The Defense Difference


"Defense spending should not be exempt from action taken to reduce the deficit." So proclaimed a resolution recently passed by the National Conference of State Legislatures. It reflects the ongoing debate, ever since Ronald Reagan started talking budget cuts, over defense spending versus "social spending."

While our representatives in Washington debate this issue, it behooves us to remember one simple fact: defense is the federal government's primary obligation. Our government was established to secure our rights, not to provide us with welfare. If these rights are secured, we can provide for our own welfare. If they are not secured, then the question of human welfare is moot.

Comparing military spending with social spending is like comparing apples with oranges—no, apples with volcanoes. Government's business is equipping itself to fight wars against domestic and foreign criminals—those who would murder, assault, and steal from its citizens. That is the reason for government's existence. The rest is extra—indeed, an exercise in futility and fraud.

Even those who do not dispute the moral authority and right of governments to take from Peter to give to Paul, to try to help science, education, medicine, farming, the indigent, the aesthetically inclined, and everyone else, must see one matter clearly enough. Government's military mission is different from the rest. National defense benefits all of us and precisely fits the expertise of government. Government uses force as its job—cops and soldiers are trained to fight and the rest of government is trained to tell them whom to fight.

The citizens teach, design computers, publish books, write columns, type manuscripts, dig ditches, perform operations, clean hallways, and in innumerable other ways promote the general welfare. The welfare state is superfluous; we are already doing quite well and would do even better without government's help.

The general welfare—what government social spending is supposed to advance—is something citizens can promote without government. But national defense is different. Therefore cutting defense spending is a very different kind of question from whether we should cut social spending. It is roughly like the question of whether a city should give up its police or its public parks.

This isn't to say that defense spending is too low or too high. Such spending can be wasteful, as the Grace Commission has shown. But it is also possible, as Steven Kelman of Harvard's JFK School of Government argued in The Public Interest, that the horror stories about sums spent by the Pentagon on hammers and wrenches look different when one notes that the prices paid for them include overhead costs. Perhaps the Defense Department isn't as mismanaged as the media would have us believe. Indeed, defense spending increases may even be justified.

Be that as it may, defense spending is fundamentally different from social spending. Those who do not recognize the distinction misconceive the budget debate.