U.S. National Defense: Just Another Government Program

In a recent address to the Institute for Humane Studies board of directors, George Mason University economist and co-editor of the Independent Institute’s The Independent Review Christopher J. Coyne offered a “case for humility” regarding foreign intervention. I had the pleasure of hearing the address in person, and the written version can be found here.

There is one point, mentioned briefly in the piece and discussed during the Q&A portion of the address, I’d like to explore further.

National defense, not surprisingly, is a hot topic on both ends of the political spectrum. What may be surprising, however, is that there is significant disagreement among libertarians and other “liberty-minded” individuals about military and other foreign intervention.  It is not difficult, for example, to find an individual who is critical of domestic government programs and an ardent supporter of individual liberties, but favors a strong military and active foreign policy.

The military is not just another government program—it’s one of the largest government programs. The U.S. military faces the same systematic problems as other government activities. The DOD is guilty of the same sins as Social Security, nationalized healthcare, government-run education, and every other bureaucratic government initiative providing a “service” to the U.S. citizenry.

Coyne’s remarks capture this well. He describes how foreign intervention increases the scale of government activity more than almost any other government program. With a budget for 2014 over $750 billion, the U.S. federal government spends more on defense than on Medicare, Medicaid, education, housing, and agriculture.

Coyne describes how interventionist policies change the composition of domestic markets as resources are transferred away from private uses to the government. These changes bring further distortions as they alter the incentives facing individuals in both the private and public sector. The military, like any other government program, faces strict limits on what it can achieve. As the military operates within complex systems, it is impossible to know at the outset how its actions today will impact tomorrow (see my previous post for further discussion of complex systems).

Moreover, interventions change the structure of domestic government and expand the scope of government power. These changes work to undermine civil liberties.

Despite these issues, there are still those who suggest our current military is appropriate for issues of “national defense.” Allow me to suggest that “defense” is complete misnomer. It is difficult to argue that preemptive strikes against targets that “may harm U.S. interests” are defensive. Current U.S. defense, put simply, if offense.

It is particularly important for those of us concerned about liberty to recognize these issues of national defense are of particular importance. It’s the star-spangled elephant in the room. These “defense” activities, as opposed to protecting our freedoms and expanding the rights of those abroad, often have the opposite effect. They diminish the liberties they are intended to protect.

So what can those who love freedom say regarding national defense?  I know I’ve been accused, as have others who hold a similar position, of burying my head in the sand. “Certainly, we have to do something.” “Well, OK. What would you do then?” The truth is, if we are honestly concerned about helping people, we should first work to do no harm. Again, Coyne hits the nail on the head:

I lack confidence that foreign interventions can generate net benefits systematically across cases of foreign intervention…. Let me suggest that a good starting point is to discuss the specifics of defense in a free society…. From there we can move on to discussing whether the state is actually able to deliver on the desired end in a manner that maintains, rather than undermines, a free and prosperous society.

Abigail R. Hall is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and an Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Tampa.
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