. But what kind of society would we have if I could walk away from my committment with the attitude that "oh, now that I think about it, that wasn't such a great idea after all"

But on the substantive point - I would side with those who are wary of the notion that the state should effectively remove one's freedom for a period of time. Besides, forcing a person to employ their labor in a way that they wouldn't choose themselves doesn't come across as a sound approach economically either.

Forced military service seems like a throwback to another age. I hope it stays that way.


My cats salute St. Darwin Assisi's cats and respond as follows: Our litterbox attendant graduated from law school in May, 1962, sat for the Bar in July, and reported for active duty for training at Parris Island in August. He would not have enlisted in the Marines save for the possibility of being drafted, says he hated every minute of the service, and never faced a bullet. He also says the USMC did infinitely more for him than he ever did for the Corps and he would not trade the experience for anything.


The argument against universal service is moral, namely, that a man's life is his own to live out as he sees fit. That altruism, i.e., "I am my brother's keeper", is a hateful ideology that has been behind all the bloodiest sacrifices of world history. And that the call for sevice (or, in today's parlance, "giving something back") is nothing more than a cover for the fact that whenever somebody asks you to sacrifice, be assured that there is someone else who will be collecting the unearned.


On your older younger thesis: the younger me signed a contract with a bank to the effect that I will pay them a huge chunk of my earnings for the next 30 years or they'll take my house. The older me has to stick with it.I haven't read the terms of your contract but the chances are good that the older you doesn't actually have to stick with it: the older you could sell off "your" house, use the proceeds from the sale to pay off the mortgage and move into an apartment.I can enter into a contract where I agree to dig a ditch and the other party to the contract agrees to give me $100. I can also enter into a contract where I agree to dig a ditch and the other party to the contract agrees to give $100 to some other person (who is not party to the contract). I could not, however, enter into a contract where the other party to the contract agrees to give me $100 and some other person (who is not party to the contract) is then obligated to dig a ditch.I can also enter into a contract with a bank to jointly purchase a house and then I can give my share of the house to someone else with the understanding that that person can buy the remaining share of the house from the bank. That's essentially what is happening with a mortgage. The younger you buys part of a house (and a bank buys the rest) and then the younger you gives the younger you's share of the house to the older you (with the understanding the the older you intends to buy the rest of the house from the bank in incremental payments).I can set up up a bank account with the understanding that the balance is to be given to someone else at a future time. The younger me can also save up a bunch of money and give it to the older me at a later time for the older me to use for retirement.On the other hand, in general I can not run up a bunch of debts and then obligate someone else to pay them off. Similarly, there are limits to how much the younger me can run up debts and then obligate the older me to pay them off (the older me can, in general, declare bankruptcy).In fact, peonage is generally considered to be illegal in the United States. The interesting question, then, is whether the contracts that the military uses these days constitute some form of peonage.

Jeff Baird

The idea of using universal service to take rich kids down a peg would be self-defeating. Rich kids can be, and often are, subsidized by their parents while they are in college, and (see "Millionaire Next Door") often well after they start working. Universal service would harm the earning potential of middle and lower class 18 year olds, while their upper class compatriots would delay adulthood, but with a stream of unearned income.


I had a bit of a tough time with Posner's introductory paragraph........

"There are perennial calls for drafting all 18 year olds to serve in either the military or some civilian alternative. Congressman Charles Rangel has repeatedly introduced bills in Congress (the "Universal National Service Act") that would do this. The bills have never come close to passage, and are unlikely to in the future even with Democratic control of both houses of Congress."

.......... as Rep Rangel "argues for" a draft primarily in response to one "class" deciding on wars for "his" lower income and minority constituents to fight. Also, I don't know of any agenda of the Democratic Party to implement universal service.

In general I'm not a fan of universal service for most of the reasons Posner and Becker put forth. Still, the fact of one class "volunteering" for the hardships of fighting our wars while the others go to law school and DC to pontificate as to what American interests are worthy of sending the other class to fight for, is troubling to one who believes in democracy; the question of what American interests are worthy of me or my kids going to war is quite different.

Since the time is past when those who would seek leadership positions often included military service as entry credentials, it's tempting to reconsider a lottery form of draft with very, very few exemptions allowed. To be sure, there would be the "economic costs" mentioned as college is delayed for two years, but I'm sure the savings in terms of increased political reluctance to jump into wars would offset these costs by very large margins.

