The Economics of Conscription

Being Macron a man of honor, or something similar, forced military service will be soon reestablished in France. Well, if a few weeks ago I was here explaining the basics of Colonialism, now it’s turn for Conscription, which turns out to be something very similar. 

Oppenheimer said once that “everywhere, (…) in every space where the development of the tribes has culminated in a more advanced way, the State has emerged from the domination of a group of men over another. Its basic justification, its raison d’être, has been the economic exploitation of the dominated

Then he continued saying “The moment when first the conqueror spared his victim in order permanently to exploit him in productive work, was of incomparable historical importance. It gave birth to nation and state (…) although this is the beginning of all slavery, subjugation, and exploitation, it is at the same time the genesis of a higher form of society“.

Although we can see how this perverse truth was a truly improvement, yet we were far from a perfect political system at that moment. After all, as North and Thomas (1978) perfectly concluded, slave labor is no more productive than free labor, since the costs involved in monitoring and dominating slaves tend to be much bigger than their lower productivity.

Hence gradually we had to reach to another stage in the State development, one in which the State could let you half-free, with the condition to extract your resources systematically. Our current stage.

In this delicate balance between freedom and slavery, that may constitute a perpetual Nash Equilibrium for some authors, conscription comes as a total (but temporary) tax on the production.

Which is to say, while a regular tax partially extract your savings, productivity, and labor, conscription extracts virtually all of the labor and effort. Obviously, if you get killed or permanent disability in battle, the tax burden is much worse.

In economic terms, one can, at least intuitively, conclude that forced military service is a disaster for the Economy. Instead of allowing young people to engage in the activities they value most, conscription forces certain unfortunate young men to serve in the military instead.

After all, almost everyone could also deduce that going to the war is a pretty bad idea….forcing people go to war is simply anti-economic in the strict sense of the term (In fact, forcing people is always a bad idea. That’s the core conclusion of that scientific libertarianism I’m trying to divulge here, but little by little).

To move to the utilitarian plane, private militias are proved to be better and more efficient. Just a few of random examples. The most powerful empire of the Ancient History, Rome, relied on a professional military. In America, the Madison administration’s proposal for a national draft during the War of 1812 was not well received at all worth reven before it was obviated by the end of hostilities.

It was revolutionary France that inaugurated the modern era of mass conscription, imposing a levée en masse in 1793. Until that moment, wars was essentially something private between kings. Civilians had little to fear from the dangers of war which were the concern only of professional soldiers:

“Even postal communications were not successfully restricted for long in wartime. Letters circulated without censorship, with a freedom that astonishes the twentieth-century mind…. The subjects of two warring nations talked to each other if they met, and when they could not meet, corresponded, not as enemies but as friends. The modern notion hardly existed that . . . subjects of any enemy country are partly accountable for the belligerent acts of their rulers. Nor had the warring rulers any firm disposition to stop communications with subjects of the enemy. The old inquisitorial practices of espionage in connection with religious worship and belief were disappearing, and no comparable inquisition in connection with political or economic communications was even contemplated. Passports were originally created to provide safe conduct in time of war. During most of the eighteenth century it seldom occurred to Europeans to abandon their travels in a foreign country which their own was fighting” – John U. Nef, War and Human Progress (1950).

Unfortunately, thanks to that misleading concept of popular sovereignty, a war between rulers was converted into a war between “peoples”, with each people coming to the defense of its rulers in the erroneous belief that the rulers were defending them. And we all know the result.

And I’ll conclude with a political theory remark. In a so-called Democracy, when a government is simply incapable to attract a sufficient number of military (paid) volunteers, this should be a hint to everyone that…the government’s foreign policy leaves much to be desired!

The Economics of Conscription by Manuel Fraga is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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