At the Washington Post, an intriguing op-ed piece noting that per capita participation by citizens in our all-volunteer military varies widely by region and is concentrated in the red states. (You might find the SL Trib version easier to read.) The author argues this is a bad thing and suggests a form of the draft to re-balance the distribution of participation. Might we not find some market-based solutions to this problem?

First, let’s note that with a falling economy, more young Americans will find working for the military their preferred choice of participation in the labor force. And we are, in fact, talking about the labor market here — the draft is a form of coercion, but voluntary enlistment chosen from a variety of other options is an economic choice freely exercised by the enlistee. Of course, they make you sign all kinds of forms to make sure that it’s not a choice you get to revisit until the term of your enlistment expires, but before you sign up, it’s a choice. What incentives might we use to eliminate some of the regional disparity?

We could use regional signing bonuses, so Californians or New Jerseyites who sign up would get a few thousand bucks extra, for example. This might also induce some internal migration between states.

We could assign quotas by state. This is the federal approach to the problem, letting each state then decide how to work out the details and its own incentives. That could be on a strictly proportional basis so that each state provides the same per capita contribution, or we might want to assign larger quotas to states that have demonstrated the ability to produce better soldiers. Universities already do something like this, using a variety of demographic variables to make admission decisions in order to obtain what they believe to be the ideal student body. So the staffers at the admissions office could probably advise the military on how to go about defining the ideal demographic composition of the military.

How about an electoral component? Plainly serving in the military displays devotion to country. Perhaps rather than weighting electoral votes for the presidency strictly by a state’s population, some weight should also be given to the percentage of a state’s population serving in the military? (Yes, I know it would take a federal constitutional amendment to do this.)

Then there’s the draft. It wasn’t very popular the last time around, but if it came from President Obama (who did very well among young Americans, I hear) it might fare better. “Diversity in the military” seems like the sort of slogan that might ring a bell for those reluctant blue-staters.

Any other ideas?

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