One of the most dear principles of the conservative ideology is that of “limited government” – namely, a federal government limited to its Constitutional powers. This is what “limited government” means, and this is what all conservatives want (or at least should aspire to).
Unfortunately, a number of libertarians are falsely claiming (and misleading many conservatives into thinking) that providing adequately and generously for a strong military is somehow inconsistent with the Limited Government principle and thus hypocritical and “doublethink.” They furthermore falsely claim that this “hypocrisy” and “inconsistence” damages the GOP’s credibility in the eyes of the public, especially independents and moderates, and that only agreeing to deep defense cuts will restore that supposedly lost credibility and win the GOP new votes.
At annual CPACs, the straw poll is rigged against defense conservatives and against a strong defense by adding negative (and utterly false) “Big Government” connotations to the pro-defense option while not adding any negative connotations to socially- and fiscally-conservative options.
But this is all rubbish. Read on, and I’ll prove why. We will first deal with the question of whether generous defense investments are inconsistent with the Limited Government Principle, and then we’ll deal with the political aspect – whether Republicans’ traditional pro-defense policy somehow damages the GOP’s credibility.
Defense and the Constitution
The “Limited Government Principle” means, very simply, a government limited to the powers and functions assigned to it by the US Constitution (otherwise, a huge unclarity would result: government limited to what? a fixed percent of GDP? SCOTUS rulings?).
The most authoritative source of information on the Constitution’s genuine meaning is the collection of 85 essays known as “The Federalist Papers” and written by the men who wrote the Constitution – most notably Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, although John Jay also contributed 5 essays.
What does the Constitution say about defense issues? Only by that measure can we determine whether providing generously for a strong defense is inconsistent with the Limited Government Principle or not.
The Constitution lists (“enumerates”) all of the federal government’s powers. Powers not listed to the Constitution are off-limits to the federal government. The vast majority of the enumerated powers are listed in the first three articles of the Constitution, which listed the original powers of the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Branches, respectively. Later Amendments gave Congress additional powers to enforce civil and voting rights and (alas) a federal income tax.
The vast majority of the Congress’ powers, however, are listed in Art. I, Sec. 8 of the Constitution. A full 50% (9 out of 18) of the powers enumerated therein deal with military matters. Specifically, as the Constitution itself says, they are the powers to:
“provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States (…);
To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offenses against the Law of Nations;
To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years;
To provide and maintain a Navy;
To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces;
To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;
To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;
To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings;”
That half of all enumerated powers of Congress listed in Art. I of the Constitution deal with just one area of governance – that of providing for national defense – proves how important it was to the Founding Fathers (as we will also see from their statements below).
But the evidence doesn’t stop there. Art. IV, Sec. 4 of the Constitution makes providing generously for America’s defense OBLIGATORY, not optional. It says:
“The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government, and shall protect each of them against Invasion; and on Application of the Legislature, or of the Executive (when the Legislature cannot be convened) against domestic Violence.”
And the Preamble to the Constitution makes it clear that one of the chief reasons why the Constitution was adopted, and the federal government created, in the first place, was to “provide for the common defense”. It says:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
“To form a more perfect union”, “establish justice”, “promote general welfare”, and “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity” were generalisms – general wishes that the country would generally be better off if the Constitution were ratified.
Providing for the common defense, however, had and has a specific meaning: it meant, and still means, providing for a strong military capable of protecting America against any and all threats.
And – as the Founders would surely agree if they were alive today – protecting each state against “invasion” means more than just protecting them against physical ground invasion by foreigners (e.g. illegal immigrants). It means protecting against any physical threat to the homeland and its inhabitants. Today, these threats include EMP, nuclear, chemical, biological, ballistic and cruise missile, and bomber attacks.
Russia has 251 strategic bombers (Tu-95s, Tu-160s, and Tu-22Ms) capable of flying to the CONUS and delivering their nuclear-tipped cruise missiles and nuclear freefall bombs to US soil. This is not a bygone threat: Russia has, in recent years, repeatedly flown its bombers near and into US airspace, as well as around Guam, probing US air defenses and “practicing attacking the enemy”, as the Russians themselves have explained. Their submarines have, meanwhile, been prowling the Mexican Gulf and the Atlantic Coast, spying on Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay.
Russia, China, and North Korea also have ICBMs and (except North Korea) SLBMs capable of carrying thousands of warheads to the US. Russia’s ICBM fleet alone can carry 1,684 warheads to the CONUS. Those are just a few examples of direct military threats to the homeland. And if the Founding Fathers were alive today, they would DEMAND that Congress provide for an adequate defense against these.
Nor is protecting America’s treaty allies unconstitutional or a violation of the Limited Government Principle: it is done by treaty agreement, and treaties (on subjects on which Congress may legislate, such as foreign and defense policy) ratified by Presidents with Senate consent are the Law of the Land, second only to the Constitution. Thus, defending allies with whom the US has a treaty – such as America’s stalwart allies Japan and South Korea – is also FULLY CONSISTENT with the Constitution and thus with the Limited Government Principle. (It is also sound foreign policy, as I prove here.)
What the Founding Fathers said
Today, libertarians falsely paint the Founding Fathers as universally isolationist and opposed to standing armies. The truth, however, is that they were far from being unanimous on these issues. But if there was an issue on which they were close to unanimity, it was that the US MUST provide generously for its own defense, even if it were to adopt a position of armed neutrality.
George Washington said to the Congress in his very first State of the Union address: “Among the many interesting objects which will engage your attention, that of providing for the common defence will merit particular regard. (…) To be prepared for war is one of the most effective means of keeping the peace.” In his last SOTU address, he urged the Congress to remember about the need to provide for the common defense and to establish a military academy.
The second President, John Adams, said, “National defense is one of the cardinal duties of a statesman.”
The fourth President, and father of the US Constitution, James Madison, asked in 1788 in one of the Federalist Papers:
“How could a readiness for war in times of peace be safely prohibited, unless we could prohibit, in like manner, the preparations and establishments of every hostile nation?”
And Alexander Hamilton explained in Federalist #24 why a standing army was needed to protect America even in the 1780s, in seemingly peaceful times:
“Though a wide ocean separates the United States from Europe, yet there are various considerations that warn us against an excess of confidence or security. On one side of us, and stretching far into our rear, are growing settlements subject to the dominion of Britain. On the other side, and extending to meet the British settlements, are colonies and establishments subject to the dominion of Spain. This situation and the vicinity of the West India Islands, belonging to these two powers create between them, in respect to their American possessions and in relation to us, a common interest. The savage tribes on our Western frontier ought to be regarded as our natural enemies, their natural allies, because they have most to fear from us, and most to hope from them. The improvements in the art of navigation have, as to the facility of communication, rendered distant nations, in a great measure, neighbors. Britain and Spain are among the principal maritime powers of Europe. A future concert of views between these nations ought not to be regarded as improbable. The increasing remoteness of consanguinity is every day diminishing the force of the family compact between France and Spain. And politicians have ever with great reason considered the ties of blood as feeble and precarious links of political connection. These circumstances combined, admonish us not to be too sanguine in considering ourselves as entirely out of the reach of danger.”
Indeed, the Federalists, including Hamilton, supported the creation of a large, well-armed standing army.
And the Navy?
While some Founders, like Elbridge Gerry, were uneasy about a standing ground army, no Founder objected to building a strong navy – they all supported that goal. A few quotes will suffice:
It follows then as certain as that night succeeds the day, that without a decisive naval force we can do nothing definitive, and with it, everything honorable and glorious.
We ought to begin a naval power, if we mean to carry on our commerce.