On the Morality of: Military Spending

I‘ve been following, with some incredulity, a battle brewing in Congress over a military-spending bill and whether it will include money to buy more F-22 Raptors, a jet fighter used by the Air Force during the Cold War. Even though Defense Secretary Robert Gates insists that these planes are not needed, a contingent of Congresspeople are bent on putting that spending back into the budget – forcing the military to take these planes against their will!

Bizarre as this sounds, it’s a classic example of how the military-industrial complex operates in America. Major military firms like Lockheed Martin and Boeing, which make most of their profit from multibillion-dollar government contracts, deliberately spread out their operations over as many states as possible – ensuring that senators and representatives from those states will vote for their programs, to ensure the steady flow of government cash that creates jobs in their districts. This pork is like a drug, and Congress, for the most part, is hopelessly addicted.

Stories like this one explain why the amount of money that the U.S. spends on the military is so staggering. Our 2009 base military budget, plus supplementals to paay for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, is about $650 billion. When all military-related spending is counted, the total sum may be closer to $1 trillion. This is just about as much as every other country in the world spends, combined. (See also.)

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, America has not had an adversary that poses us any realistic military threat. And in a world increasingly interconnected by trade, great-power conflicts like those of the 20th century seem less and less likely to happen again. The wars of the future are far more likely to be the kind we’ve seen in recent years – peacekeeping operations in failed states and asymmetric conflicts with non-state actors like al-Qaeda – for which large conventional weapons systems are useless. Even if we were expecting to fight more wars like those of the past, our spending vastly outstrips any plausible enemy. How, then, can we possibly give a moral justification for such massive, reckless spending on weapons that, in all likelihood, we will never need? (The F-22, for example, has never been used in combat.)

America needs to relearn the concept of opportunity cost. This idea has been ignored by posturing elected officials who huff that “no price is too high to pay for security”. But this is obviously false: every dollar we spend on the military is a dollar we can’t spend on something else. And there are countless actual, urgent issues our country is facing where that money could be spent to make a major positive difference right now, as opposed to the entirely theoretical possibility of a distant future war that might require these weapons.

Consider how much good that trillion dollars could do if spent in other areas. We could rebuild the entire nation’s energy grid with clean alternative power, ending global warming and severing the dependence on foreign oil that poses a significant threat to our security in and of itself. We could enshrine universal healthcare and create an educational system that would make Americans the healthiest, best-educated, most secure people on the planet and an envy of the other nations. We could even apply it to areas of legitimate security concern, like inspecting more of the shipping and transit that passes through our ports – a plausible target of major terrorist attacks, and an area where our current precautions are woefully inadequate. Yet all these grand plans are viewed as too expensive, too “socialist”, too unlikely to yield a benefit, by the same elected officials who think nothing of handing out hundreds of billions of dollars each year to well-connected lobbyists and corporations.

The easy excuse is to blame the politicians and assume that wealthy corporations have hopelessly rigged the system in their own favor. But this is too simplistic.

As debased as it is, America is still a democracy, and we still have the power to vote out any politician who offends us. The real problem is how we, the voters, evaluate risk and hold our government to account. Politicians assume, usually correctly, that any vote against the military budget will be used against them in attack ads. Wealthy lobbyists supply the cash needed to run expensive modern campaigns. And voters who would otherwise take their representatives to task for waste and corruption will cheer on almost any spending, no matter how frivolous, if it’s justified by repeating the words “national security”.

These attitudes create an environment that favors candidates who will vote for massive, wasteful military budgets instead of spending to address real needs. When the voters see the senselessness of this, when we’re willing to vote for politicians who pledge to slash the military budget to only what is genuinely necessary for defense, we can dismantle the military-industrial complex and divert that spending into areas where it will truly benefit all of us.

Other posts in this series:

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