Ethics @ Work: Minimum wage for soldiers

Many good reasons to improve salaries of IDF conscripts

IDF soldier (photo credit: AP [Illustrative photo])
IDF soldier
(photo credit: AP [Illustrative photo])
One of the most interesting areas of economic ethics is the unique industry known as the army. On the one hand, the armed forces are just one more branch of the economy: the agricultural sector employs farmers and produces food; the financial sector employs bankers and produces financial intermediation; the army employs soldiers and produces national security. However, the army is highly differentiated from other sectors. It is, first of all, the only sector in which conscription is considered legitimate; even in countries like the US, where there is no conscription, once a soldier enlists, he or she is subject to a regimented discipline lacking the basic rights of other workers. Among other differences, the army is exempt from paying a minimum wage to soldiers, who earn a wage that may considered nominal, even taking into consideration that they get room and board. A bill submitted by Labor MK Amir Peretz would change this, and require the army to pay soldiers minimum wage. (I assume that even Peretz does not want to pay soldiers time and half for overtime and so on; rather, a soldier, who works around the clock, will get the minimum wage for a normal full-time civilian worker.) The first reading of the bill passed narrowly this week, against the vocal opposition of Finance Minister Ronnie Bar-On. Bar On announced: "I have more than a few questions beyond the economic questions, like the question of the principle of obligatory service and commitment. This is a bad bill that opposes the values we were educated and grew up on, according to which one is supposed to contribute to the country." The economic questions, which Bar-On places aside, are indeed interesting. But I consider Bar-On's other questions scurrilous. Peretz's bill does not propose to alter the principle of obligatory service and commitment. Bar-On evidently believes that the economic suffering of soldiers and their families is not an unfortunate economic necessity, but rather an exalted value to be perpetuated even when the means to alleviate it are present. Of course soldiers are supposed to contribute to the country; so are finance ministers. I did not notice that Bar-On is opposed to paying government ministers minimum wage. Now let us turn to the economic questions. I can't say whether soldiers should be paid precisely minimum wage, or more or less, but I think there is a compelling case that they should be paid more than they are now. One proof that soldiers are paid too little is the "lone soldier." Soldiers who don't have a family to go home to get an additional stipend, without which it is not realistic for them to sustain themselves. This seems to indicate that the families of ordinary soldiers are, in effect, subsidizing the military service of their sons and daughters. This is not inherently unacceptable; when there is no choice, the soldier has to subsidize his own service. In the American Revolution soldiers were required to provide even their own weapons and ammunition. But it is hardly an ideal for a wealthy country that the family has to make an economic sacrifice above and beyond the personal one. Another potent argument for increasing soldiers' pay is the inequality created by this economic burden. Poor families have more difficulty bearing the economic burden of military service than better-off ones. Even more important is the inequality between families whose sons and daughters do serve in the army and those whose children are exempt. A large fraction of Israel's high school graduates are exempt from military service, on nationalistic (Arabs), ideological (yeshiva students) or religious (religious girls) grounds. Soldier's families pay coming and going for their participation in Israel's defense; at the very least it would be appropriate to ease the economic burden. While I haven't seen any studies on this, I am strongly inclined to believe that draft-dodging in Israel is, in significant measure, an economic phenomenon. It is common to accuse draft-dodgers of cowardice, but this charge is ridiculous. Nothing is easier than finding a safe army job; a minority of soldiers are in combat units and there is fierce competition for places in these units. Anyone who actually wants to be a "jobnik" has no trouble doing so. Some are motivated by ideology, others by laziness (many jobniks have to work pretty hard) and quite a few, in my opinion, by a hard-headed comparison of their economic prospects with and without three years of army service. It follows that paying a better salary to soldiers would lead to less draft dodging. The haredi and Arab sectors have a low inclination to enlist, but they are also two very poor sectors; perhaps an improved wage for soldiers would improve the rate of enlistment in these populations. Another consideration is that many, perhaps most, soldiers are doing work quite similar to work done in the paid civilian sector. So it is natural for conscripts to compare themselves to their paid civilian counterparts. One point that could work in either direction is the incentives of the army itself. On the one hand, since the army gets manpower for less than its economic cost, that leads, from an economic point of view, to an incentive to maintain a larger army than is really necessary or efficient from the point of view of the public good. It is a "militaristic" policy. On the other hand, there is a case to be made that it is for this very reason that soldiers are not paid; perhaps we don't want the commanders of the army to be deterred from any truly essential military activity by mundane economic considerations. To conclude, I will sharpen my disagreement with Bar-On. Even on the symbolic level emphasized by Bar-On, I maintain that an improved wage is called for. If, indeed, we esteem and value the contribution and commitment of Israel's soldiers, then an improved salary would be a suitable expression of these very values that we were taught and grew up on.