Let's Not Launch a Draft To Save Money

A blog about business and economics.
July 11 2012 9:57 AM

Let's Not Launch a Draft To Save Money

Many elected officials around the country have expressed concern lately about the high labor costs involved in public services and have been acting to cut wages and curtail labor unions' bargaining power. One worry one might have about this is that slashing public sector compensation may reduce the quality of human capital in the public sector. Thomas Ricks argues in a New York Times op-ed that we should get around this difficulty by enslaving teenagers:

A revived draft, including both males and females, should include three options for new conscripts coming out of high school. Some could choose 18 months of military service with low pay but excellent post-service benefits, including free college tuition. These conscripts would not be deployed but could perform tasks currently outsourced at great cost to the Pentagon: paperwork, painting barracks, mowing lawns, driving generals around, and generally doing lower-skills tasks so professional soldiers don’t have to. If they want to stay, they could move into the professional force and receive weapons training, higher pay and better benefits.

Those who don’t want to serve in the Army could perform civilian national service for a slightly longer period and equally low pay—teaching in low-income areas, cleaning parks, rebuilding crumbling infrastructure, or aiding the elderly. After two years, they would receive similar benefits like tuition aid.
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Of course an even better way for the government to improve its bottom line would be to conscript teenagers and then lease them out to private firms. McDonald's could pay the government for the right to employ a chain gang of recent high-school graduates who'd only become eligible for student loans and other tuition assistance after the successful completion of a tour of duty. This would probably represent a higher quality of workers than McDonald's can normally attract with its low wages, and of course the direct government payments to the workers could be extremely low. The result would be a huge profit-making opportunity for the government that could help reduce the national debt.

Point being that the coercive authority of the modern state is chock-a-block with money-saving and profit-making opportunities, but it's rarely the case that trampling over human freedom in an arbitrary manner is a better way to take advantage of that fact than collecting taxes. Conscription is probably best used for its original purpose—sometimes you have a war of such a large magnitude that financing it strains the administrative capacity of the state to such an extent that you need to resort to in-kind levies, including of human beings. But desperate measures call for desperate times.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

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