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March 01, 2009

Zmirak on Defence

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

John Zmirak offers seven reasons why the U.S. should cut back dramatically on defence spending. My favorite is # 7:

If you knew a family that had more guns than all its neighbors put together, but was living on credit cards and cadging loans from people who hated them, what advice would you give them?

Sums up a lot about our present condition, doesn't it?

I liked Zmirak's book about Wilhelm Ropke a lot. Ropke -- who never failed to emphasize the cultural matrix the economy is part of and depends on -- is my favorite economist. Here's a terrific short intro to Ropke by Zmirak.



posted by Michael at March 1, 2009


Here's some talking points I used about defense spending and military adventurism in general. Reprinting here:

1. The US spends more on national defense than all the other countries combined. And yet, we are more afraid of foreign threats than anyone around. Albania spends practically nothing on military defense, yet they don’t have this level of paranoia. Can you explain why?
2. Does a nation like North Korea have the right to launch a preemptive strike against the White House if it perceives its national interests at stake?
3. Canada spends a fraction of its government budget on military expenditures, and yet they are well-regarded by many countries (including by many nations opposed to our own foreign policy). Can you explain why?
4. Should the US have the right to go into sovereign nations and arrest foreigners if it wants? Do you think North Korea or China should have this same right?
5. More than 3000 US soldiers have died so far in Iraq. If it were possible for you individually to prevent these deaths by paying a tax, how much would you be willing to pay?
6. If the US wrongfully imprisons or kills an innocent civilian in a foreign military action, should it be required to pay the family some compensation? How much should they pay?
7. Do you think Jesus would have personally approved of the bombing of Iraq?
8. When Americans feel more afraid, which political party stands to benefit more? Why?
9. We frequently chastise terrorists for killing innocent civilians, yet 9/10 of the casualties from recent American conflicts overseas have been innocent civilians. Doesn’t that give foreigners the right to equate our actions with that of the terrorists? Why or why not?
10. Is defense spending a good investment of taxpayer money? How does it improve your individual life?

Posted by: Robert Nagle on March 1, 2009 9:11 AM

Robert Nagle,

While I generally agree with your questions (if you can agree with questions, that is), if you think question 9 doesn't have an obvious answer, then you have no idea what makes terrorism terrorism.

There's a useful essay up on City Journal by Andre Glucksmann that talks about this. Hint: intention is relevant.

Posted by: PatrickH on March 2, 2009 10:49 AM

1. The US is not "afraid" of foreign threats and is not paranoid. The US underwrites the world order, Albania does not, thus there is no reason they should spend the same on defense.

2. Yes.

3. The US is not Albania, and the US is not Canada either, so it's hard to see why the US should have the same defense expenditure as Canada or Albania. Canada can afford to have low defense expenditures because they are a free rider on the US (the US cannot defend itself without also defending Canada). Why should we care whether we are "well regarded"? We should do what we have to do to ensure our security, and international opinion be damned.

4. Yes. Right doesn't enter into it, only might. The day may yet come when China can arrest people on US soil.

5. The question is inane and senseless and deserves no answer.

6. Zero.

7. See #5.

8. Both parties are in the business of scaring people for political gain.

9. The difference is that terrorists deliberately target civilians and intentionally maximize the deaths of innocents, while the US does not intentionally target them and bends over backwards to avoid civilian deaths. Foreigners who equate the US with terrorists are stupid and should be ignored.

10. Yes it is a good investment. It improves your individual life to the extent that you are not blown up when you're sitting in your office minding your own business one morning.

Posted by: Lugo on March 2, 2009 11:24 AM

What I want to know is what different does defense spending or any other spending make anymore? The new paradigm is apparently that any government spending is "stimulus," so why not defense spending? We don't have any of this money for any of the trillions we're already spending, so spend away, I guess. None of it makes any damn sense to me anymore.

