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Feeling a Draft?

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Most people may have long forgotten it, but American males who turn 18 are still compelled to register with the Selective Service System. Failure to do so carries a penalty of up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. What’s more, states have enacted laws barring nonregistrants from getting driver’s licenses.

In the wake of Fourth of July celebrations, is anyone bothered by this? At the moment there is no military draft. Thank goodness. The draft is slavery — temporary, but slavery nonetheless. It was abolished in the latter years of the Vietnam War, primarily to relieve public pressure against the war. A lot of people despised that war as long as they or their sons could be forced to participate. Once that threat ended, much war opposition dissolved. Suspension of the draft, however, was helped along by a persuasive literature that showed it made no economic or military sense.

So the draft was halted, but its machinery, the Selective Service System, remained. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, President Jimmy Carter made one of those futile gestures presidents like to make: he ordered males to register for a possible future draft. I doubt that it caused the Russians to miss a beat — they stayed in Afghanistan for a decade. But it legally assaulted the young men of America.

It certainly did nothing for military readiness in this country. Ever since registration was imposed, military experts have shown that it is a waste of time and resources. Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a long-time authority on the draft, points out that conscription would actually lower the quality of the military. As he writes, “Think about it: Is a military healthier if it relies on those who desire to serve and succeed or if it is forced to include those who desire to escape at any price? Draftees have little incentive to train, accept greater responsibility, or reenlist; yet the military must retain them, almost no matter how ill suited they are to military service.”

Moreover, the registration rolls are probably worthless. How many men in their 20s have the same address they had at 18? And how many do you suppose have been apprising the government of their changes in address? Of course in a real emergency, registration would be unnecessary because people would eagerly volunteer to defend their homes.

So why do we have draft registration? Politics. No president has wanted to risk political capital to get rid of it. Before being elected, President Reagan had condemned the draft as unworthy of a free society. He was right. But he did not end registration, which he could have done by executive order. Apparently he thought it would send the wrong signal to the Russians. (What signal? That we can coerce our citizens as well as they can?) George Bush didn’t end it either — no surprise there. He never spoke of freedom at all, beyond the perfunctory formalisms all presidents are obliged to mouth. Some might have expected President Clinton to scrap registration. After all, Clinton had avoided conscription. For many of his opponents, that was the worst thing he ever did. But they had Clinton wrong. He opposed only the draft and wars to which he was subject. All others were fine with him. Ironically, given his (unearned) reputation for being anti-military, politically he couldn’t afford to end draft registration.

Even before September 11, there was never a chance that George W. Bush would eliminate Selective Service. It probably never occurred to him.

So here we are. There is no need for a draft in this era of elite forces and high-tech warfare, and it violates the rights we claim to cherish. Yet the government compels each young man to fill out a card just in case some president finds it necessary to send an even louder message to someone and start up conscription once again. That’s how “democratic” government works.

The fact is that 18-year-old males are gratuitously and immorally forced to bend a knee to the government under threat of imprisonment and fine. While this does nothing to protect us, it does much to accustom young Americans to tyranny. Nice message.

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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.