Recently, in the number of comment trails for which I am not quite managing to keep up, a point of disagreement arose between commenter JA and myself regarding the size of the military budget. For the purposes of the discussion below, I will concede right off that the assumptions I’m making about the opposite point of view is one which is understood by me as a stock (or not uncommon) liberal/progressive position on this matter and it may or may not coincide with JA’s particular views.
One of the current dogmas on the progressive/liberal left is that military spending is far too great. They will enjoin and welcome in today’s depressed economy any sort of broken window ala Bastiat, transposing ditches, repairing roads which don’t urgently or presently need repair, beautifying rarely used parks, or spending great sums on underused airports but if that money is spent on military resources, well now, that’s going far beyond the pale.
The current budget has four large parts which make up about 75% of the budget. These parts four parts are to a first order roughly equal. The other three parts along side the military expenditures are social security, payroll security, and healthcare. The opinions expressed here by myself regarding government/state involvement in actuarial activities and the need to be careful about keeping incentives in order are likely well known. Thus the salient objection that the military budget is too large in comparison to the other three large expenditures would normally be contested here with an eye to the point of view that the other three are not part of what a government should be engaged and therefore eliminated entirely. However, let’s set that aside and inspect for a moment the question of the size of the military budget and whether it is too large or too small.
Recently a big item in the news has been the earthquake in Haiti. Less than a decade ago there was a tragic tsunami striking in Indonesia. In the latter case, and likely in the ongoing weeks and months we will find the same to be true in Haiti, a major source of physical relief and delivery of services and aid to those who need it has been the US military. While the progressives might complain about the price-tag and the costs of large capital ships (such as nuclear carriers) that the US Navy has in its arsenal, it remains that those carriers were essential in providing and airlifting food, fresh water, and medical supplies into regions in which local transportation had broken down. Oddly enough, the ability to quickly project power into a region means … exactly that. You can’t have a Navy capable of arriving anywhere in the world in a matter of weeks with large hospital ships and the capability to desalinate and provide and deliver many thousands of gallons of fresh water and food independent of local infrastructure cheaply. That price tag which gets you the ability to service these world disasters quickly and effectively is that “large” military budget.
Another reason the military budget is so large is that the US, for better or worse, places an very very dollar valuation on American lives. Much treasure is expended in both R&D, equipment, and so on to insure that loss of life on both sides are minimized. This costs money. America in the last two decades has been involved in a number of military expeditions. Casualties, while non-zero, when compared to similar efforts in prior ages by other forces not so equipped are, to put ti bluntly, negligible. This is not to say (obviously) that this is regrettable, i.e., that it might be better if the casualties where higher or that those that were lost aren’t missed. The point is that to get those low casualty rates carries a very high price tag.
One of the points made in the recent book Wars, Guns, and Votes by Paul Collier points out that if first world nations can promise, and make good on that promise, to provide security for governments in the “bottom billion” nations, money which goes to the military in those governments which more often that not destabilizes and materially impedes that countries growth not just by diverting badly needed (scarce) funds on the arms market but that it also increases the likelihood of coups and other violent uprisings. Currently there are few countries in the world with a military force which is capable of making and holding to that sort of promise. There are those who would argue that development and guns cannot mix. But that is not strictly true. Stability and the kind of order that failed and struggling nations need is often best supplied by a well trained motivated (external) first world military arm.
The Petraeus/Amos/Nagl COIN manual (The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual) mentioned much more often that it is read. One of the repeated points throughout the manual is when carrying out the tasks related to COIN, the military is not the best tool for many of the jobs related to doing the building up and nation building that is required in a war torn region where COIN operations normally would be taking place. A battery of other non-military organizations would be better suited to the task of providing those services, leaving the military to do those related to security and the traditional roles the military is tasked to do. However, as it is pointed out in the COIN manual (and was seen in Iraq and Afghanistan) in the absence or failure of those other organizations to be up to the task, then this role falls on the military. Thus, one answer the complaints of high military budgets specifically for the Iraq rebuilding … a big reason for that being a military expenditure is the failure of other organizations and government bodies to be ready and willing to do their jobs.
The progressive/left would have their cake and eat it too, desiring the results of a large military budget, the ability to quickly aid people around the world in time of disaster, providing security and stabilizing relations between nations, and insuring that when American forces are actually fielded that their losses are historically speaking for military ventures astonishingly low. These requirements cost those billions spent on the military.