Every once in a while, there comes a time when the debate of whether we should bring back obligatory military service resurfaces in the mainstream societal discourse. However, opinions aside, what are the economic and societal effects of a conscription system?
Following the end of the Second World War, the number of countries that implement conscription (also referred to as the draft, or obligatory military service) has declined considerably. While most OECD countries have transitioned to all-volunteer militaries, many countries still have active conscription programs. In Europe, for instance, countries like Greece, Denmark, Austria, Lithuania, and Switzerland have some degree of mandatory service for males. Even as recently as 2017, Sweden reintroduced conscription due to fears caused by the Russian annexation of Crimea and its military exercises conducted at the border of Baltic states.
Although the effect of geopolitical threats on reintroduction/continuation of conscription regimes in Europe is an interesting topic, we would like to take a broader look at some of the economic and societal consequences of obligatory service and discuss some of its advantages and disadvantages.
The true costs
Proponents of conscription argue that a draft lowers personnel costs considerably, when comparing with an all-volunteer military. While it is true that the budgetary costs of conscription-based militaries are lower, this ignores all the economic costs that are imposed by this regime.
In fact, the economic costs of drafting an individual will be equal to the value of his foregone production, were he not drafted, in addition to any disutility that may be caused to him by his service. These economic costs can be sizeable and even exceed the budgetary costs of a conscription-manned military. According to a paper that analysed the now-extinct Belgian draft, the authors estimated economic costs to be at least double the budgetary costs.
In general, manning a country’s armed forces with conscription amounts to front-loading much of the costs onto the conscripts, as opposed to spreading costs more evenly and equitably through taxes, as it is done with an all-volunteer military. Furthermore, the artificially lowered price of draftees’ labour can lead to an inefficient organization of the armed forces, due to unduly high labour-to-capital ratios. These high ratios can manifest themselves as excessively manned army-units, for example.
Effects on human capital
We should also keep in mind that the economic costs that we previously mentioned were merely static (relating only to the time an individual spends in obligatory service). There are also dynamic effects caused by the draft (which relate to effects on periods after the draft). This is because drafting occurs at a very specific period of the lives of individuals (18-26 years of age) when they are making decisions about their education and when they begin to accumulate work experience. In essence, drafting coincides with a crucial period for the accumulation of human capital, which will have ramifications for the rest of the individual’s life. Therefore, conscription can have a negative dynamic effect on society in so far as it jeopardizes individuals’ accumulation of human capital.
This is where advocates of the draft may argue that conscription, in fact, allows conscripts to accumulate valuable human capital due to the development of soft skills, such as team-work or personal discipline during their service. This argument has some merit. Indeed, a paper that studied the effect of the Portuguese peacetime draft found a positive impact of 4-5% on wages of conscripted men with only primary education.
Furthermore, Israel’s military became a catalyst for the creation of specialized start-ups in fields like cyber-security, since it allows for the development of important technical skills and serves as a networking place, important for the creation of these new companies.
Both examples illustrate the potential for the military to be a place for the accumulation of human capital by its service members.
It is true that the military, as in the case of Israel, can be a good place for the acquisition of specialized skillsets that allow individuals to be more productive and innovative. It is also true that conscription can benefit low-education individuals by providing them with opportunities to accumulate human capital that they might not have access to otherwise.
However, most conscripts never reach a level of specialization close to the one that is needed to create a start-up like the ones in the Israeli example. Furthermore, as economic activities evolve, and the jobs associated with them become more complex, educational requirements become longer and harder to achieve. This means that, going forward, the potential benefits of conscription will increasingly be overshadowed by the value of the education/experience that conscripts are forced to forego, and which they need to stay competitive in an ever more educated world.
Also worth mentioning is a Dutch study that took advantage of a change in the drafting age of young men, which had the effect of exempting an entire birth cohort from obligatory military service in the Netherlands. The authors found that the draft had negative effects on individuals’ educational attainment and earnings.
Contrary to the findings of this previous study, an interesting effect that the draft can have on educational choices and attainment is reported by a paper that analyses the effects of Germany’s re-introduction of conscription in 1937. The authors found a positive impact of conscription on the probability of individuals getting a college degree. The authors argue that this is likely due to draft-avoidance behaviour. Indeed, it was possible for young men to enrol in college in Germany, as a temporary safe-haven from the draft. After finishing their degree, the now-older men would be much less likely to be drafted. These types of effects of conscription on educational demand have also been documented in the United States and France.
Conscription does not reduce conflict
Supporters of the draft may also argue that an army manned by conscripts will decrease unnecessary belligerent behaviours by states, as this would impose casualties on all groups of society. However, this argument is empirically unsubstantiated. As Poutvaraa and Vagener, in their analysis of the economics and politics of conscription, put it:
“Between 1800 and 1945, basically all wars in Europe were fought with conscript armies, and democratic countries like the U.S. and France even later used conscript military in unpopular colonial wars in Vietnam and Algeria.“
There are many more economic and political dynamics related to this topic that could be discussed, though at the expense of making the article too long. However, we can say with some confidence that, all in all, peacetime conscription has a negative effect on economic performance in countries, and that this effect will, most likely, become more pronounced as time goes on.
Sources: Bloomberg, Bauer, Paloyo & Schmidt (2014), Card & Cardoso (2012), Financial Times, Hubers and Webbink (2015), Keller, Poutvara & Wagner (2006) Meyersmans & Kerstens (1991), Poutvaara & Wagener (2007).