On Thursday, February 20, I gave a guest lecture in the classroom of Ryan Sullivan at the Naval Postgraduate School. This is the third year in a row I’ve given this lecture. It’s titled “How Economists Helped End the Draft,” and the readings for it are David R. Henderson, “The Role of Economists in Ending the Draft,” Econ Journal Watch, August 2005, Christopher Jehn, “Conscription,” The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, and David R. Henderson and Chad W. Seagren, “Time to End Draft Registration,” Defining Ideas, February 10, 2016. Almost all the students were U.S. military officers.
During the discussion, I highlighted the stormy, and illuminating, interaction between Milton Friedman, a prominent critic of the draft, and General William Westmoreland, a prominent proponent of the draft, at some hearings held by the Gates Commission on the All-Volunteer Force, appointed by President Richard Nixon.
I quoted Friedman’s telling of the story in his and Rose Friedman’s autobiography, Two Lucky People:
In the course of his testimony, he made the statement that he did not want to command an army of mercenaries. I 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.
I drove the point home by saying, “Let me ask you, and I’m asking you to be honest here: Who, when you first thought of joining, looked at what the pay in the military was at the rank you would have?” Almost all of the students raised their hands. “You mercenaries, you,” I said, laughing. That got a few laughs and smiles.
One student who hadn’t raised his hand confessed that when he joined he didn’t know military people were paid. I asked him how old he was when he joined. He said he was 18 and “I just wanted to get out of the s**thole small town I lived in.”
I got his permission to tell his story and use his first name but I’m going to respect his privacy by not using his name and not naming the town.
“So you joined as an enlistee,” I said.
“Yes,” he said.
He got me really curious. By the way, I was very pleased that other students weren’t laughing at him and some of them seemed curious too.
“I’m curious,” I said, “What was your reaction when you got your first paycheck?”
“I was delighted,” he said. “Someone explained to me there wasn’t much in that first check because the price of my uniform had been deducted but that subsequent checks would be much bigger.”
I found it kind of sweet.
He joined in 2002 and is now an officer and so, of course, has been paid for almost 18 years.
I’ve been thinking about it for days and I wonder if he had been misled back in 2002 by hearing that the United States has “an all-volunteer force.” There are, of course, two meanings of volunteer.