In the presidential campaign, there has been talk of returning to the draft after the election: Kerry has predicted that President Bush will reinstate the draft if reelected and Bush has denied it. Any such reinstatement would be disastrous for the republic.

In the lead up to the election, the Republicans have been so eager to run away from this explosive issue that they brought up a bill on the draft, sponsored by a few liberal Democrats, just to have the house defeat it overwhelmingly. Most politicians—including the president—know that forcing young men and women into the military against their will would likely make many voters angry. They also know that a draft would probably cause any remaining public support for the already unpopular Iraq war to melt away. Conscription was a major reason public support eroded for the equally dubious Vietnam War.

So it is safe to say that a renewed draft will not occur before the election. And it may not occur after November 2 either, but once the election is safely behind them some politicians could change their minds. War is costly, and politicians usually try to hide the financial expenses. With the already yawning federal budget deficit, that temptation is even greater. The current tar baby in Iraq has bogged down 140,000 U.S. troops and may ensnare more after November if the worsening violence and freedom from electoral constraints cause the next administration—whether headed by Bush or Kerry—to escalate U.S. involvement. So the government may be tempted to enlarge the military “on the cheap” by using conscription. But what is cheap for the government is not for the rest of American society. The cost of disrupting the civilian labor markets alone—as young, entry-level employees are coerced away from productive private sector employment into the government’s quagmire—would be high.

Even worse, in a society that cherishes individual freedom, the government would be enslaving a portion of the population to fight for the freedom of the rest of American society. Even that is a stretch because the Iraq invasion—conducted on false pretenses in a small, faraway land—hardly had to be launched to safeguard the freedom of U.S. citizens back home. In fact, it is even debatable whether, in the end, the average Iraqi will experience enhanced freedom, especially if a bloody civil war ensues or an Islamic government arises. It was bad enough for those who evaded the draft in one way or another during the Vietnam War—for example, President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz—to send U.S. volunteers to die in a war of choice, but it would be even more hypocritical to conscript the cannon fodder.

Certainly, the U.S. military is no fan of the draft. During the Vietnam War, the military was reluctant to get rid of conscription. After three decades of volunteer service, however, the military has realized that a much higher quality force can be generated by relying on people who are actually motivated to be there and will stay longer. But because the Bush administration has greatly overextended the armed forces worldwide and the morass in Iraq may significantly damage the ability to recruit and retain high quality soldiers, a desperate military may flip-flop and acquiesce to a new draft.

According to the rhetoric of liberal Democrats who advocate conscription, a volunteer military effectively requires socially disadvantaged groups to die disproportionately for their country. The liberals correctly argue that poor minorities join the military in greater numbers because they have less economic opportunity in the civilian economy. Although African-Americans are somewhat overrepresented in the enlisted ranks of the Army and Marines (Hispanics are actually underrepresented), they are less represented in ground combat units of those services. The reality is that many African-Americans choose to join military supply and logistics units, rather than combat units, to better acquire specific skills that are more easily transferable to the private sector.

Thus, the societal benefits of returning to conscription are virtually nil and the societal costs—both to the economy and to the principles of the republic—are exorbitant. After the election, the public should remain vigilant of any attempts to bring back this white elephant from a bygone era.