Economics and similar, for the sleep-deprived

A subtle change has been made to the comments links, so they no longer pop up. Does this in any way help with the problem about comments not appearing on permalinked posts, readers?

Update: seemingly not

Update: Oh yeah!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Ideas from history - "wealth conscription"

Defence commentating hobbit Tom Ricks has been on about the idea of bringing back conscription for most of this year, apparently out of some worry that the US Army isn't sufficiently representative of America. Presumably he doesn't want the US Army to have more mortgage debt and to be more obese, the two main points of difference.

I kid, I kid. Ricks is very worried about a) a version of the "where are the children of the rich?" argument, and b) some not-all-that-easy-to-understand concept of the military developing a separate culture from the rest of America and this being bad for democracy. Anyway, the answer is conscription, which makes one think the wrong question has been asked.

And so I bring up the historical curiosum of the "Conscription of Wealth". Basically, that the default method of financing a war should be a form of wealth tax (specifically, a confiscatory wealth tax which would be invested in war loan stock, to be repaid at the end of the war at less-than-market-rate interest). It seems rather attractive to me as a way of giving the upper class a stake in things, without taking their kids as hostages which always seemed a bit creepy to me. Not sure it would necessarily help with that "separate culture" thing, but one of my favourite cowboy philosophers of the interwar years seemed to hint that it might:

Will Rogers' Daily Telegram, 13 November 1926:


LITTLE ROCK, Ark - I been reading and studying over President Coolidge's message to Kansas and Missouri. He brought out Mr Harding's idea (he didn't say it was, but it was) about the conscription of all wealth in case of war.

That sounds fine after the war is over. Funny nobody thought of it before the last war started, and I doubt if you hear anything of it just before the start of the next one. If they did do it, it would be a great enlistment boost for war, as we all know thousands that would go themselves just to see some of the money taken away from the ones that copped it during the last war.

It would be a very interesting experiment and would add novelty to the next war, as we have lots more fellows ready and willing to give lives than we have ones that would give their fortunes. You would have more suicides and heart failures on your hands than you would have shot by bullets.

It was a great idea even when Mr Harding recommended it, but it's like a campaign promise; it's too good to ever come true. It would be worth a war just to try it out. Yours for serious consideration of promises, Will Rogers.

At the end of the day, I have never been a great one for "intergenerational equality" arguments, but given that it is young people who get hurt in wars, there is something pretty shameful about fighting one on the basis of deficit financing. Also it does show you how much things have changed - conscription of wealth was a mainstream idea in the 20s and during the first world war (albeit as WR cynically notes, never a real likelihood even then), but something has really changed in the world - in the 21st century, we have had a succession of governments prepared to argue simultaneously that a) we are engaged in a struggle for the survival of our way of life itself, but b) it has to be financed by deficit spending as it would be politically impossible to raise taxes to finance it. Without wanting to get on a great big decadence kick, some future Gibbon is going to get a good couple of pages out of that one.
16 comments this item posted by the management 12/17/2010 01:06:00 AM

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