Reprinted with permission of the Courier-Journal
The world watched Kentuckians honor Muhammad Ali last week in many different ways. Thousands stood in line at 5:30 a.m. to get a ticket to his funeral. Crowds jammed the funeral processional route in 90-degree heat.
Sen. Rand Paul, likewise, has a fitting tribute: a stand-alone bill to end Selective Service registration. Paul named the bill the “Muhammad Ali Voluntary Service Act.”
Ali was called up for the draft in the prime of his boxing career, at the height of the Vietnam War. He had become a devout Muslim by that point and therefore refused to be inducted. He was willing to go to jail for his religious beliefs. That took courage, regardless if one agrees with his beliefs or his decision.
Ali was convicted of a felony for draft evasion and sentenced to five years in prison.
Will Smith’s performance in the movie “Ali” shows the human cost of the fighter’s resolution. Ali lost his boxing license and his ability to provide for his family. He was stripped of his world championship. He was vilified.
His appeal took years before the Supreme Court overturned his conviction 8-0.
The draft was abolished a few years later. Nonetheless, American males ages 18-25 still must register with the Selective Service. Jimmy Carter initiated registration to expedite things if America ever reinstates the draft, and like many bad ideas from the Carter days, it persists.
In explaining his legislation, Paul rebuts a misconception about Ali: “Muhammad Ali was not a ‘draft dodger.’ When Ali was drafted, he did not run away. He did not go to Canada. He did not ask for special favors, treatment or even try to get a deferment. He was a conscientious objector and practiced civil disobedience, a proud American tradition that runs from the Founding Fathers to Thoreau and all the way through Martin Luther King, Jr. in Ali’s own time.”
Paul’s proposed legislation is timely and appropriate, and not just to honor Ali. Now that the ban on women serving in combat has been repealed, the exclusion of women from Selective Service registration is hard to justify; it likely violates equal protection. If Selective Service registration remains, its constitutionality requires the inclusion of women.
Congress has begun to debate whether young women should be required to register for the Selective Service. The issue even surfaced during the presidential debates.
Paul gives a better solution: Scrap Selective Service registration altogether.
The caliber of our all-volunteer armed services — superior to conscripted forces — has demonstrated that Selective Service registration is not necessary for our national defense. Volunteers have better morale and are more likely to reenlist, which enhances the armed forces’ professionalism.
Moreover, the fact that our current soldiers volunteer makes their service even more honorable, more selfless, than if they were compelled to serve.
The Selective Services System costs more than $23 million a year to prepare for a hypothetical draft that has not been necessary for four decades. We have wasted nearly $1 billion on registration.
The penalty for failing to register is five years in prison and/or a $250,000 fine as well as exclusion from federal programs such as college financial aid. The compliance rate for registration is high, 89 percent for 2013.
But those young men who fail to register tend to be high school drop-outs, poor and disadvantaged, who find out about registration the hard way, when they cannot get financial aid, or apply for certain federal jobs or renew their driver’s license in many states.
In short, Selective Service registration needlessly makes it harder for poor young men to escape poverty.
Both liberal and conservative economists recognize that an all-volunteer force is preferable to compelled registration and service. It’s said to be the one issue upon which Milton Friedman and John Kenneth Galbraith ever agreed: the military’s need for soldiers should function as a labor market. The government should determine the size and then pay accordingly to recruit and retain soldiers who choose to serve.
But beyond economics, ending Selective Service registration would ensure that military service is just that – service. It should be a matter of conscience to do what one thinks is right to protect one’s country.
Ali made a decision of conscience not to fight. Others have made decisions of as much conscience as Ali’s to fight.
The government shouldn’t compel people to violate their faith, whether through military service, or by forcing bakers to make wedding cakes or by making nuns provide birth control. Such coercion corrodes liberty.
Eliminating Selective Service registration ensures freedom for every citizen to act of his or her own free will to provide voluntary military service. Or not. That’s a principle worthy to be remembered in reflecting on Ali’s life.
Bridget Bush is a Louisville attorney and founder of Elephants in the Bluegrass blog. Her column appears every third Wednesday in the Courier-Journal.