Last week, the House Appropriations Committee advanced a lavish $674.6 billion Pentagon spending bill for fiscal year 2019. That means Congress is preparing to spend even more on defense, which isn’t at all shocking. To even marginally decrease defense spending, according to its champions, would be disastrous. After Senator Rand Paul proposed a “penny plan” to balance the budget with minor cuts, Senator Lindsey Graham warned his peers that the initiative “creates the one thing we can’t afford, which is unpredictability.” This attitude shapes Congress’s treatment of the defense budget, even though “unpredictability” is intrinsically inescapable and feverishly spending in an effort to evade it costs us the very liberty that our military ostensibly protects.
Over two millennia ago, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “Everything changes and nothing stands still.” He was right, and not only in the cosmic sense, but regarding the tumult of modern geopolitics. Unexpected alliances, the development of new weaponry, and erratic fluctuations in financial markets can all alter a military’s defensive capabilities in an instant. So, like most prudent nations, we invest heavily in an array of measures that allow our military to be effective in inauspicious circumstances—except, unlike all other nations, that amounts to an inexplicably colossal sum.
America’s military has over 800 bases worldwide, more than any other nation or empire in history. In order to staff, equip, and maintain this body, the U.S. spends more on defense than China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, the United Kingdom, India, and France combined—to great effect. According to the Credit Suisse Research Institute, the strength of the American military exceeds that of all other countries, based on factors that include its quantities of soldiers, tanks, and aircraft. If any nation is prepared to brave the whirlwind of geopolitics, it is the United States. Yet legislators still claim that the military is experiencing a “readiness crisis,” which necessitates further fattening of the defense budget.
This “crisis” is often exaggerated or confused by its proponents because “readiness” is an ambiguous term that hints at urgency without ever specifying a threat. In that vein, arguments often focus on the health of particular programs while failing to contextualize them within clearly defined geopolitical aims. Whether a certain squadron of pilots is getting enough flight hours is a very different question than whether the U.S. is ready to maintain its current commitments abroad or hold its ground in a world war. Emotion, not genuine geopolitical insight, drives popular support for inflated defense spending, and, in the words of horror writer H. P. Lovecraft, “the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear.”
When World War II ended, defense spending fell significantly. President Truman was left wondering how to persuade Congress to fund various geopolitical projects—such as wiring $400 million to Greece to stymie a communist revolt—without the pretext of war. Senator Arthur Vandenberg forthrightly advised him to “scare the hell out of the American people,” and so he did with great success. Later presidents followed suit throughout the Cold War and, together, they funded an extravagant arms race that lasted until the Soviet Union fell. And then, when it was apparent that castigating the “Red Menace” would no longer work, General Colin Powell, then chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said revealingly, “I’m running out of demons…. I’m down to Castro and Kim Il-sung.”
Shortly, however, new demons were conjured up from the Middle Eastern sands and the defense budget has been distended ever since. If this cycle of inflated spending and fearsome rhetoric were some sort of perverse exercise towards geopolitical predictability, perhaps it would be pardonable. But it isn’t. In addition to our scruples, it costs us our liberty.
In his famous “Cross of Iron” speech, President Eisenhower said, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed.” Even worse, excessive defense spending is an assault on liberty. In the words of American political philosopher Lysander Spooner, “the only security men can have for their political liberty, consists in their keeping their money in their own pockets, until they have assurances…that it will be used as they wish it to be used, for their benefit, and not for their injury.”
In a capitalist economy such as ours, money is the fuel of freedom. To take so much of it away from taxpayers to fund military bloat, which is neither necessary nor beneficial, is to not only deprive them of some good or service, but to deprive them of their choice, which is the essence of liberty.
As Congress considers next year’s defense budget, it should disregard the fearmongering of Senator Graham and his ilk, and refuse to lay the liberty of the American people upon the grim altar of predictability.
Michael Shindler is an advocate with Young Voices and research fellow at the Consumer Choice Center. His work has appeared in publications including The American Conservative, The American Spectator, and National Review Online. Follow him @MichaelShindler.