July 19, 2004

What's Fair About a Draft?

Michael Kinsley on the draft:

During Vietnam, the columnist Nicholas von Hoffman wrote, "Draft old men's money, not young men's bodies." His point was that in America, when you want more of something -- even soldiers -- the way to get more is to pay more. A draft allows the government to pay less for soldiers than they would cost in the free market. It is, in essence, a tax on young people. Or a pay cut for those who would have volunteered anyway. What kind of triumph of fairness is that?

As for the contention that a draft would make it harder for a president to start a war, that one can be argued both ways. A draft would subject war-and-peace decisions to an important test of democracy: Do the decision makers themselves have skin in the game? On the other hand, a volunteer army puts war-and-peace decisions to the test of the market: Can people be induced voluntarily to fight it? A volunteer army could become a mercenary force operating at the president's whim. But a draft army, always at the ready, also encourages imperial whimsy.

It's true that democracy has almost disappeared from this country's decisions about going to war. Presidents of both parties assert, with little challenge and even less justification, near-unilateral war-power authority. Congress should reassert its war powers. That would do more for democracy than drafting the president's daughters.