Having served during the Vietnam era as a draftee I see more benefits to the individual and to society than either Posner or Becker seemed to notice. The most important is that of groups of regular citizens with no interest in a military career who add a certain balance within the military and carry a firsthand insight of the military during the rest of their lives. Becker mentions something like "experiencing life as a poor person" but instead the benefits are more of meeting and working, as one, with those from across the nation and from most economic strata.

Serving in any foreign country is another benefit to the individual and to our nation; we as a people are far too provincial, and to our detriment. Examples abound, such as our Ambassador to Canada was a great fundraiser but had only been to Canada once and does not speak French.

An unwelcome tax on the individual? Indeed, and as our "volunteer Army" works for low pay beside the highly paid contractors, one wonders what is the "right price" for a couple of 15 month "tours" in Iraq? The gap between price and wage would be the involuntary "tax" which many paid during our various wars.

As has been pointed out, we've far too many young people to draft them all, (and today it would create quite a policy debate if we did not draft women as well) but it might serve us well to randomly draft enough to fill 20% of the staffing needs in peace time and more when our diplomatic efforts have failed.

For the rest, I'd like to see more opportunities for volunteers to join the Peace Corps or Americorp; if the cost is $29,000 or so, the government is most likely getting a better bargain than they do in many other areas and it would seem the causes of democracy and community are well served. Jack


Andy Rooney addressed this issue in one of the most politically incorrect, yet thought provoking, commentaries I have ever seen. (Only a WWII veteran could get away with saying something like this without getting shot...) I pasted it below; there is also a video of it at the link I posted.

There have been stories recently about the problem the Pentagon is having recruiting enough soldiers to do the fighting that we're committed to do in Iraq.

In an attempt to get the soldiers they need, recruiters have reduced the standards for getting into the Army or Navy.

They have reduced the educational standards, for example, so that they're getting more soldiers who didn't go to high school, let alone graduate from high school.

Recruiters are granting thousands of what they call "moral waivers". A "moral waiver" it turns out means they'll take someone who has committed a crime or even someone who has been in prison. Last year, a total of 8,129 "moral waivers" were given to men who volunteered for the Army.

Are these the people we want representing us? As American soldiers, they're going to give the people they meet around the world the impression that they are what all Americans are like and if they have been taken from the bottom of the barrel, they are not what we're all like.

In August of 1941, I had just finished my junior year in college when I was drafted into the Army. Hundreds of my classmates were drafted at the same time.

I hated everything about Army life. I hated the Field Artillery regiment I was assigned to. Most of the guys in it were high school dropouts and the Army wasn't using the term "moral waiver," yet but a lot of them would have needed it.

They had joined before the draft so they had already been promoted to being corporals or sergeants and they were in charge of the rest of us.

In 1942 we were at war with Germany and it wasn't long before drafted college students and high school graduates dominated our military. It changed the United States Army for the better and in two years made it the best fighting force there has ever been. The Army and Navy were no longer made up of losers.

Now comes the part of this I never thought I'd hear myself say: Whenever we, as a nation, decide to fight a war – in Iraq or anywhere else – it should be fought by average Americans who are drafted.

Richard A.

13th Amendment to the United States Constitution --

Section 1. 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.

Section 2. Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.


You deem implausible such service created a taste for participating in society.

Well, actually my high school had such a program -- and it worked very well -- but is was in a country were most of the public good is managed by the state, so few grown-ups dedicate themselves.

The argument that I've seen the most is not a money argument, or a "classic" one in the economic sense, but a social one: such a service gives example. I'm not familiar with the exact American figures, but I remember something along the lines of (apologizes for my all my misunderstandings, but I assure you it cannot be prejudice) an African-American is more likely to go to jail than to College. If this is the case -- or more accurately if social classes are so strong in the USA; such a program would offer to under-privileged kids the opportunity to good. I doubt the direct social benefits are amazing (after all, $27k p.a. is a reasonable salary) but offering an option that is neither Grand Theft Auto or dealing drugs would be great.

I can't help remember the Levitt's question: "Why do Dealers live with they mother?" after all, an rational analysis concludes that's is not worth it compared to flipping burgers -- unless you value significant chances of getting killed against smelling of fries. Asking them to care for the ills might show then a interesting third option.

Brutum Fulmen

Scott and steve raised an interesting and important point that hasn't met a response yet. Isn't UNS intended to internalize to the governmental decisionmaking process some of the costs of war believed by Rangel (I think not implausibly) to currently be borne disproportionately by the poorest and hence (the argument goes) least politically influential Americans?

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