“The draft or draft registration destroys the very values that our society is committed to defending,” Ronald Reagan wrote U.S. Sen. Mark Hatfield in May 1980. Although few remember it today, Republican Richard Nixon ended conscription in 1973, and Reagan campaigned against registration, pledging to Hatfield and others that he would end it if elected president. Following the declaration of martial law in Poland in 1981, he reneged on his promise. Two decades later, registration and the Selective Service System still exist, Cold War anachronisms and grim reminders of the failure of Beltway Republicans to exercise the spoils of electoral victory by keeping their promise to voters to abolish outdated federal programs.

At the peak of the Vietnam War, economists (most notably Milton Friedman) argued that the draft should be ended in favor of an all-volunteer force (AVF). Conscription has rarely been used in the United States, and for good reason. Daniel Webster railed against it during the War of 1812; there were massive anti-draft riots in New York during the Civil War. Conscription was instituted during World War I, but public opposition forced its end after the conflict. Midwestern Old Right opposition to the draft remained intense up until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Old Right leaders such as U.S. Sen, Robert Taft (R-OH) and Rep. Howard Buffett (R-NE) led the fight to abolish conscription after the war. Until Vietnam, the conservative and libertarian right regarded military conscription as an attack upon individual liberty and a tool of Democratic presidents, such as Lyndon Johnson, bent on pursuing imperialistic foreign adventures.

Nixon cleverly diffused the anti-Vietnam War movement, led by the New Left, by adopting Friedman’s AVF proposal. More than a quarter-century later, nobody —save a few career bureaucrats at Selective Service—argues for a return to the military draft, although William F. Buckley, in his book “Gratitude: Reflections on What We Owe Our Country” (1990), has made a case for national service.

While universal national service is common in Europe, it has been viewed as a form of slavery throughout America’s history. Not surprisingly, Buckley has been joined in his call by liberals who wish to impose national service in order to achieve their social aims. The idea is especially popular among liberal educators and other government planners who see it as an answer to social problems. Instead of drafting young men—and women—into the military, they demand social conscription to fight for a cleaner environment, jobs in depressed urban areas, and other liberal panaceas. Ironically, some of today’s advocates of social conscription for youth vehemently opposed the military draft during Vietnam.

Today, registration is a Cold War anachronism that requires young men to sign up within 30 days of their 18th birthdays. The government can deny federal jobs and college loans to non-registrants. The Selective Service is the only surviving part of Jimmy Carter’s election-year response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; the grain embargo and the Olympic boycott have been reduced to answers in the “Carter Malaise” category on Jeopardy. Fellow Democrat Bill Clinton—whose own Vietnam-era experience with the draft is well documented—has tread more carefully, despite a March 1994 Pentagon report that found that the $29-million Selective Service program could be safely scrapped “without irreparable damage to national security” (since today’s wars are too brief for conscription to make a difference). Clinton has avoided the issue of national service lest he appear hypocritical, preferring the registration status quo to charges from Beltway Republicans that he is “soft on military preparedness.”

During his eight years in office, Clinton cited three reasons for retaining the Selective Service program: Registration constitutes a “relatively low-cost insurance policy”; ending registration could send the “wrong signal” to potential enemies; and registration can help to “maintain the link between the AVF and society at large.” Cato Institute policy analyst Doug Bandow notes that all three arguments lack credibility. Registration was intended to generate, in a short period of time, a large conscript army for a protracted war. Today, that type of conflict is unlikely to occur. America’s military credibility rests on highly skilled personnel and advanced weaponry, not a list of potential conscripts. Moreover, merely signing a draft card does not instill patriotism in youth. Bandow, who served in the Reagan administration, sees registration an example of Beltway “institutional immortality.”

U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), a former Air Force flight surgeon, has led the fight on Capitol Hill in recent years to abolish draft registration. Paul amended a House appropriations bill to strike $24 million in funding for Selective Service. His measure passed the House, but the funding was restored in late 1999 by the Republican-controlled Senate. The agency will live to see another fiscal year, as will the federal Education and Energy Departments, which Ronald Reagan also pledged to abolish, and the Commerce Department, which was targeted for extinction by the Republican freshman class of 1994 but is still wasting tax dollars six years later. If the mixed results of the November election are any indication, Americans may finally be asking themselves why they should vote for candidates who do not keep their promises once they obtain political power.