Posted by: kgaston on March 2, 2009 7:38 PM

Lugo's answers to Robert Nagel prompt more questions:
• Why does the US choose to underwrite "world order"?
• Does this serve the interests of all US citizens, or primarily the interests of a global elite?
• If the US lowered its military spending would Canada, Japan, and even the likes of Albania find it prudent to increase their defense budgets?
• If we dispense with questions of "right" and only respect "might" don't we embrace, or at least tacitly accept and condone, the rule of tyrants?
• While there are distinctions to be made between terrorists targeting civilians and unavoidable "collateral damage" during operations aimed at military targets, if the US relies on overwhelming force, and high tech weaponry such as those missile launching drones that have resulted in much "collateral damage" (i.e. loss of innocent civilian lives), and if we were to furthermore deny compensation to survivors and families, doesn't that provide exactly the sort of propaganda victory to our enemies that we claim we want to avoid?
• If monies currently expended on maintaining military bases around the globe were instead spent on improving healthcare, education, and infrastructure at home would the gains to our everyday lives be likely to be outweighed by an increased danger from terrorist attacks on our soil?

Posted by: Chris White on March 3, 2009 12:47 PM

1. It benefits us.
2. All of them.
3. A lot of countries would increase defense spending significantly. A lot of countries would also decide to obtain nuclear capabilities, or to increase the nuclear capabilities they already have.
4. We have always accepted and condoned the rule of tyrants. As a practical matter, it is rarely both possible and desirable for us to get rid of tyrants.
5. It is not correct to say that missile-firing drones have caused "much collateral damage". Compared to all previous wars, the amount of collateral damage we have caused in Iraq and Afghanistan has been negligible. The enemy is going to scream and shout and issue anti-American propaganda no matter what we do, so basing our actions on "trying to avoid enemy propaganda victories" is futile and a sure road to defeat. After we won World War II, did anybody care about the numerous German and Japanese propaganda victories? No. Win the war and enemy propaganda becomes an irrelevant footnote to history.
6. The question is essentially meaningless, since what you want me to quantify cannot be quantified. Nobody knows exactly what the chances are of a terrorist attack, or how destructive it would be. How could you relate this unknowable number to the equally nebulous "goodness" that results from spending on education? Such a calculation could never arrive at a meaningful number.

I will say, however, that US spending on healthcare, education, and infrastructure already vastly exceeds US military spending. The idea that there is a gigantic pot of "excess" and "unnecessary" defense spending that we could divert to the domestic economy is simply absurd. In fact, it is eaxctly domestic spending on healthcare, education, and infrastructure that is breaking us economically, not military spending.

Posted by: Lugo on March 3, 2009 7:52 PM

Hint: intention is relevant.

Not as relevant as some would make it. We know damn well that our policies will kill civilians, and we do them anyway. But afterwards we say that we don't *intend* to kill those civilians, they were collateral damage. A statement about your subjective intentions doesn't absolve you from moral culpability.

One can add to this that enemy organizations that focus on killing U.S. or Israeli military personnel -- e.g. Hezbollah, the Iraqi insurgents -- are routinely called terrorists in the U.S. media.

Posted by: MQ on March 3, 2009 9:03 PM

Intention is more than the willingness to inflict civilian casualties. It is to deliberately seek to inflict them, and maximally too. Civilian deaths aren't collateral damage to a terrorist--collateral damage is after all unintended damage--they are the heart and soul of the practice of terrorism.

I'm not sure how you can claim that the "Iraqi insurgents" focused on killing US troops. The "insurgents" killed a lot more than 4,000 or so Iraqis. Unless they missed a lot of US troops and "unintentionally" blew up Shiite pilgrims or inflicted "collateral damage" by accidentally power-drilling holes into the necks and skulls of hundreds of Sunni Baghdadis while meaning the whole time to do it to the denizens of the Green Zone.

Of course, power drills can be dangerous in the wrong hands. Ooops! Missed again!

Posted by: PatrickH on March 3, 2009 10:01 PM

We know damn well that our policies will kill civilians, and we do them anyway.

