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When I teach intermediate microeconomics I talk a little about the history of conscription in the United States and then help the students understand how to model out the true economic costs of raising a military via a draft versus raising a military of volunteer soldiers.

Some of my students, in particular those with family in Israel who have served in the military, react very negatively to this part of the course. In a recent e-mail exchange with a friend of a current student, I was “warned”

Second, I would like to offer a word of advice.  If you happen to think that a military draft is comparable to the enslavement of blacks in America until the mid-nineteenth century, then fine.  But if you do not think that, I would just be a little more cautious in your meshing of the two  …

Here is what I said to prompt this (in response to a defense of the military draft being a good idea because it promotes economic development – a belief more widely held than I originally thought):

So, there you have it, (the economic case against a military draft) all without the moral case – which I believe is a trump card here. I thought human beings fought for centuries to remove themselves from bondage, and now we are celebrating out in the open the fact that the state actually owns our bodies, and this is OK because of economic development? To see the horror in this, there is really excellent evidence coming out now that the economic condition of blacks during slavery in the 19th century was better than it was after slavery. Would one want to use that as justification for sending the newly freed blacks after 1865 back to the plantations? Hardly. But the case I laid out above ignores this last paragraph.

This is a problem I see generally, in particular among the more thoughtful students out there. They see a word like “slave” or “Hitler” or whatever objectionable thing is out there, and instantly think that someone is trying to draw a direct comparison to these things. Hardly. Just to be clear, the point I was making to the student who was arguing that the draft (i.e. enslaving citizens to serve in the military against their will) was good because it had beneficial economic effects on those who were drafted – is that this kind of a consequentialist argument, which ignores process (means) opens to door for all kinds of morally horrific acts. No one in their right mind would point to the worse economic condition of newly freed blacks after the Civil War and use that as justification for why slavery was “good.” Yet that is exactly what draft proponents are doing.

My response, therefore, is to be more cautious about telling people to be more cautious. If I am misinterpreted in this regard, the problem does not originate in what I was saying, but rather in something else.

One Response to “Be Careful What You Say”

  1. Speedmaster says:

    You are of course absolutely right. Unfortunately you hit a few hot button words and topics that cause some people to lose sense of logic and respond instead out of emotion.

    Two thoughts on this.

    1. Walter Williams was right when he said that the difference between things like a draft and slavery is one of degree rather than kind.

    2. I always fall back on the Milton Friedman exchange:
    “In the course of his [General Westmoreland’s] testimony, he made the statement that he did not want to command an army of mercenaries. I [Milton Friedman] stopped him and said, ‘General, would you rather command an army of slaves?’ He drew himself up and said, ‘I don’t like to hear our patriotic draftees referred to as slaves.’ I replied, ‘I don’t like to hear our patriotic volunteers referred to as mercenaries.’ But I went on to say, ‘If they are mercenaries, then I, sir, am a mercenary professor, and you, sir, are a mercenary general; we are served by mercenary physicians, we use a mercenary lawyer, and we get our meat from a mercenary butcher.’ That was the last that we heard from the general about mercenaries.”
    – Milton and Rose Friedman, Two Lucky People, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998, p. 380.

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