The Weird Liberal Love Affair With The Draft

One of the many curiosities of our age of open-ended war is how reinstating the draft has become a cause célèbre among some anti-war liberals. Joseph Epstein makes the case for conscription as a way to wean America off interventionism:

The first effect of restoring the draft would be to make the American electorate generally more thoughtful about foreign policy. It’s well and good to call for boots on the ground, but all of us might make a mental adjustment if some of those boots were to be filled by our own youthful children and grandchildren. A truly American military, inclusive of all social classes, might cause politicians and voters to be more selective in choosing which battles are worth fighting and at what expense. It would also have the significant effect of getting the majority of the country behind those wars in which we do engage.

The last war fought by America that had the durable support of the nation was World War II. This was so in part because of the evil nature of the enemy. But the war was also vigorously supported because the troops who fought in it, owing to the draft, came from all social and economic classes.

Larison pushes back on Epstein’s logic:

It is possible that a draft might make it harder for policymakers to continue ill-advised wars for a very long time, but it won’t stop them from starting or joining them.

Even with the draft, U.S. forces were stuck fighting in Vietnam for the better part of a decade, and U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia in one form or another lasted much longer than that. If the U.S. has plunged into unnecessary, pointless wars with the All-Volunteer Force, it also did the same thing when it had the draft. … Drafting people to serve in the military isn’t going to fix what is at its core a problem of bad policymaking, and focusing on the composition of the military distracts us from the reality that the recurring problem is with the civilians we elect and their appointees. Resuming the draft wouldn’t prevent the U.S. from engaging in unnecessary, pointless wars, and the problem would likely be made worse by making those wars larger and costlier.

The other side of the liberal pro-conscription coin is the notion of National Service – a non-military draft. Over the holidays, Dana Milbank argued that such a program would help stem the decline of America’s volunteer workforce:

In mid-December, the National Conference on Citizenship released its annual “civic health indicators” (volunteer work, contact with friends and family, confidence in institutions) and found a “broad decline” in 16 of 20 areas. The study was backed by the Census Bureau and the Corporation for National and Community Service. Similarly, Census and the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that volunteering in 2012 (the most recent data available) was at the lowest percentage (25.4 percent) since the government started counting in 2001. The cause of this is fairly clear: Americans are not being asked to serve their country.

But Matt Welch quibbles, noting that while fewer Americans are volunteering their labor, charitable giving is at an all-time high. Why, he asks, is it considered more noble to give time than money? By way of example, he considers how his own charitable endeavors have shifted from the former to the latter:

As it happens, probably like a lot of Americans, over time our charitable giving has gone up substantially, while our hours volunteered are probably on net lower, even with the increases for school/kid-related stuff. That’s because in the great Division of Labor called life, this actually makes sense if you think about it even for one minute. If you are fortunate enough to be able to increase your earnings as you get older (especially when you have some mouths to feed and plan for), you spend your time doing just that, then sending off checks to charitable organizations you have confidence will spend some of the excess wisely. Meanwhile, volunteering and networking are actually pretty valuable ways for starving freelancers (to name one category of non-richies I have familiarity with) to spend their otherwise not-very-well-remunerated time.

Long story short, if you are going to make the consequentialist argument that declining volunteerism requires more tax money to be conscripted for “National Service,” you should probably explain why you care more about volunteering labor than volunteering hard-earned cash.