Comments on the All-Volunteer Military

My friend and former University of Chicago classmate sent the following comments on my All-Volunteer Force note. From 1989-93 Chris Jehn was the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Force Management and Personnel.

I read with interest your recent essay on unintended consequences of ending conscription in the U.S. Having spent a large part of my career on issues surrounding implementation of the All-Volunteer Force. I was curious to learn what consequences you had in mind. I was disappointed to read, “the top 20-30 percent of income earners in the United States provide almost none of their sons and now daughters” to the military. Where did you hear this? It is a commonly held view of liberal critics of the military, but, like many persuasions of the left, it is not based on fact. (You could have looked it up. See Table 41 of the DoD population report at Using the only available data on the issue, census tract home of record for new enlisted recruits, DoD/CNA analysis shows that 18.5% of recruits in FY 2011 came from the top quintile of the income distribution. Adding new officers to the analysis (not possible since officers’ original home is not carried in their military records) would probably raise that percentage somewhat since virtually all new officers are college graduates. It is surprising to many to learn that the recruits each year are drawn more or less evenly from across income quintiles, but this has been true for 30 years now.

However, the overall percent of the population recruited each year is quite low, regardless of income class. (About 4,000,000 kids turn 18 each year and the military recruits somewhat over 200,000.) This leaves most families without any first-hand connection to the military and that is another lament of the left (and some on the right). I think this is usually mindless World War II envy. At the end of WW II, about 12 million men and women were in uniform, about 10% of the TOTAL population of the U.S. So that meant everyone knew many in the military. That’s not true today. To match that percent today would require a military of over 30 million (compared to today’s 2.5 million, including reserves). And this demographic phenomenon was ultimately the source of draft opposition in the 1960s (and has been in many European countries recently). When most draft-age men serve (as they did in the ’50s) conscription’s inequities are more tolerable. The increasingly large birth cohorts of the baby boom changed that.

But fundamentally, all the debate about the military’s “representativeness” is silly (whether it’s representativeness in terms of socioeconomic class, race, geography or anything else). The requirement for representativeness is based on a view that military service is a burden to be equitably distributed rather than a profession freely chosen and well compensated. In other words, it is antithetical to the notion of a force of professional volunteers.

Another liberal criticism of the AVF is that it has enabled military adventurism. There is no evidence for this assertion either, despite its face appeal. Interestingly, the only Gates Commission member I’ve discussed this with, Allen Wallis, thought this was a positive aspect–freeing the President to use the military without immediate political pushback. So, at least for Wallis, this consequence was not unintended. Of course, pushback from the draft objectors didn’t slow Johnson and Nixon down much, despite an eventual 50,000 deaths in Viet Nam, ten times the toll of Iraq and Afghanistan.

I must apologize for not inviting you to a CNA event in September when we discussed many of these questions at a symposium to honor Walter Oi. I think you would have found it interesting. We did a reprise at last month’s AEA meetings in Boston. Most agree Walter was the most important economist in the battle to end conscription. Among my remarks, I said the following about Walter:

“There are many heroes in this story [of the end of conscription]: the Gates Commission members, Mel Laird, Marine Corps Generals Wilson and Barrow, Army General Max Thurman, and many economists and other analysts. But among the analysts and economists, none was more important than Walter Oi.

It’s tempting to cite instead the economists on the Gates Commission, Milton Friedman, Allen Wallis, and Alan Greenspan. They were essential. But they were advocates, cheerleaders. Walter made the first empirical, data-based argument for voluntarism. And that case helped convince President Nixon and, later, other Gates Commission members. It’s possible that without Walter’s early work—which, as the Hogan-Warner paper notes, stood the test of time and subsequent analyses—conscription would have ended much later, if at all. There were, after all, other politically plausible proposals to ‘fix’ the draft and end the controversy surrounding it, not just a force of all volunteers.”

Some support for my argument is contained in a short note Stephen Herbits prepared for the CNA event (also attached). As part of the planning for the two events, I interviewed the two surviving members of the Gates Commission, Herbits and Alan Greenspan. That was fun and educational.

I should also note that an AVF’s budget costs are not clearly higher than those of a conscripted force of equal capability, due to the high turnover and training costs for draftees. The most careful analysis of this question was GAO’s in 1988. I cite it (as well as my article on conscription in Europe) in my piece on conscription in David Henderson’s encyclopedia (

Finally, I think your memory of the 1960s may have failed you here. You and your colleagues may have had some skin in the game. The first lottery in 1968 included those under 26 who had held student deferments. You were probably too old, but I and other classmates were subject to conscription depending on our lottery number (based on our birth date, not our Selective Service number). I luckily drew a number in the 300s.

