Remember Walter Oi, Who Helped Expand Freedom By Ending the Draft

Walter OiLate in the course of the Vietnam War, or soon
after its conclusion, my parents and I watched a TV news broadcast
discussing the controversial role military conscription played in
the conflict. “Will I be drafted,” grammar-school me asked out
loud, missing the nuances of the discussion, but fully grasping the
idea of being forced to do something you don’t want to do. My
parents looked at each other. “If it comes to that,” my father
said, “we’ll get you out of the country.”

It didn’t come to that, of course, since conscription has been
dead and buried policy since the Vietnam War, along with the
unwilling soldiers killed by its implementation. Walter Oi, an
economist who played a key role in ending the draft during the
1970s, passed away on
Christmas Eve
. David R. Henderson remembers his life and legacy
at the Hoover Institution’s Defining Ideas blog. Writes

If you are an American male younger than 66, you should take a
moment and give thanks to economist Walter Oi. Walter died on
Christmas Eve 2013. Even though you probably haven’t heard of him,
he has had a profound effect on your life. He helped end military
conscription in the United States.

Between 1948 and 1973, if you were a healthy young male in the
United States, here’s what you knew: the government could pluck you
out of almost any activity you were pursuing, cut your hair, and
send you anywhere in the world. If the United States was at war,
you might have to kill people, and you might return home in a body

Walter did not think that was right, and it wasn’t because of
his own age or health. He was born in 1929. When he started writing
about the draft in the mid-1960s, he was well beyond the
draft-eligible age range of 18 to 26. (The draft-eligible age for
doctors and dentists was even higher.) Moreover, he was blind,
having gradually lost all his eyesight in the 1960s. Nor did he
choose his position against the draft because he had sons who were
at risk. Walter had two daughters, and when he was writing on the
issue, almost no one was advocating the conscription of women.

No. Walter thought the draft was wrong because he thought that
people should be able to make such an important choice—whether to
join the military or not—for themselves.

Oi made his argument in economic form, however, arguing that
conscription has hidden costs, in the form of inadequate
compensation to military personnel (why hike pay for people you can
force to serve?), and mental distress for unwilling draftees. He


The draft imposes costs on men in the armed services in at least
three ways. First, more men from an age class are demanded by the
armed forces under a draft because of the high turnover of draftees
and reluctant volunteers. Second, some men are involuntarily
drafted while others are coerced to enlist by the threat of a draft
without being compensated for their aversion to military
employment. At sufficiently high levels of military pay, all of
these reluctant service participants could, in principle, have been
induced to volunteer. Finally, the true volunteers who would have
enlisted irrespective of the draft law are denied the higher
military pay that would prevail in a voluntary force. First-term
military pay can be kept at low levels because the draft assures
adequate supplies of initial accessions.

But conscription also distorts the economy, he wrote. Even those
who aren’t called up suffer fewer opportunities, and make life and
career choices they otherwise wouldn’t make because of

In addition to the direct costs borne by those who ultimately
serve in the armed forces, the draft allegedly creates other
indirect costs which derive from the mechanics of the selection
process. Under the current Selective Service System, a youth can
remain in a draft-liable status for seven and a half years. There
is some evidence which suggests that employers discriminate against
youths who are still eligible to be drafted. The youth who elects
to wait and see if he can avoid military service is likely to
suffer more unemployment. He may be obliged to accept casual
employment which does not provide useful job training for later
life. Moreover, long periods of draft liability encourage youths to
pursue activities which might bestow a deferment. When married
nonfathers were placed in a lower order of call in September, 1963,
it was followed by small increases in marriage rates of males in
the draft-liable ages. It is also alleged that the draft prompts
men to prolong their education or to enter occupations which grant

Being scooped up against your will by the government was no
hypothetical problem for Oi. Henderson writes of asking about the
older man’s experience as an interned Japanese-American during
World War II. “He reminisced talked about being taken prisoner by
the U.S. government when he was 13 years old and, before being
shipped inland, living with his family for the first few days in a
horse stall at the Santa Anita race track in Los Angeles.”

While you could never wish such an experience on anybody, that
insight into the coercive power of the state may well have given Oi
the wisdom to know that the use of force has costs beyond
government balance sheets and demands for personnel. People aren’t
mere pawns for politicians to move around—they suffer when deprived
of choice and freedom.

You’d think that respect for personal choice in this matter
would go hand-in-hand with the nominal respect for liberty boasted
by democratic, industrialized nations, but a fairly long list of
such countries still engage in the practice. Austria, Brazil,
Chile, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Israel, Norway, South
Korea, Switzerland, Taiwan, and Turkey still practice
, and the United States continues to require
Selective Service registration to ease reinstatement of a draft. In
most, though not all, of those countries, actual combat is highly
unlikely and “alternative service” is available—but it’s still
compulsory work for the state.

Then again, virtually all explicit thugocracies fill
the ranks with conscripts, alternatives be damned. So democratic
governments are more respectful of their citizens autonomy, even if
not as often and to the degree we might wish.

Oi and his colleagues deserve our thanks for recognizing and
fighting for the important principle, as Henderson puts it, “that
people should be able to make such an important choice—whether to
join the military or not—for themselves.”

Young me might not have understood the economic arguments, but I
certainly preferred freedom of choice over its absence. And grown
me is happy to not have to contemplate the prospect of smuggling my
own son out of the country to keep him from serving as some
politician’s pawn.

from Hit & Run

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