There is currently a myth being spread across America that Republicans also support Big Government, in the form of generous defense spending, and that this is Republicans’ sacred cow. Anti-defense liberals and libertarians falsely claim that Republicans cannot credibly call for federal spending cuts and for limited government unless they’re willing to significantly slash defense spending.
But they are dead wrong. Read on, Dear Reader, and I’ll show you why.
Limited-government conservatism is an ideology that aims to reduce and limit the size of the federal government to the bounds authorized by the Constitution. Conservatives and libertarians alike agree that the federal establishment has expanded way beyond these authorized constitutional boundaries.
But generous defense spending is completely in line with the Constitution and the Founding Fathers’ intent. It is not a Big Government program, nor anyone’s sacred cow. It is, in fact, the #1 Constitutional DUTY of the federal government. The #1 reason for having a federal government at all is to have it defend the country and its citizens.
What does the Constitution say about defense? The Preamble to the Supreme Law of the Land explains why the federal government was established in the first place:
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.
Art. I, Sec. 8 of the Constitution lists 18 prerogatives of the Congress, nine (i.e., 50%) of which are related to military affairs, including “to raise Armies,” “to provide and maintain a Navy,” to regulate captures on land and water, to declare war, and to make regulations for the military. They authorize the full spectrum of the defense needed, from “providing for the common defense”, raising and supporting Armies, and providing and maintaining a Navy, to building arsenals, dockyards, and forts. As Ernest Istook of the Heritage Foundation has observed, “National defense receives unique and elevated emphasis under the Constitution. It is not ‘just’ another duty of the federal government.”
The Constitution not only authorizes a strong national defense (and consequently, robust funding for it), it REQUIRES it. Art. IV, Sec. 4 of the Constitution says as follows:
The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government, and shall protect each of them against Invasion…
As you can see, the Constitution not merely authorizes, it REQUIRES a strong defense and therefore any measures necessary to build it – including any amount of funding required to build it. Any amount of defense spending is Constitutionally authorized and perfectly in line with the Constitution and therefore with the Limited Government Principle.
A key tenet – indeed, the overriding principle – of conservative philosophy is that we must obey the Constitution as it is written. We may not cherry-pick which parts of the Constitution we’re going to obey and which ones we won’t abide by. But that’s what liberals and libertarians like Raul Castro Labrador are doing. They cherry-pick the Constitution and abide only by those party they like, while ignoring the ones they don’t like and pretending they don’t exist.
Most of the Founding Fathers also supported a strong national defense as a top imperative. George Washington, told the Congress in 1790 in his 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 effective means of preserving the peace.”
James Madison, for a long time an opponent of standing armies, ultimately changed his opinion and said in 1788:
“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?”
So according to the Constitution and the Founding Fathers, defense is not a big government program, but rather a Constitutionally legitimate government function and indeed the highest Constitutional DUTY of the federal government. And if that is the case, a strong military (and generous funding for it) does NOT violate the Constitution and therefore also does not violate the Limited Government Principle.
In other words, Ronald Reagan did not invent the “peace through strength” philosophy – George Washington did, although he did not call it that way.
Consequently, the Limited Government Principle does NOT require any defense cuts, nor does any other tenet of conservative philosophy. Therefore, consistent application of conservatism, including the Limited Government Principle, does NOT require any defense cuts.
In fact, conservative ideology REQUIRES that a strong defense be built and generously funded, as stated by numerous conservative leaders from Barry Goldwater to Ronald Reagan.
No, the Pentagon is not a Big Government program, nor is it anyone’s pet project. Defense is the #1 Constitutional obligation of the federal government and, as John Adams rightly said, “one of the cardinal duties of a statesman.”
So generous defense spending is fully consistent with the Constitution, the wishes of the Founding Fathers, and the Limited Government principle of conservatism.
So how much does the US spend today? Can deep defense cuts balance the federal budget?
The answer is overwhelmingly no. Washington’s trillion dollar annual deficits are so huge that, as the Heritage Foundation graph below shows, even eliminating military spending entirely would not even halve the budget deficit.
The FY2013 military budget, under the FY2013 authorization bill was – prior to sequestration – $613 bn (for all military spending: the base defense budget, the Afghan war, and the DOE’s national security programs). That is 17% of the total federal budget and 4.01% of America’s GDP.
But under sequestration, the base defense budget faces a cut to $469 bn (3.07% of GDP) and by FY2014 will still be at a pathetically low $475 bn (3.11% of GDP).
The House has recently passed a defense authorization bill authorizing $552 bn for FY2014 – for the base defense budget, the Afghan war, and DOE nat-sec programs combined. But even that sum is only 3.62% of GDP and just 15.33% of the entire federal budget.
So defense, the program that is supposed (under the Constitution) to be the federal government’s highest priority, is being shortchanged and will, even under the most optimistic scenario, receive only 15.33% of the entire federal budget! 84.67% of the federal budget will be spent on something else!
There is a big difference between being frugal and cheap.
Since the 1950s, defense spending has declined dramatically as a percentage of GDP and of the federal budget, from 50% of the total budget in FY1962 to just 15.33% today, and from 10% of GDP in FY1961 to 4.01% of GDP today – on track to slip to below 3% of GDP under sequestration.
Meanwhile, domestic spending – discretionary and mandatory – has splurged.
Do you see what is wrong here, Dear Reader? Washington has its priorities exactly backwards.
For a further comprehensive examination of the “the Pentagon is just another big government project” and “you can’t be a limited government conservative if you don’t support defense cuts” claims, please also read my article, “Defense and the Principle of Limited Government”.