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The Draft Is Un-American

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Rep. Charles Rangel’s logic for reinstating military conscription is hard to follow. As near as I can make out, he wants to bring back the draft for two reasons: first, to slow the policymakers’ rush to war against Iraq by putting their sons at risk, and, failing that, to spread the war burden equitably.

Neither reason makes much sense. Then again, they come from a member of Congress, so what should one expect?

Taking the second reason first, Mr. Rangel has it precisely backward. If Selective Service kidnaps young men (and women?) and ships them off for service in the great democratic expedition in Iraq, how would that spread the burden equitably? In reality it would concentrate the burden on the hapless victims of the scheme. Since draftee wages can be kept at rock-bottom levels, the taxpayers would see their expense minimized compared with what it would be if wages had to be high enough to attract those people as volunteers. Meanwhile, the cut-rate draftees would have the privilege of dying for regime change in Iraq.

In his own defense Rangel says today’s volunteer army has too many blacks and Hispanics. His numbers are disputed, but let’s take him at his word. So what if blacks and Hispanics volunteer for the military in proportions greater than those of the general population? They do so, among other reasons, because the military is more attractive than other options. Forcing other people to join just to get the numbers right is absurd.

Rangel either flunked economics and ethics or he’s being disingenuous. Either way, he is hawking a bad plan.

Rangel’s first reason has a certain appeal, but it fails in the end. Those who plot an aggressive war ought to have some interest at stake, but Rangel’s going the wrong way about it. Why punish their sons and daughters? They aren’t conspiring to commit mass murder on the Iraqi people; they may even oppose it. Punishing the children for the sins of their fathers hardly seems fair.

Rangel would have been on firmer ground had he proposed that any official responsible for the war should himself have to report to the front. That would be justice. Think how inspiring it would be to see Messrs. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, Wolfowitz, and Perle charging across the desert en route to Baghdad, where they could display their urban-combat skills in realizing their dream of unseating Mr. Saddam Hussein. I’m sure they wouldn’t forget their chemical-warfare protection, since they were all working in Washington back in the days when the U.S. government was giving Hussein the means to make chemical weapons. The spectacle of such heroism would surely make the hearts of patriots flutter and the car flags snap more smartly in the wind.

The flaws in Rangel’s idea only go to show that you can’t reform a thoroughly rotten program. The pending war is ill-advised top to bottom, and nothing can change that. The only improvement would be to scrap the program entirely and dismantle the imperial juggernaut that is currently being tuned up and lubricated.

Rangel may think his call for a draft will accomplish just that. But it is more likely that it will just confirm many people’s suspicion that he talks without thinking.

The draft is a monstrous violation of individual liberty, and even a good motive cannot make it otherwise. In a free society no one should be compelled to take up arms, or be forced to kill or risk being killed. It’s an insult to suggest that people would not volunteer to defend their homes if they actually believed they were threatened. Of course they would. But who can blame prospective volunteers from doubting that there is a threat from Iraq? The Bush administration has yet to make a persuasive argument to that effect.

Fortunately, the administration doesn’t want to revive the draft. But we shouldn’t be fully comforted by that position. In this era of high-tech and special-ops warfare, the military has no use for hordes of green and reluctant conscripts. But if any of the Bush foreign adventures turns sour and bodies are needed in a hurry, the administration’s position will change on a dime. Its current veto of the draft should not be mistaken for a commitment to liberty.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.