Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Updated on October 6, 2004 at 12:30 am, revised [slightly] at 1:25 pm.

Economics 101: Why Eric Zorn and his fellow travelers are wrong on the draft

Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn, in his column of yesterday and in his blog [both of which can be found at], seems to be obsessed with a military draft. In part, he is fixated on the rumor that President Bush and the Republicans have a secret plan to bring back the draft. Yes, he acknowledges that it is the Democrats, not Republicans, who have introduced such legislation, at least in recent times. But, still, Zorn says, it is the Republicans who, in large part, believe in the Iraq War and they [and the Bush Administration] can’t possibly recruit the necessary additional troops in the next few years to win in Iraq, so Zorn agrees with one of his email groupies that yes, Martha, the draft must be brought back by those who think we should not cut and run in Iraq.

Zorn seems unfamiliar with the mountains of data and analysis that were a major contributing factor to the military draft being tossed overboard in the mid-70s. This area was widely studied by economists of all stripes in the early 70s, with the overwhelming majority reaching the conclusion that a draft was an inefficient use of a nation’s resources and that an all volunteer army would not only be more efficient for society at large but also produce a stronger military operation. See, e.g., the Gates Commission study whose 30-year anniversary of its successful predictions and analysis was recently celebrated [The anniversary celebration can be found, ironically enough, on Public Radio].

Moreover, this conclusion is also consistent with those who believe in a free society, in which we don’t draft policeman, fireman or people who serve in a number of other risky activities. Instead, in the United States, we compensate those individuals a sufficient amount to recruit them to join the police, the fire department and for the last three decades, the military.

Those who have a passing familiarity with the free market mechanism will know that if we anticipate, over the next few years, requiring more “volunteers,” than we are currently eliciting with the current military pay structure, then we will need to raise the price, i.e., the amount offered for individuals to join the military. If society is not willing either to raise taxes to cover those costs or cut government expenditures [or the growth in expenditures] elsewhere, then we must not think the benefits of additional military resources exceed the costs, and we should not increase our military personnel.

This is the way the Chicago Tribune operates, at least I hope it does, when it decides how many columnists, reporters, edit board members, etc., that it should hire to produce the kind of newspaper that its readers are willing to pay for. Or, does Zorn recommend that we start drafting journalists, like Eric, at half his current rate of remuneration. I would imagine Tribune Publisher Scott Smith [and the Tribune Company’s shareholders] might like the Tribune having the authority to do that, but Eric, not so much.

Now, can we put the draft rumors and Zorn’s obsession with same back in the closet for another thirty years, while Zorn and his email groupies spend their extra time reading some economics, preferably starting with Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom. It’s a classic.

Jeff Berkowitz, host and producer of “Public Affairs,” can be reached at