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


Walter Oi
University of Rochester

Late 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 Henderson:

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 bag.

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 wrote:

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 conscription.

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 deferments.

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 conscription, 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.