Matthew Yglesias rather likes the idea of a draft, but hates the reasons that Charlie Rangel and James Inhofe have for supporting one. He apparently just likes the chance to get cheap labor for the military. Of all the reasons I can think of to support reestablshing the Draft, that's the only stupid one I've heard yet, and it comes from one of the smartest bloggers around.
A draft would be unlikely to save any money over an all-volunteer force, and what little it might save wouldn't be worth the human cost of forced conscrption (for much the same reason that saving money by limiting death penalty appeals isn't worth the human cost of possibly executing innocent people).
Draft related costs:
1) Direct expenditures on administering the Draft, Draft physicals, and the inevitable financial cost of imprisoning draft resisters
2) Vast increase in military expenditures for training, as the turnover would be much higher than in the current all-volunteer force. When I was in the Navy, the reenlistment bonus for my job was $35,000 just because of the expense of training and getting enough experience in the Fleet not to be a useless tool.
3) Indirect economic costs of redirecting millions of young men into the military. This would range from the lost economic output from delayed entry into college or a profession to the twisting of incentives towards any jobs or activities exempt from the Draft (Israel exempts rabbinical students from the Draft, and so has an absurd surplus of rabbis). This would also include lost output from any Americans who choose to emigrate or any immigrants who choose not to come here because of the Draft.
As I've said, the Draft would be unlikely to save much money if any. But there can still be a case made for the Draft [Full disclosure: I don't have a dog in this fight. I'm a veteran, and the 10" piece of steel holding my son's shattered left arm together is enough to keep him out of the military even if he volunteered].
Reason's to support the Draft:
1) Protecting your country is a duty shared by all citizens, and cannot be morally shuffled off on those who volunteer for it. Esentially, you can argue that it is immoral to benefit from a society that you aren't willing to defend (read Starship Troopers for a society that takes this to an extreme). This, or a hormonally aggressive adolescent version of it, was my main reason for joining the military as a teenager. My more mature view is that there are plenty of ways to serve your country that don't involve the military (teaching comes to mind, as does extensive volunteer work). I still, however, have a dim view of the huge number of Americans who never get past What's in it for me?.
2) Our leadership elites are more likely to drag us into war if their families won't be doing the fighting. This is Congressman Rangel's viewpoint, and it has a certain validity. We never got serious about getting out of Vietnam until we dumped draft exemptions for college kids, and the most gung-ho for war in Iraq seemed to be those who didn't have kids in the military. We should always be wary about life-and-death decisions by those who won't be sharing the burden of dying.
3) Military service can be good for kids, especially those who have little direction in life. This is Senator Inhofe's argument. It also has some validity. We can all think of people who find their way in life once they're subjected to real discipline. I just don't know how effective that would be for conscripts as opposed to those who choose the Service voluntarily.
4) Military service creates a bond between Americans who live increasingly isolated lives, exposing us to people we would've never met otherwise and giving us all a common rite of passage as we journey to adulthood. This is the reasoning of my old college professor Charles Moskos (Go Cats!), who sees the peacetime postwar draft as having served to forge our identity as Americans first and members of our various other subgroups last. I see college as having taken over the role of a common gateway into adulthood that the military once provided, and it's one that is coed to boot. As decent blue collar jobs continue to disappear, this trend will accelerate.
Though these are all reasonable arguments, I remain unconvinced.
My basic viewpoint is that we shouldn't apply coercion unless absolutely necessary. This especially holds true for something as potentially lifechanging and dangerous as the military. It may be desirable for more Americans to serve their country, that they come from a broader cross-section of society, and that they have a common experience as they enter adulthood; I just don't think it's worth using the threat of imprisonment to acheive those goals [btw: I find this same argument spectacularly unconvincing when used by pseudo-libertarians to argue against things such as pollution controls and mandatory seatbelts. The daily hassles of traffic laws and sales taxes may be backed by the threat of imprisonment, but they aren't anything close to the burden of even a short-term conscription.]
One of the things that made life at sea tolerable was the knowledge that we had freely chosen that path. It may have really sucked, but we'd done it to ourselves (NAVY = Never Again Volunteer Yourself). I don't know how I would've survived a 6 month Med Cruise away from my family if I'd been forced into it. I'm just not willing to force non-volunteers into such a situation outside of a true national emergency, nor am I willing to imprison those who refuse.
I do have one idea that would create a massive incentive for public service, but it would need to be married to a truly massive increase in our capacity to accept volunteers into the military, AmeriCorps, and the Peace Corps, regardless of their age or physical condition (even someone in a wheelchair could be an emergency dispatcher or a teacher):
Make all government benefits dependent on having completed public service
You want a free college education?
You want a government subsidized house loan?
You want free healthcare?
I see a set of incentives so overwhelming that only the truly wealthy, the truly stupid, and the truly religiously/morally opposed would turn down the chance to serve their country.
This would only work if we had some way that anyone who wanted to serve could do so at any time they chose (with perhaps a longer term of service for those who wait past age 30 and shorter terms of service for jobs that carry physical risk).
This would provide Matthew's dreamed about cheap pool of labor, professor Moskos' joint rite of passage, and Congressman Rangel's nationally shared risk without the negative consequences of coercion and imprisonment for those who refused.
It could even provide one more argument for increased public services:After all, we earned it.