What is the thinking of the people who advocate the draft? Whatever their differences, they have one thing in common: they believe that you are a national resource. Well, I am here to tell you that you belong to you. That you are not a piece of clay to be molded by others, that nobody has the right to take you against your will, no matter who they are, how many votes they have, or what they intend to use you for.

—David R. Henderson, speech at antidraft rally, May 1979

The biggest increase in US economic freedom in the last three decades of the twentieth  century was the end of the military draft. Nothing else during that time compares. Suddenly, millions of young men could plan their lives after age eighteen without the fear of being conscripted and sent to a foreign country hanging over their heads. The victory over the draft came after a years-long critique of the draft, not only on grounds of freedom but also on grounds of economic cost. Yet now, several commentators are calling for reinstating it and even making it universal with civilian service as an option.

Reinstating the draft is a bad idea. It would strip away young people’s freedom to choose their occupations. It would impose costs on young people that would exceed any cost savings from the lower pay that would result. It would make for a less effective military.

The economists’ moment

By the time this article is posted, we will have reached the fifty-first anniversary of the end of the draft: on June 30, 1973, under President Nixon, the authorization of the draft lapsed.

Back then, few people knew of the crucial role that economists across the political spectrum had played in ending the draft. Even fewer people know it now. The case they made matters for the current debate.

Two of the key players in ending the draft were Martin Anderson, a young economics professor at Columbia University, and Milton Friedman, an economics professor at the University of Chicago. Both later became senior fellows at the Hoover Institution. In 1967, Anderson wrote a memo to Richard Nixon, then a lawyer in New York who was contemplating running for president in 1968. Anderson laid out the pro-freedom and the economic case against the draft. Nixon was persuaded to the point where he devoted a whole CBS radio address in October 1968 to his case for ending the draft.

After Nixon was elected, he hired Anderson as one of his aides. Anderson played a role in forming the President’s Commission on an All-Volunteer Armed Force. The commission, informally called the Gates Commission because its chairman was retired secretary of defense Thomas Gates, had fifteen members. As Milton Friedman, one of the members of the commission, tells it in his book Two Lucky People, co-authored with Rose Friedman, the commission was completely balanced, with five people against the draft, five in favor, and five on the fence. When it issued its report, less than eleven months after it was formed, the vote was fourteen in favor of ending the draft and one member abstaining because, as he said in a letter to Nixon, he had been sick and had missed too many meetings.  

It seems likely that at least some of the nine members who had originally favored the draft or been on the fence found the pro-freedom argument and/or the economic argument compelling. Three of the anti-draft members, Milton Friedman, W. Allen Wallis, and Alan Greenspan, were economists; all four directors of research and the executive director were economists; and many of the staffers who did the research were economists.

What was the economic argument? It was that the real cost of raising a military is not the amount paid to the military but, rather, what economists call the opportunity cost. If the government drafted someone into the military who would have gone into pre-med and become a doctor, the cost was not just the puny wages that the government paid. The cost, rather, was what society gave up in having to wait a little longer (and possibly forever, if he were killed) for that person’s medical services.

Economists measured opportunity costs and found that taking these into account led to the conclusion that the draft was more expensive than an all-volunteer force (AVF). Why? It has to do with the fact that the draft put “the wrong man in uniform.” Indeed, that was the title of a book by anti-draft author Bruce K. Chapman, who later became a Seattle city councilman and then secretary of state of Washington. By replacing free-market wages with the threat of prison and fines, the government had no way of distinguishing people with low opportunity costs from people with high opportunity costs. So it got, to take an extreme example, Elvis Presley in the Army for two years instead of getting someone with a much lower opportunity cost who would have been willing to join if the wage had been, say, 50 percent higher.

The difference between what the recruit would have insisted on being paid to volunteer and the lower amount he was actually paid when drafted is what economists called “the conscription tax.” The Gates Commission economists estimated the conscription tax on draftees and draft-induced volunteers to be about 51 percent of their compensation. This compared to a tax rate of only about 10 percent for civilians with similar incomes. It’s that tax that exceeded the budgetary saving from having a draft. This article by Christopher Jehn, who had been the assistant secretary of defense for force management and personnel during the George H. W. Bush administration, gives more of the reasoning above.

In 1979, when Senator Sam Nunn (D-Georgia) advocated reintroducing the draft, I testified against the idea before the Senate Subcommittee on Manpower and Personnel, which he chaired. In responding to my testimony, he expressed his worry that keeping the all-volunteer force would cause manpower costs to be too big a percentage of military spending. I drove home the point that he was ignoring costs on the draftees. I stated:

What I am saying is that the cost of a good quality military is there. There is no avoiding that fact. All you [Senator Nunn] are talking about is whom you make bear the cost. The cost is not any lower when you are paying 30 percent of the budget [in wages]. It is just that you are imposing that cost on these young people. That is what you are advocating. You are not advocating a lower cost military. You are not advocating lower costs of labor. You are just advocating that taxpayers in general not bear the cost and young draftees bear the costs.

My students’ argument against the draft

Starting in 1984, I was an economics professor at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS). I was excited to try out the economic argument on my students, the majority of whom were officers in the US military. Almost none of them had ever heard the opportunity cost argument but many of them found it compelling.

That argument, though, was not the main factor that affected their views on the draft. I learned this by asking, after I gave the economic argument, whether they favored the draft. When I started teaching at NPS, some of the older officers had been in the military during the draft. It had taken a few years for the US military to learn how to persuade people to join rather than relying on the government to threaten them with prison sentences and fines. So, the early experience of the older officers was not as positive as the experience of most of my students. Possibly that explains why, when I first asked the question, about 20 percent of the officers wanted to return to the draft. Year by year, though, that percentage fell until about 1989, when no US officer I polled wanted to return to the draft. In every year after, the percentage stood at zero and so, sometime in the mid-1990s, I quit asking.

I always asked those who wanted to keep the AVF why they wanted it. The answer was usually the same, no matter whom I asked. It was this: “Why would I want to be in charge of people who don’t want to be there?”

In short, their answer was that a military with a draft would be less effective and create more headaches for the officers in charge.

Interestingly, few of my students stated that their reason for opposing a draft was that it reduced the freedom of young men. Occasionally, some of them did.

I’ve never seen the freedom argument stated so eloquently as in a letter to US News & World Report by a young Army volunteer from, if I recall correctly, Enid, Oklahoma. My copy was destroyed in an office fire in 2007 and so I’m going by memory here, but his statement was so beautiful and succinct that I’ll get it close to exact. He wrote, “I believe in protecting Americans’ freedom. That’s why I joined the Army. But if the United States adopts a draft, it’s not freedom I’ll be protecting.”

What about “national service”?

The national service draft that some people are proposing would take virtually every young person, under threat of prison and/or fines, and put all of them in the military or in some kind of civilian service. Such a draft would violate the freedom of many millions of young Americans to choose their work. The pro-freedom argument against the military draft, therefore, applies even more strongly to the national service draft because it would violate many more people’s freedom.

There are differences between the two drafts that matter. Addressing the national service draft, though, will take another article, which I’ll do in the next month or two.


The biggest increase in Americans’ freedom in the nineteenth century was the end of slavery. The biggest increase in Americans’ freedom in the last three decades of the twentieth century was the end of military conscription, a form of short-term slavery. Let’s not throw that huge accomplishment away. Let’s close the door on the draft.

overlay image