Some acquaintances of ours have a sign on their vehicle with a pie chart of government spending. It’s a big sign, occupying the whole side of their van plus a large sheet metal extension above their roof (which is very nicely done, though probably not very fuel efficient). So I guess they are making a big point. And the point seems to be that US military spending is over 50% of the total budget. As a country, we are spending half our resources on killing people in various ill advised foreign adventures. That’s a very bad thing, right?
2006 Federal Discretionary Budget (National Priorities Project)
I too would complain about excessive military spending waste. But we can afford it, being one of the richest peoples the world has yet produced. And I claim that wealth is directly tied to limited government spending. As a nation, we are wealthy because our government has been less involved in our lives and fortunes than virtually any other nation in the history of the world. We cannot afford to eliminate foreign defense needs that cannot be handled on an individual or state level. But most other activities are better handled privately or at least locally. Big government means less freedom and less wealth. Ultimately it means much less happiness.
A Digression on Iraq
I don’t want to get into Iraq, at least right now. You can certainly argue that our Iraq conflict was ill-advised. And I might even agree. Though I suspect that Iraq was a pretty serious threat and am not convinced by our inability to uncover any “smoking gun” evidence of weapons of mass destruction. After all, Saddam Hussein and his allies had months of warning and sympathetic governments on at least one border. And no one has ever claimed he was stupid. I fear that Mr. Bush was braver than I would have been in his position and that we may never really know whether the Iraq invasion has saved us from something much worse. Can you say “nuclear terrorism”?
But my goal here is to explore that huge pie chart created with no little effort on the side of their van. Their point is that over 50% of spending is on the military. I’m would call it “our” military, but they would probably not agree to that pronoun.
I didn’t think it was that much, so I checked. The latest 2007 budget has $459 billion for the Pentagon out of a total “outlays” budget of $2,814 billion. Indeed military spending will be about 50% of discretionary spending. But it’s only 16% of total federal spending. Meaning that so-called mandatory programs like agricultural subsidies (everyone’s favorite to hate) and more importantly, Medicare and other government charity are the bulk of spending.
Even “mandatory” spending does not include “off budget” social security and other mandates that are handled by quasi-governmental organizations. To check social security spending, you must look elsewhere - it is not even mentioned on the official budget. But the 2007 Social Security outlays will be an additional $626 billion plus another $9.6 billion to administer the program. Social Security is not really an insurance program, not even close. It does not hold your retirement “savings”, which were long ago paid to some earlier retiree. So either Social Security is a Ponzi scheme or it is just another federal expenditure, and a large one at that. Adding it in gives a total 2007 budget of about $3,450 billion. So the military budget is really only about 13% of federal spending (and much less if you include state and local spending and other off-budget federal mandates).
Supposedly, the non-discretionary items don’t count because we have no choice. Of course we do have a choice and people are just pretending otherwise. Congress has the power to eliminate them at any time. So our acquaintances are playing with the numbers a little on their van, and 13% would be a lot more honest than 50%.
I would bet that the percentage is not their real problem. Even 1% would probably be too much for them, unless the money funded diplomatic missions overseas to make amends for all the people we have supposedly trampled over the years. I would not claim that we have never trampled anyone. But I would claim that the Americans are one of the less parochial and more internationally kind peoples the world has ever seen.
But I digress again. They would probably argue that almost all military spending is evil. On the other hand, I would make the seemingly outrageous claim that almost all other government spending is evil. After all, defense, foreign relations and interstate commerce are the valid concerns of our federal government. So says our constitution.
Q. So you are in favor of spending that basically goes toward napalming innocent children abroad?
A. No, there are more modern methods.
That was a joke, by the way. I suspect that many are so angry about this subject that they might take even such obvious sarcasm as truth. I’m really not in favor of killing people abroad at all. Ever. But I strongly suspect that an important minority of people worldwide do not share my opinion and would happily kill any number of us for what they see as a just cause. And many others might do it out of pure avarice, since after all we are a very wealthy country.
Life is short and that sometimes makes life cheap. As a species, we are not fully socialized and cannot be depended on to cooperate. And cultural norms vary on what is acceptable human behavior. One person’s capitalism is pure theft to another. One person’s religious convictions are terrorism to yet another. Religious convictions aside, I am afraid there is no one “correct” culture, nor even a morality that whole human race will ever agree to.
In such a world, defense is a life-and-death necessity. Sure our military sometimes kills people and sometimes innocent ones at that. But it is the best we can do and without it we would surely have long ago disappeared as a nation and as a people.
You may disagree, but I think last century’s experiments in communism proved that government intervention reduces total wealth. The government can make things more fair so that wealth is more evenly distributed, but only by reducing total wealth. And it’s usually a pretty big reduction. Lots of liberals believe that they could do better if given the chance, but I really doubt it. So less government means more total wealth, although the rich probably do get even richer. However, I would claim that benefits of less government out weigh that cost - that the increase in total wealth is usually so significant that even the poorest among us are substantially richer than they would otherwise be.
If this nation’s constitution had guaranteed equality of wealth, then we would probably mostly still be farmers earning what we could on our small (but equal) plots of land. Agricultural land was wealth when our country was founded and government mandated “land reform”, no matter how well intentioned, would probably have stagnated us in an agrarian economy by mandating how wealth was divided and used.
Less government means more freedom, wealth and happiness for all. And that means that government activities that can be handled privately or locally are ill-advised and ultimately destructive.
So yes, I believe that the real evil lies outside that 50% military portion of our discretionary federal spending.