28 April 2020

National service – a bad idea that never seems to go away


It’s the idea that just won’t die. Even in the midst of a pandemic there are calls to bring back national service. According to the Times, the Ministry of Defence has even commissioned a report into it.

There are several good reasons to hope this particular policy renovation falls swiftly by the wayside.

First, it would obviously be deeply illiberal. Even if a modern version of national service would be about than military training, forcing young adults into any form of work is an affront to all of our civil liberties – as if they had not been stamped on enough during this pandemic.

This would be wrong at any point, but would be particularly galling if it were to happen now. Young people look set to be hit particularly hard by the aftermath of coronavirus. Not only have they had their education and social lives disrupted, their finances and job prospects have been damaged. As research from the IFS has shown, they are far more likely to be working in sectors which have completely shut down. Worse still, research suggsets entering the labour market during a recession can have a pronounced negative effect on earnings for many years afterwards.

This leads us on to the second problem with national service: human capital. If we want young people to increase their earning potential then we need to look at human capital. There’s no shortage of evidence of the important role human capital plays in economic growth and the overall economic welfare of the population. The importance of human capital in relation to productivity has also been recently highlighted in a paper from the Oxford Martin School.

So, if we want to increase earnings and grow the economy, then we need to focus on policies which help develop human capital, especially in young people. Unfortunately, the UK does not rank highly according to the World Bank in this regard. Reintroducing national service would likely exacerbate this problem. Rather than focussing on acquiring skills and knowledge which would benefit them in their careers, they would be forced to do something else, thereby having a detrimental effect on their life chances.

Reintroducing national service would not only be economically damaging in the long term, it would also be a poor use of public money in the short term. Coronavirus has meant that the government has had to borrow and spend vast sums of money in order to support the economy. Although this has been a necessary step, it looks set to dramatically increase the national debt. Any spending decisions in the near future are going to be undertaken under the most intense of scrutiny.

Now would reintroducing national service help us get back on the path to economic growth, given it would effectively take young people out of the labour market and force them to into work of little economic benefit, all at the expense of the taxpayer. This, coupled with the damaging impact of national service on the accumulation of human capital, would lower economic growth and hamper the country’s recovery.

The aftermath of the Second World War show how important it is people entering the labour market is to reduce the national debt. If we want the UK to recover financially after the pandemic, then we need young people taking part in economically productive activity, not learning how to shoot a rifle.

It is obviously vitally important that the Government keeps the country safe. However, forcing the country’s young people to undertake national service is not an effective way of achieving this. If the military is struggling to attract people then it needs to look at issues such as pay, conditions and ensuring that people get the support they need when they leave the service.

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Ben Ramanauskas is a Research Economist at the University of Oxford.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.