As for your concluding proposal, while your draft-related arguments don’t support it, it has merit on other purely budgetary grounds, as you note. I too think it’s unconscionable that “overseas contingencies” (to use the Pentagon’s euphemism) are funded through supplemental appropriations funded from borrowing and the general revenues. (And DoD has not “suffered” as a result. You can safely ignore the whining on the subject by Pentagon leaders and their allies in Congress and the press.) But your proposal will never go anywhere. If the Congress had wanted do things differently, they wouldn’t have been doing it like this for as long as I can remember.)

I hope you find much of this interesting, perhaps even educational. If you do nothing else, please look at the Warner-Hogan paper: “Walter Oi and His Contributions to the All-Volunteer Force: Theory, Evidence, Persuasion”, by John T. Warner and Paul F. Hogan, presented at the Contributions to Public Policy: A Session in Honor of Walter Oi, American Economic Association Annual Meetings, Boston, MA, January 3, 2015


Democracy vs the Rule of Law

Tunisia is providing a hopeful example of how countries can transition to freer societies for the general good. In the following Washington Post Op-Ed David Ignatius provides an excellent account of the process followed and still underway there. From Tunisia-Hopeful Signs/2014/01/24/ It contrasts sharply with the sadly confused and muddled account of “democratic transition” in Egypt presented by Michael Dunn and Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in the Post three days earlier. Egypt’s Evolving Governance is no Democratic Transition.  They speak of democracy and human rights as if they are the same thing.

Literally democracy means rule of the majority. In fact, the majority of Egyptians voting in the first free elections in memory chose Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi as their President who proceeded to rule on behalf of Egypt’s majority religious group in disregard for the interests of minority Christians and other groups. That is democracy in its literal sense. Modern democracies, however, are not pure in that the majority is limited in what it may do in order to protect the rights of minorities. From an imaginary “veil of ignorance” the citizens of most modern democracies have written into their constitutions limitations on what they may do even when in the majority. The rule of just laws is more important than, and often in conflict with, democracy.

The bigger government gets the more it’s necessarily uniform treatment of all tends to reduce the freedom of individual citizens to behave differently. The United States from its beginning favored individual freedom over state authority and thus struck a balance between the two that imposed more limits on the role of government than had existed up to that time. Every special interest that gains government favor becomes an entrenched interest that is very difficult to reverse (farm subsidies and defense contractors leap to mind). Keeping government limited to what is really important is a never-ending but critical battle.

The Egyptian Coup

Ousted Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi had been a miserable leader. He broke many promises starting with the Muslim Brotherhood’s promise not to run a candidate for President just yet and to lead an inclusive government. He forced through a new constitution without proper consultation or broad support, and failed to address Egypt’s many economy and political problems. He deserved to be replaced, but doing so by military coup seriously harms Egypt and the entire Middle East in several ways. The failure of the Obama administration to acknowledge the act as a coup deprives the English language of any meaning.

Obviously it is a set back for democracy. Morsi’s growing opposition should have organized to defeat him in the next election. Given his miserable performance it shouldn’t have been difficult. That would have strengthened democracy rather than weakened it.  One coup begets another until a leader can coop the military.

The more serious harm is to the social and political conditions needed for diverse people (Muslims, Christians, secularists, Jews) to live peacefully together. What, pray tell, do the secularists and military think the Brotherhood and their supporters will do after being removed from their elected positions and arrested? Go sulk in the Old Cataract in Aswan (of which I have very fond memories)? There is a high probability that they will resort to violence. As the Army kills more and more demonstrating Morsi supporters, the prospects of an insurgency increase rapidly, as occurred in Iraq and so many other places.

It has already started. In Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula: “The rapid thud of machine-gun fire and the explosions of rocket-propelled grenades have begun to shatter the silence of the desert days and nights here with startling regularity, as militants assault the military and police forces stationed across this volatile territory that borders Israel and the Gaza Strip.” (The Washington Post, July 29, 2013, page 1) Hundreds have already been kill by the military or insurgents and the violence is growing rapidly. How could it be otherwise?

And it is spreading. Tunis has been the most promising model of transition to democracy. Following the assassination of two opposition leaders in Tunis, mass demonstrations have escalated into terrorist attacks that killed eight Tunisian solders Monday. President Moncef Marzouki, Tunisia’s moderate Islamist president, stated in a television address that “In all countries of the world, when the state faces a terrorist attack people come together. But I don’t see anything like that happening in Tunisia. All we see is divisions and chaos.”

U.S. law requires the administration to cut off aid to governments that came to power by coups. This is clearly the case in Egypt and aid should be immediately suspended. For decades U.S. aid to Egypt has ranged between 1.5 and 2 billion dollars per year, over 80% of which is to the military. Congress would surely quickly suspend this provision for Egypt but should attach conditions for any resumption of aid. These conditions should call for restraint on the part of the military, free and open public debate, quick elections, and broad participation in the redrafting of the constitution.

The already troubled Arab Spring has had a series set back.