Rebirth of Reason


Should Christian Bale Be Drafted?
by Heidi C. Lange

The last time rumors of involuntary military service disturbed my rest, I didn’t say much on the topic, for a pretty simple reason: I knew I believed it was wrong. I didn’t know why. On the rare occasions when I had to pick sides, I made some vague assertions about natural rights and freedom and wormed my way out of the discussion as quickly as possible.

It’s funny, really, since the answer is fairly simple.

The draft question reminds me of the problem airlines used to have with overbooking. They solved it the same way we solved the question of who should be sent overseas to fight in our (mindless, unnecessary, and wasteful) wars.

Everyone knows how airlines do it; they ask for volunteers. They offer a reward (generally a “free ticket” for another trip) to those travelers willing to hang out at the airport for a few hours. Why does that make so much sense? Because value is subjective. Each traveler places a different subjective value on his or her travel time. That value (like any demand) is affected by a lot of things: tastes (maybe I really, really hate sitting in the airport—if I have to wait six hours at Detroit Metro I’m much less happy than if I have to wait six hours at San Francisco International), the price of other goods (if I know I’m going to fly home for Thanksgiving, and that costs me $500, then the “free” ticket I get for waiting is going to look pretty nice), expectations (which could be many things—one that always comes to my mind when I have an opportunity to volunteer is, “If I pass this up will I have the chance to get this free ticket on my return flight?"), and of course, the most important one, income.

To state the amazingly obvious, as a broke college student I’m much more interested in getting that free ticket than, say, Christian Bale would be, with a higher income and a higher opportunity cost of his time. To a professional actor, six hours might mean the difference between making an audition or not making it, which could mean the loss of a job that might pay millions. Six hours to a college senior? In the absolute worst case scenario that could mean, say, that I miss a final and have to retake a class, which would cost me ... a few hundred dollars? Not really comparable to our favorite superhero’s opportunity cost.

Well, the voluntary army is the same thing. It allows each individual to choose based on his own subjective value over his time. Is he willing to give up a few years of his life in exchange for the salary offered? Let’s say yes. Why?

A family friend named Don recently decided to join the army. Everyone was shocked, but it actually makes sense. We all acknowledge that Don has—for many years—had a pathetic life. He has no friends. He rarely has a decent job. He’s on the chubby side. He’s a musician, but he’s a lousy musician. He has an extremely low opportunity cost—he’s the perfect candidate for the army. Plus, he has this whole patriotism thing going on, which is good since it makes him happy to be in the army. (I don’t want someone who doesn’t want to be there playing with machine guns.)

Now personally, I plan never, ever to join the army. First, my opportunity cost is a lot higher. I think I can make more money in the private sector. More importantly, I really value my day-to-day freedom; to me, it’s worth at least ten thousand dollars a year to be free to move where I want, work for whomever I want, and wear what I feel like wearing. Plus, more importantly, I think that, by a conservative estimate, 95 percent of the wars America has been involved in during the last, oh ... fifty years or so ... has been unjust, unnecessary, and basically evil. I would feel more than crappy about myself if I were contributing to the “war effort.”

Okay, fine. Don thinks the War on Terror is a just cause and he wants to help. He donates his time. I think the War on Terror is wrong and I would actually pay to stop it. That’s easy enough from a social point of view, right? Don can fight and I can stay home. But how would the government know which of us is which? They can’t. They just have to tell us what our services are worth to them. If they offer, say, a $20,000 stipend, then that tells us what a soldier is worth to society. I personally think I’m worth more than that, so I don’t go into that market. Don apparently thinks he’s worth less than that (and to all appearances, he is), so he migrates there.

Naturally everyone has his price. If I were offered, say, five million dollars for a year of service, my principles might start to get pretty shaky (luckily for my conscience, that won’t ever happen). Even Christian Bale, I’m sure, has his price; at some point he would get more out of spending a year in Iraq than making Batman II. Yet I know of a certain professor whose stance against government is so strong that I imagine he would die rather than be drafted. But still, setting a price is a better way to go about forming an army than outright force, just as calling for volunteers to wait in San Francisco International makes everyone happier than using some kind of lottery to decide who gets left behind.
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