(SSRN Working Paper, 2020-02)
Piano, Ennio E.; Rouanet, Louis
The ability to mobilize large armies for the purposes of national defense and territorial expansion is a key feature of the modern state. Post-revolutionary France was among the first European powers to adopt large-scale conscription to man its army. For its conscription efforts to be effective, the French government had to overcome the obstacle posed by desertion. This article develops a framework to study the optimal response to the threat of desertion in designing conscription policies. We argue that geography was a major determinant of the administrative costs of enforcing conscription. Using a novel data-set on conscription and desertion from Napoleonic France, we show that regions with higher terrain ruggedness were more prone to desertion. We also show that, in response to the variation in enforcement costs across regions, the national government adjusted its conscription policies accordingly: More Frenchmen were drafted in regions where the administrative costs of conscription were lower.