For King And Country

The last couple of days I’ve indulged myself with a course on the philosophy of morality. This is an online Harvard course dubbed Justice: What’s The Right Thing To Do, brilliantly delivered by Michael Sandel.

Just to get the obvious out of the way – I have never imagined such an engaged class room. Most of the professors in the universities I studied at described teaching as a necessary evil. In our schools teachers tend to dictate the materials and leave no room for discussion (to the extent that I’ve heard of a teacher being fired for trying to engage the students). This course is based honest debate in class. It’s a shame I’ve never experienced such vigorous learning methods in my day (ha! I was lucky. It got worse after I left, or so I hear).

In one of the sessions arose the question of army service. Let me present you with the question raised in class:

The army has discovered it is not able to fill its ranks, and they are falling behind on their recruiting targets. Which of the following methods do you consider more morally just or fair?

  1. Increase pay and benefits – by offering better work conditions to soldiers, retention will go up.
  2. Conscription – a draft, selecting out of the able men and women and forcing them to enlist.
  3. Outsource – hire mercenaries who are willing to work for the existing wages.

Most people voted for Option #1. Did you? Let’s discuss this option a bit further.

The Civil War Method

During the Civil War, the Union used a hybrid system. It was based on conscription, however, if you were selected to enlist and could afford it, you were allowed to hire a substitute to go to war in your stead. What do you think about this system? In modern society, it seems unjust. It dictates, too clearly, that the poor will enlist to protect the rich. Those who have not will risk their lives to protect those who have.

The All Volunteer system, as suggested in option #1, allows anyone who wishes to join the army the option to do so. An All Volunteer army raises an image of patriotism before our eyes and the scent of virtue in our noses. If you look at the statistics, you’ll notice that those who join the army come mostly from specific social-economic backgrounds (and not from the top). For example, now that recession is in place, retention is close to an all time high. Job security becomes number one driver for enlistment.

In fact, if you follow this logic through, the All Volunteer system seems not so different from the mercenary system. People hired by means of money, regardless of their sense of obligation to the country they partake in.

The Israeli Method

Any system has its inefficiencies. In Israel, we have a conscription system where ideally every able man and women would serve two to three years of compulsory service for the country. This system is long in debate, as wars become less frequent and less threatening to the survival of this fairly young country.

First, there’s the economic toll on society. In theory, most of the able minds and bodies in the country donate two to three years to the country. And when I say “donate”, I mean it in the most literal sense. There is almost no pay. There are hardly any benefits. Most do not learn any profession they can use afterwords. And there are more soldiers than there are jobs, so there are grave inefficiencies for the economy as a whole. For many of the youth, these are wasted years, where the alternative would have been in a productive workforce in the market.

Second, nearly half of today’s youth do not serve in the army. For various reasons they are considered unfit. Forcing them to enlist would grossly outweigh the benefits of enlisting them.

These reasons (and some other) convince people that it may be better to move from conscription to the All Volunteer army.

Motivational System

The situation is slightly different if you decide to stay for longer than the compulsory three years. I’ve served in the army for nine years, six of them as an officer. During this time I was surrounded by people who were highly motivated and capable. We believed what we did had direct effects on the safety of the Israeli citizens. This is the one major benefit of the volunteer army. If you chose to be here, you will try harder.

Money is a bad driver of  motivation. Most of us were paid 30% under market value, yet many people felt that the job they are doing is both more interesting and more important than the financial rewards of working nine-to-five at any other workplace.

This is why we need to be careful with monetary compensation. It creates a divide between the interests of the employer and the interests of the employee. It pushes people away from creativity and risk taking and into the realm of mediocrity. I’ll talk about this point some other time. In the mean time, you can read this.

Some Partial Conclusion

Returning to the world of business, I want you to consider the methods of motivation and fairness where you work. Joel has mentioned before that he’s against monetary rewards. When you start doing something you love for money, you stop loving it. If you code for money, the project becomes less important than the money. It’s sad, but it’s true. And it is worse where performance is directly linked to pay.

You need people in your company to feel as if they are creating tremendous value. Know they are correcting a wrong. Want to fix the world. You want patriots in your company, not employees.

May this be a Happy, Moral and Advantageous year to us all.

Watch it!

Here’s a link to the first lecture. Also, I’ve embedded here the lecture discussing army conscription.

  • Michael

    We’ve been together to a talk where a community manager for MSN described the dire consequences of trying to offer forum monitors some monetary compensation for their work. What they previously did for free, they now stopped doing because the pay they were offered was insulting.

    These are two psychological terms of things you do for recreation, and things you do for future profit. That’s why hobbyists are performing, crafting and engaging in other activities for no money at all, but when asked to perform on-demand, ask for a considerable amount of money. Graffiti artists are a prime example.

  • Omer Gertel

    Right you are. I forgot about it, but it’s a great example.
    There are plenty of researches showing the same results – and also showing how money kills creativity and hurts performance at the work place. I’ll try and address it in a different post.

  • Scott Kohlhaas

    Actually, #2 is never an option. You can’t just say, “Oh, well, we will just execute our option to conscript”. It is a crime–#’s 1 & 3 are the only way.

    Please visit for more on conscription.

  • Omer Gertel

    Scott, I think you are mistaken. It isn’t a crime to conscript, as long as conscription draws from the general population. In fact, some claim it is more fair than other systems, as payment systems rely more heavily on the poor. I’m pretty sure John Rawls would have agreed, and John Locke would have stated you may always chose to return to the state of nature (or leave to another country).
    Then again, does the army even need to be fair? An army based on market value is more economically efficient from society’s point of view. Isn’t that better for all of us if we get more defence for the same cost? Utilitarians strongly advocate this point.

    I’m not sure what I think. I have gained a lot during my army service, professionally but also emotionally (I feel strongly bound to this country and its fate). This emotional contract between the country and myself has tremendous value for society, and I’d be sorry to let it go away for a colder, more economic, point of view.

  • Mike

    Just wanted to add one little point. In ancient Greece serving in army and going to war was seen not as a civic duty, but more as a status symbol – it meant that you are a citizen (not slave), and one of means.

    In Israel, society highly approves of army service. While numbers of conscripts may dwindle, the vast majority of the population thinks that army service is a necessary evil. Most people accept that they have to sacrifice if they want this country to go on.
    I think that’s a very important notion that we want to preserve, and the only way I see to do this, is to continue with enforced conscript.

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