Disbanding the Troops and Bureaucrats
And he shall judge among many people, and rebuke strong nations afar off; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the Lord of hosts hath spoken it (Micah 4:3-4).
This is a prophecy regarding “the last days” (v. 1). The description of peace — swords into ploughshares — is one of the most familiar in Western culture. It is a day that men say they dream of.
Let us assume that the day comes to pass. Can you imagine a group of economists calling for the continuation of the sword industry? They would invoke this argument: “If we get out of sword production prematurely, there will be unemployment. This would bring the post-war economy to a screeching halt. What we need is a program of sequential reduction of weapons production that does not disrupt the job market.”
As for letting the troops return home, the suggestion would bring this response: “The rise in unemployment would be devastating to the post-war economy. The bulk of our troops must be kept on active duty until such time as the economy makes the transformation back to peacetime production.”
How long would it take to turn swords into ploughshares under these post-war conditions? How long would the troops wait to be demobilized in order to return home? The answer would be open-ended. No one would know. Politics would decide.
If the definition of “peace” is “keeping the troops in uniform until it is clear that they can get good jobs in the private sector,” then peace sounds suspiciously like preparation for the next war.
This was what the United States economy was facing in late 1945. Japan surrendered in August. Germany had surrendered the previous May. By the time that President Truman delivered his State of the Union address in January 1946, he had disbanded half of the 12 million troops who had been on active duty when Japan surrendered. In his address, he promised that most of the remainder would be demobilized by June. Hazlitt was writing this chapter about the time when Truman delivered his speech.
America’s families wanted the troops disbanded. They wanted their sons and husbands out of uniform and back in the country. Truman understood this. Concerns over unemployment were not sufficient to keep him from bringing them home and demobilizing them. They came home. They hung their uniforms in a closet. Soon, they folded them, and packed them in trunks. The uniforms were mothballed. So were their owners’ wartime jobs.
The troops were rapidly integrated back into the private sector. Unemployment in 1946 was low: 3.9%. It remained in this range for the remainder of the decade. Hazlitt’s prediction in early 1946 was accurate:
The soldiers previously supported by civilians will not become merely civilians supported by other civilians. They will become self-supporting civilians. If we assume that the men who would otherwise have been retained in the armed forces are no longer needed for defense, then their retention would have been sheer waste. They would have been unproductive. The taxpayers, in return for supporting them, would have got nothing. But now the taxpayers turn over this part of their funds to them as fellow civilians in return for equivalent goods or services. Total national production, the wealth of everybody, is higher.
But what about wartime bureaucrats? Here was the question: “Can the private sector absorb them?” Hazlitt said it would. Here was a second question: “Is it a good idea to dismiss them?” Hazlitt argued that it was a good idea.
But the vast majority of these employees remained on the payroll. In fact, more were hired, year by year. The argument that almost everyone applied to the troops was not applied to the wartime bureaucrats: “Bring the boys home. Let them get on with their lives.” The politicians, the bureaucrats, and the voters concluded that the logic that applied to men in uniform did not apply to non-combatant bureaucrats who had not gone off to war.
With this as background, let us consider the economics of keeping wartime bureaucrats on the federal government’s payroll.
War is a matter of coercion. It is a non-market phenomenon. Ludwig von Mises wrote this in 1944: “History has witnessed the failure of many endeavors to impose peace by war, cooperation by coercion, unanimity by slaughtering dissidents.”
Before a war begins, citizens are owners. Their primary asset is their lives. They are stewards of their lives under God.
Except for a handful of government employees, citizens earn their livings through voluntary exchange. They have jobs. They do not own their jobs. Jobs are temporary products of competitive bidding. But the bidders own the skills they possess. In a free market social order, they own the right to make bids to others. They buy and sell. Among the things that they buy and sell are employment skills.
They also own that portion of their income that is not extracted by taxes, including the losses imposed by monetary inflation and government regulations of the economy.
Unlike the other chapters in Hazlitt’s book, the window here is pre-war. The window is peace. It is the right of people to make voluntary arrangements with each other in order to attain their goals as owners of their lives, talents, and money.
In peacetime, individuals decide where to work and at what compensation. Employers compete against employers. Employees compete against employees. Out of this competition comes an array of wages. At some price, a labor market clears: no unemployed people willing to work at that wage, and no employers unable to hire workers at this wage.
This is not the case in wartime.
The stone is the war. Civil governments seek to impose coercion on foreign citizens and also on domestic citizens. This disrupts citizens’ pre-war priorities. It therefore disrupts pre-war labor markets.
(For the rest of the chapter, click the link.)