A great deal of stress and anxiety has been caused recently among defense hawks insisting on sparing the military from the automatic spending cuts demanded by budget sequestration. They insist such measures will lead to a crippled American defense. The numbers clearly show this isn’t the case and their fears could be alleviated by taking note of a few simple truths.
First, the legitimacy of the outcry over the proposed military spending reductions must be questioned. As they now stand, the proposals don’t amount to much, if anything. The spending cuts aren’t aimed at the military’s existing budget, but rather a scaling back of the Pentagon’s projections to increase future spending. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the planned Pentagon budget for 2021 would be some $700 billion, an increase over the current level of about $520 billion. The cuts agreed to last summer plus the automatic reductions would trim the projected budget by about $110 billion to a total budget of $690 billion. Far from recklessly reducing the size of our military budget, the current plan ultimately grows spending by 25 percent. As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq draw to a close, one must wonder why spending needs to increase.
While providing for defense is no doubt a legitimate and necessary function of governments built to protect rights, it’s up to society to strike a balance between the threats we face and the apparatus needed to address them. We must retain the capability to defend ourselves without embracing perpetual militarism. Upon leaving office, President Eisenhower was wise to warn of the potential dangers of the growing military industrial complex. He rightly understood that continued military spending eventually usurps, rather than benefits, our overall well-being. The ebb and flow of military spending should be the natural order of things.
The military, like insurance, withdraws labor and materials from the production of those things we would really prefer to have in the absence of a troubled and dangerous world. Other than addressing urgent threats to safety, society doesn’t derive a net benefit from investing in tanks and bombs to be destroyed. The burden imposed on society by such spending is obscured because it’s more difficult to imagine the things we might have had instead. In peace, consumers prefer things like iPads to armaments.
Economies naturally allocate available resources. When downsized, the military releases tied up resources to the private sector which, in its never ending quest for profits, strives to utilize them to best satisfy the most urgent desires of consumers. Though sometimes necessary, the military still represents an obstruction to an otherwise free and more prosperous market. If we determine threats no longer demand extravagant expenditures, we would do best to reallocate resources from areas of malinvestment, as evidenced by losses, to those areas in which they are better invested, as evidenced by profits.
When wars end, the same principle holds true for unneeded soldiers and contractors transitioning from the military to civilian world. Soldiers, by leaving the military, should take heart at the fact that their mission is now one of enriching rather than depleting the economy – an endless mission from which they will never be discharged.
Of course, it takes time for the reallocation of resources to occur following a war. It’s during this time that people might go hungry; the old job is gone, the new job isn’t here yet. The process, however, is not slow, and there is certainly nothing the government can do to speed it up.
Ultimately, advocates of continuous military spending should learn to include a strong economy as the most important part of their defense paradigm. The economy is the real engine that allows us to defend ourselves. Free market trade relationships create bonds between countries which discourage conflict from arising in the first place. When conflict does emerge, the productive and innovative forces unleashed by a free economy provide the best weaponry to support the needs of the warfighter. By sapping the power of the economy, defense hawks ultimately undermine their own objectives.
Originally Published 13 January 2012
By Brendon Wolfel