Sowell's Draft Fantasies

Thomas Sowell begins his essay by noting that once upon a time, "most members of Congress had served in the military, as had many people in the media. Today that is no longer true..." In the good old days, he suggests, people knew the meaning of duty. In the saintly days of yore "of World War II, the military were drafting young men who were, by and large, patriotic Americans, people who felt that they had a duty to protect this country from its enemies." Not anymore. The potential draftees have been corrupted by the bad influence of the universities; hence, they may very well spoil the tough purity and resolve of our armed forces, rather like "sand poured into the gears of machinery." As a result, Sowell comes out against the draft for prudential reasons: our young people, he believes, are so hopeless that they don't even qualify for the status of cannon fodder!

But by all means, let's consider the draft. Several arguments are typically given in favor of it.

First, that it is necessary because the country would be conquered unless everyone fights as one. Only if enormous armies can be fielded can victory be assured, and Sowell is clear that "we could use a larger army." In a way, we "agree" to coerce each other to ensure that nobody free rides.

Surely, however, this cannot be an argument for the draft now. Everybody knows about the "4th-generation warfare" that is standard nowadays. Vast conscript armies are useless for fighting such wars.

Further, no barbarian horde is threatening to invade the United States with its own million-man army.

Then there are the moral issues with such "mutual" coercion. It may satisfy Smith who is reasonably indifferent between not fighting and fighting on the condition that everyone else fights, too. But what of Jones who is not interested in fighting regardless of the actions of other people? Jones is coerced, but he himself does not get to coerce others. The alleged mutuality of the barroom brawl falls apart.

Second, that military service, courtesy of our paternal government, will teach our young people discipline and the meaning of duty. It's difficult to know even where to begin with this. If discipline is taught by obeying the orders of someone else, then it can be just as well taught in the workplace or even, say, in a religious order. You do your job or you get fired. How is the military any better? On the contrary, it is a commonplace that military bases are dens of moral corruption, sexual license, and debt.

In any case, the true meaning of discipline is the ability to accomplish one's goals, to control the passions, to set priorities, to master the techniques of one's trade or art or science. The military is not an appropriate means for a young person to becoming disciplined, because orders do not come from himself but are imposed from above. And, although the government commercials routinely imply that the skills gained during the years of soldiering are transferable to normal life, I think this is false advertising.

What of "duty"? Sowell writes that the military is one of the few institutions "with a sense of purpose for which it is prepared to make sacrifices." What is he talking about? Every human being and institution has purposes and "senses" them adequately. Every human action is undertaken in order to attain some end; therefore, it is purposeful. And every action entails a sacrifice of the happiness that alternative actions would have yielded. "Profit" is defined precisely as the excess of utility gained over the utility that one would have received if he had chosen to satisfy the next most urgent desire on his values scales. By making a choice, one sacrifice all the less valued alternatives. This sacrifice is the cost of an action, the most important opportunity forgone.

I suppose that for Sowell the trivial little plans of our lives pale in comparison with the grand designs of the state. Has our author converted to statolatry?

Another possibility is that Sowell is talking about charity. The military, because it loves, loves, loves us "civilians" so much, selflessly seeks to serve us and in so doing makes sacrifices. He can't be serious. The military is being used by the state to pursue nothing more noble than global domination, exploitation, and despotism. The soldiers are not protecting our freedoms; they are taking away the freedoms of those they kill and whose properties they destroy.

Needless to say, there are numerous opportunities for displays of charity and self-sacrifice in private life, if that is Sowell's concern. To elevate government bureaucrats as somehow more virtuous than the rest of us is a most absurd myth. Yet here we have an eminent economist preaching it.

Lastly, Sowell may be trying to argue that the military is incorruptible. If incorruptibility means never or rarely disobeying the law, then Sowell is wrong, as incidents such as the Haditha murders, the never-ending collateral damage, and attempts to use the military to prosecute the drug war and in other types of law enforcement indicate. Perhaps he wants to say that the military is a mindless tool of the state, eager to do the politicians' bidding. How awful indeed that the universities try to nurture critical thinking skills in the students instead of blind obedience! At any rate, the whole thing is a red herring. If the orders are bad, then what does it matter if they are obeyed to the letter?

Third, that the draft is "fair" because even the children of the elites will have to humble themselves enough to serve. It will "share [the war's] burdens more widely and equitably."

Now look, conscription is government-sanctioned kidnapping and slavery. Is it Ok when everyone is equally a slave? Slavery is crawling on your belly in self-contempt begging for mercy. It is despising your God-given right to your own happiness. Is that what we want to reduce our children to? And this is not private slavery, in which a slave is valued property. It is government slavery, where an individual is nothing, a dispensable cog.

Economically, it is more efficient if the government competes for employees freely on the labor market rather than takes them at no cost. At least then it will have some weak incentive not to treat the soldiers as atrociously as it would if they were public slaves. This way, too, only persons who wanted to be part of the US war machine and invade the world would join the military; those who did not, wouldn't have to. Greater happiness for all would result.

Sowell continues:

On the home front, life goes on today as if there were no war. Consumer goods are as abundant as ever and no real sacrifices are demanded of the civilian population, who are spectators rather than even tangential participants.

None of this is healthy.

Has our author forgotten his economics? That consumer goods are abundant is beside the point. The key question is whether there is economic progress, whether a path is open for future entrepreneurs to make our lives still better. That's why goods cannot be as abundant as ever; they should be more abundant than ever! Sowell fails to take into account the unseen effects of the war, namely, the wealth creation that is being checked by it. Only labor is productive; death, destruction, and chaos wrought by the military make everybody, except a small group of people living off the state, poorer.

What are we to make of his statement that peaceful life is not "healthy"? Sowell must prefer a total war, in which everyone is a participant. (Don't you just love the phrase "the home front"?) One is either a soldier, or he works for the state producing equipment, food, and armaments for the troops. And everyone then turns into a legitimate target. There is a name for this system: war socialism. And here I was, naively imagining Sowell a laissez-faire economist.

Finally, there is this zinger:

More dangerously, TV reporters broadcasting from where shells are falling blithely say such things as "the shells are landing about five miles north of here."

Does it ever occur to them that their internationally broadcast comments will reach those who are doing the shelling, who can adjust their range accordingly and then kill more efficiently?

This is really amazing.

  1. Why is "here" necessarily a better target than five miles north of "here"? It cannot be because of that one reporter and his camera crew, who, besides, are allegedly supplying valuable information to the enemy, can it?

  2. The people who do the shelling certainly don't get their tactical data from CNN. If they do, they are nuts.

  3. To use Sowell's own logic, does it ever occur to him that these "internationally broadcast comments" might reach the regular folks who live on the lands near those that are being shelled, and who might then, God willing, get out of the way?

This is my second piece on Sowell's newfound love for the state. What has happened to the man?

August 3, 2006

Back to Homepage