The alternative is never to go to war at all. War always kills civilians, it is unavoidable, all you can do is take steps to minimize it as much as possible (which we do). I certainly don't agree that it is immoral to go to war at all, and therefore I don't agree that we are somehow "immoral" because we kill civilians when we do.

One can add to this that enemy organizations that focus on killing U.S. or Israeli military personnel -- e.g. Hezbollah, the Iraqi insurgents -- are routinely called terrorists in the U.S. media.

Attacking military personnel is not the only thing those organizations do. They certainly have deliberately attacked civilians, among other things, and the word "terrorist" is fully justified.

Posted by: Lugo on March 5, 2009 10:55 AM

Other than simply asserting that something is so, what backs up the assertion?

Among Lugo's responses are:

2. We all benefit from the US underwriting "world order", not merely the elite.

In what ways do we all benefit? Are the benefits primarily measured by an elevated lifestyle based on consuming vastly more resources than others, supported by exploiting the resources of others, protected by our troops maintaining the "world order"? If this is done in partnership between the elites in the resource rich countries and the elites here, doesn't that tend to breed enemies for all citizens of the West, even if we do not consider ourselves elites? Are those benefits sustainable? Do those benefits outweigh the risks and the missed benefits associated with lowered defense spending?

4. We have accepted and even condoned tyrants.

Is this desirable, or merely practical realism? If we dismiss the very issue of "rights" and legalities are we not accepting a willingness to be subject to tyranny ourselves?

5. Win the war and enemy propaganda becomes an irrelevant footnote to history.

In what ways are declared wars between opposing sovereign, developed, nations, fought under internationally accepted codes of conduct by trained uniformed military forces different or similar to asymmetric conflicts waged by fluid networks of ad hoc groups based on tribal affiliations, religious zealotry, radical political philosophies, greed, and forced conscriptions?

Few of us, sitting peacefully at our computers in the developed world, dispute that our forces exercise rigorous restraint and seek to minimize civilian casualties. Just as we might all agree that various forces we deem terrorists deliberately target civilians. Still, doesn't that prompt one to ask why? Why would one group of Iraqis target fellow Iraqis? How does that help their propaganda campaign? Without understanding don't we run the risk of winning battles while losing the war?

If we win in a military sense, while losing the respect and willingness of the citizens to accept and deal with us, is that victory or defeat?

During the Cold War the Arms Race was, in large part, considered a strategic approach to defeating the Soviets. It rested on the idea that the West could sustain the drain military spending creates on the domestic economy longer than they could. By forcing them to spend so heavily on their military, at the ultimate expense of the civilian population, we assumed they would over time erode the willingness of the people living under the Soviet umbrella to support their leadership, leading to either internal strife and collapse or the leadership capitulating. More than a few have argued that this was a key component in the collapse of the U.S.S.R.

So, why would we want to do the same thing to ourselves?

Posted by: Chris White on March 5, 2009 2:32 PM

The only keeping those lenders that we are in hock to from mailing us pieces of our loved ones is the stack of guns. Now is not the time to disarm, Zmirak is a fool.

This idea that we will be happy when china is number one is similar to the enviros who wax rhapsodic about the death of the internal combustion engine until they're hit with the very real pain of a gas price hike.

As for whether a nation has the "right" to do something, this bespeaks of a legalistic and naive view of international relations. No might, no rights.

Posted by: QsseD on March 7, 2009 5:39 AM

The notion that the only thing that matters is military might, that we can never spend too much on the military, and that only military superiority will keep us both free and solvent is so patently absurd as to defy logic and reason. When our military expenditures exceed the combined expenditures of the all of the other nations on the planet something is very, very wrong.

No one here, certainly not me, is suggesting we eliminate military spending. Hell, we can continue to spend more than any other nation on the planet and STILL greatly reduce the amount being poured into the military industrial complex.

We need butter to go with those guns.

Posted by: Chris White on March 7, 2009 11:59 AM

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