At the height of the Vietnam War, President Richard Nixon appointed two economists — Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan — to examine the efficacy of maintaining America's long tradition of compulsory military service. During one particularly contentious conversation with Gen. William Westmoreland, Friedman compared a military made up of drafted men to slavery. Westmoreland countered with the argument that he would not want "mercenaries" under his command. By mercenaries, Westmoreland of course meant people who volunteered to join the military out of self-interest, rather than the "public good" of serving his fellow man.
Since that time, the U.S. military — made up of an all-volunteer force — has maintained a level of productivity, strength and dedication to service that would seem unlikely to people who believe that only through compulsion can we maintain a fighting force of men and women who would be willing to die for their country.
In America today, millions of people devote countless hours to religious and secular charities. From missionary work of Christian organizations all over the world to the Peace Corp, the Salvation Army, Goodwill and innumerable other charities, we have seen the power of voluntary association continue to grow. This was a predictable outgrowth of the system of liberty formulated by our Founding Fathers.
In the early 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville spent nine months traveling throughout Canada and the United States, recording his observations in what would become the basis of his classic writing, "Democracy in America." One of his many comments on the character of the American people is as follows: "I must say that I have seen Americans make a great deal of real sacrifices to the public welfare; and have noticed a hundred instances in which they hardly ever failed to lend a faithful support to one another."
What de Tocqueville recognized was the fact that in a society where voluntary association is viewed as a right to the human existence, charity and mutual cooperation will always take place.
Adam Smith taught us in 1776 that human beings are driven by their self-interest to serve their fellow man. For Smith — and eventually the Founders who codified our rights to "pursue happiness" — human beings recognize that in order to gain what we desire, we must serve our fellow man. In business this means that serving others creates profit. But when it comes to altruism (which is also a natural human emotion), our self-interest is promoted by helping others who are in need of everything from protection from foreign enemies to protection from hunger and disease.
No one has had to force Bill and Melinda Gates to give away billions of dollars. No one coerces those who work for Habitat for Humanity. No one needed to force former National Football League star Pat Tillman to leave his life of prosperity to join the Army Rangers in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
As long as we are a nation of rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, people will freely choose to assist in the protection of these rights for total strangers. By respecting our right to serve, or not serve, we maintain a system where many productive people self-select military or charitable service while other people — who believe they would best serve as entrepreneurs or college students — pursue those goals.
Forcing people to serve in areas where they have little desire not only leads to less effective "public service" organizations, and a weaker military, but also an economically inefficient redistribution of talent away from where it would be best placed.