Bringing back conscription would be a light version of slavery

The Christian Democrats should stop banging on about bringing back military service. It’s not good for the economy and not good for the hapless youngsters who have to do it, writes economist Mathijs Bouman.

Parents, lock up your 18 year-olds: Sybrand Buma is coming to get them. The CDA leader presented his manifesto this week and a prominent part of the Christian Democrats’ programme is a re-introduction of conscription, not just for boys but girls too.

Apart from the army, Buma is proposing several alternatives for those less eager for military discipline, including care homes and the police force. The Christian Democrats want to start small. It’ll be the ‘troublemakers’ first (i.e. the terror vloggers ) then the rest of the 18+ target group until all youngsters will be dedicating six months or a year of their lives to the greater good of society. That, says Buma, will ‘combat rampant individualism’. According to the CDA compulsory civilian service will solve such societal ills as vandalism and people going around insulting each other.

Foolish and dishonest

A couple of doors down the political corridor, at the ChristenUnie’s headquarters, equally enthusiastic cheers can be heard for this form of slavery-light. CU leader Jan-Gert Segers thinks it’s a great way for the young to learn about the norms and values of our society.

It’s a clever plan: take a year out of the life of every young person and hey presto they become useful members of society. But from an economic idea it’s a foolish and dishonest plan. Here are five reasons why it shouldn’t go ahead. Ever.

Argument 1: Compulsory civilian service affects the supply of labour. If a certain job is important to society then workers should be paid accordingly. That work will then be done by normal employees. Consequently, compulsory civilian service jobs will be those jobs that can’t be done at market value.

In other words: of the say fifty years a person contributes to the economy one year will be wasted doing work that society claims is important but won’t pay for. And this at a time when an aging population is already leading to a decrease in the working population. Without a compulsory civilian service the working population (between 20 and 67) will go down from 10.5 to 9.8 million people over the next 25 years. A compulsory civilian service carried out by people with an average age of 21 will lower that number by another 200,000. That is wasteful.

Argument 2: A lot of the youngsters having to work as an assistant in the army or the police force or as a care worker are probably better at something else. That is mis-allocation of labour on a very big scale. Let people do what they are good at and everybody benefits.

Argument 3: History tells us that government interference with the labour market leads to displacement. Normal jobs became subsidised and now they may become compulsory civilian service jobs. Civilian service is dumping in disguise.

Argument 4: Compulsory civilian service is bad for you. Economist Wouter Leenders wrote a nice article about the personal cost of conscription. Research shows that ten years down the line the incomes of conscripts were 5% lower. A year’s career delay costs money.

Leave them alone

 Finally, let’s not pretend that Dutch youngsters are crime-prone layabouts. They are extremely busy studying and working. In fact, the percentage of youngsters  (18-24) that neither studies nor works is the lowest in Europe.

Please Mr Buma and Mr Segers, leave those youngsters alone. Let them have their unbroken education and a clear career path. Don’t waste their time by having them go ‘bang bang’ in the army’s trenches, doing odd jobs in a care home or getting tea and coffee for coppers. It really would be better for everyone.

This column was published earlier in the FD

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