Military conscription is the last thing young adults need

Instead of allocating resources to implement national military conscription, the government can instead invest in sectors that improve productivity, especially education, which the vice president leads.

Earlier this year, Sara Duterte, then vice-presidential candidate – a colonel in the Philippine Army – declared his intention to reintroduce compulsory military service for all Filipinos once they reach the age of 18. More recently, she publicly expressed this desire priority in the legislative program of the new government.

In the midst of a pandemic, with millions of Filipino families crushed by soaring prices, food shortages and lack of jobsit’s unclear how learning to march in unison under the insufferable tropical sun will be of any use, despite claims of instilling in young adults a vague notion of “patriotism.”

I should know. I am a labor economist and I am part of my thesis focused on the impact of compulsory military service on labor market outcomes – such as lifetime earnings and wages – and Educational level.

Only a handful of countries actively enforce conscription on most of their population. Many of them face an existential threat from neighbors such as South Korea, Israel and Taiwan. The most powerful and technologically advanced military in the world – the US armed forces – relies on volunteers, as does (de facto) the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, the largest standing army in the world.

CONSCRIPTION CARD. The areas in red are the countries where conscription is active. Mysid, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Common

How might conscription benefit veterans in the civilian labor market?

Skills acquired while serving in the military can be useful outside the armed forces. In 2006, for example, 54 Philippine Air Force pilots quit work for commercial airlines. I don’t expect 18-year-old draftees to learn to fly an airplane, but there are other skills – like working as a team and following orders within a hierarchy – that the military requires and are also rewarded in a private company.

But if these supposed benefits are so huge, why aren’t there thousands of volunteers knocking on the doors of General Emilio Aguinaldo’s camp to enroll in basic training?

The answer is obvious: the expected costs of military service outweigh the expected benefits.

Leaving aside the problems of corruption and abuse – including the infamous murder of a student at the University of Santo Tomas Marc Chua – there are significant costs that come with conscription.

Compulsory military service reduces a person’s experience in the civilian labor market, which, in turn, negatively impacts their potential salary. Primary and secondary education already introduce valuable skills, but some of them have lain dormant in the military, leading to their depreciation.

But the biggest cost of military service is what economists call its “opportunity cost” — the loss of civilian income if those conscripts had entered the workforce sooner rather than being drafted.

Suppose you can earn 570P per day, the non-farm minimum wage in Metro Manila. At the University of the Philippines, there is 32 weeks per academic year, and let’s say you have to go through military training every Sunday for two years while you enlist (like I did back then). Forgoing those who work on Sundays to walk in the UP Sunken Garden instead would mean a loss of P36,480 – a not inconsiderable amount when gasoline is about P90 per liter.

Since there are potential benefits and costs, whether conscription improves or penalizes a veteran is ultimately an empirical question—one that must be addressed with data. But it’s not as easy as comparing the incomes of veterans to those of non-veterans.

On the one hand, military service requires crossing a threshold of physical and mental aptitude. If we expect healthy people to earn more (and they do), it would be wrong to say that the observed earnings gap between those who served and those who did not serve is only due to military service.

Fortunately, economists have developed tools to solve this problem of “selection bias” – that is, people with higher earning potential are selected or found to be more suitable for service than those without.

In my own study of peacetime conscription in Germany, I showed that the earnings are not different between those who served and those who did not take into account the selection. But in the Netherlands, conscripts earn about 5% less per year. That might not seem like much – until you project that onto the average number of working years.

But these averages mask the benefits (or costs) for some groups. In Portugal, less educated men benefit from conscription while their more gifted counterparts were unaffected.

Does this mean that we should recruit the poorly educated? Certainly not.

If part of the purpose of military service is to impart valuable life skills, there are better and more effective ways to do it.

Instead of allocating resources to implement national military conscription – an undertaking which the former defense secretary said would face “tremendous obstacles” – the government can instead invest in areas that improve the productivity, especially education, led by the vice president.

There is a lot to do for improve the quality of schooling. Money to make national conscription work can instead be funneled into technical and vocational training to ensure Filipinos are equipped with the skills needed to succeed in the 21st century job market.

In the meantime, the government can review the compensation policy of the Philippine armed forces to ensure that they attract and retain the best possible professional armed forces to protect our national security.

All of this can be achieved while preserving the important separation between military and civilian institutions, where the latter remain supreme. –

Alfredo R. Paloyo is Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Wollongong and alumnus of the Faculty of Economics at the University of the Philippines. He contributes to the development of evidence-based policies on human capital issues, particularly in the areas of labor, education and health economics. He tweets at @AlfredoPaloyo.