Economics is Humane – Econlib

 

On Monday, November 21 (my birthday, by the way), I gave a talk at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at California State University Monterey Bay. The topic: “How Economists Helped End the Draft.” It wasn’t recorded this time but I did give the talk at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, TN about 10 years ago and that was recorded. Here’s the talk. By the way, that was the college that James Buchanan attended as an undergrad.

In prepping the talk, I re-looked at some of the studies done for the Gates Commission in 1969 and was pleased that, as I thought I had remembered, one of the studies was actually on the cost of draft avoidance. The cost was pretty high.

That got me thinking: This is something special about economists. They actually take account, not just of costs to governments and costs to law-abiding people (although many methods of draft avoidance were totally legal) but also of costs to those who illegally engage in avoidance.

In short, economics is fundamentally humane. Economists think of costs to pretty much everyone involved.

Thinking about that after my talk, I remembered a line from George J. Stigler that I spent over half an hour trying to find and haven’t found. I think it was in one of his expositions of opportunity cost. Stigler, if I recall correctly, was actually making gentle fun of himself and of the economics profession with the quip I’m about to quote, but my own reaction was that, far from being a reason to make fun of economics, the quote from Stigler was a reason to celebrate the humaneness of economists.

The quote went something like this:

When economists hear that Oscar Wilde went to prison for 2 years, they are so crass as to worry about the plays he could have written but didn’t write because he was in prison.

I know this quote is literally wrong but I think I’ve got the gist. My point is that it’s not crass at all: it’s humane. The picture above is of Wilde.

One of the standard stories I tell in my talk to illustrate the huge cost of the draft compared to that of an all-volunteer force is of Elvis Presley, who was drafted into the army from 1958 to 1960. Just a few weeks before giving the talk, I came across a quote from John Lennon, who had been an admirer of Presley. Lennon said, “Elvis died the day he went into the army.” Of course Lennon didn’t mean that literally, but what he seemed to mean is that Elvis’s music was no longer cutting edge. I don’t know enough Presley’s music but my casual impression is that that’s true. If so, that’s another cost of the draft.

Aside: A friend who managed to dodge the 1960s, early 1970s draft by not registering told me that I left out a major cost of the draft: the cost of enforcement. He pointed to the example of someone we both knew whom the FBI put serious resources into finding and finally did catch, 3 years after the draft had ended. The government had prepared its case against him and then, when President Carter granted amnesty in 1977, the case was ended. My friend estimated that the cost of pursuing this guy and preparing a prosecution could easily have been $100,000 in mid-1970s dollars.