A myth has arisen that true conservatives are pro-war, and only “weak-kneed liberals” are anti-war.
The truth is very different, however.
For example, Ron Paul has very strong conservative credentials. Paul won the Presidential straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference last year. And yet Paul has repeatedly spoken out against the war in Iraq and all other unnecessary wars. See this and this.
Paul points out that the Founding Fathers disliked foreign intervention, and those who advocate military adventurism are imperialists … not conservative Americans.
As Wikipedia notes:
Thomas Paine is generally credited with instilling the first non-interventionist ideas into the American body politic; his work Common Sense contains many arguments in favor of avoiding alliances. These ideas introduced by Paine took such a firm foothold that the Second Continental Congress struggled against forming an alliance with France and only agreed to do so when it was apparent that the American Revolutionary War could be won in no other manner.
George Washington’s farewell address is often cited as laying the foundation for a tradition of American non-interventionism:
The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. Europe has a set of primary interests, which to us have none, or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves, by artificial ties, in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.
John Adams followed George Washington’s ideas about non-interventionism by avoiding a very realistic possibility of war with France.
President Thomas Jefferson extended Washington’s ideas in his March 4, 1801 inaugural address: “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.” …
In 1823, President James Monroe articulated what would come to be known as the Monroe Doctrine, which some have interpreted as non-interventionist in intent: “In the wars of the European powers, in matters relating to themselves, we have never taken part, nor does it comport with our policy, so to do. It is only when our rights are invaded, or seriously menaced that we resent injuries, or make preparations for our defense.”
Another reason that Paul opposes unnecessary wars is that – as I have repeatedly demonstrated – they are bad for the economy.
For example, Paul said in a 2008 speech on the House floor:
In the last several weeks, if not for months we have heard a lot of talk about the potential of Israel and/or the United States bombing Iran. Energy prices are being bid up because of this fear. It has been predicted that if bombs start dropping, that we will see energy prices double or triple.
Indeed, the fact that war is bad for the economy is a very strong rationale for conservatives to oppose unnecessary wars.
As noted conservative Thomas E. Woods Jr. – a senior fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute and New York Times bestselling author – writes in the March 2011 issue of the American Conservative:
To get a sense of the impact the U.S. military has on the American economy, we must remember the most important lesson in all of economics: to consider not merely the immediate effects of a proposed government intervention on certain groups, but also its long-term effects on society as a whole. That’s what economist Frédéric Bastiat (1801–50) insisted on in his famous essay, “What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen.” It’s not enough to point to a farm program and say that it grants short-run assistance to the farmers. We can see its effects on farmers. But what does it do to everyone else in the long run?
Seymour Melman (1917–2004), a professor of industrial engineering and operations research at Columbia University, focused much of his energy on the economics of the military-oriented state. Melman’s work amounted to an extended analysis of the true costs not only of war but also of the military establishment itself. As he observed,
Industrial productivity, the foundation of every nation’s economic growth, is eroded by the relentlessly predatory effects of the military economy. …Traditional economic competence of every sort is being eroded by the state capitalist directorate that elevates inefficiency into a national purpose, that disables the market system, that destroys the value of the currency, and that diminishes the decision power of all institutions other than its own.
Yet these politicians and intellectuals [who warned against a cut in military spending as being bad for the economy] were focusing on the direct effects of discontinuing a particular spending stream without considering the indirect effects—all the business ventures, jobs, and wealth that those funds would create when steered away from military use and toward the service of the public as expressed in their voluntary spending patterns. The full cost of the military establishment, as with all other forms of government spending, includes all the consumer goods, services, and technological discoveries that never came into existence because the resources to provide them had been diverted by government.
Measurements of “economic growth” can be misleading if they do not differentiate between productive growth and parasitic growth. Productive growth improves people’s standard of living and/or contributes to future production. Parasitic growth merely depletes manpower and existing stocks of goods without accomplishing either of these ends.
Military spending constitutes the classic example of parasitic growth. Melman believed that military spending, up to a point, could be not only legitimate but also economically valuable. But astronomical military budgets, surpassing the combined military spending of the rest of the world, and exceeding many times over the amount of destructive power needed to annihilate every enemy city, were clearly parasitic. Melman used the term “overkill” to describe that portion of the military budget that constituted this kind of excess.
The scale of the resources siphoned off from the civilian sector becomes more vivid in light of specific examples of military programs, equipment, and personnel. To train a single combat pilot, for instance, costs between $5 million and $7 million. Over a period of two years, the average U.S. motorist uses about as much fuel as does a single F-16 training jet in less than an hour. The Abrams tank uses up 3.8 gallons of fuel in traveling one mile. Between 2 and 11 percent of the world’s use of 14 important minerals, from copper to aluminum to zinc, is consumed by the military, as is about 6 percent of the world’s consumption of petroleum. The Pentagon’s energy use in a single year could power all U.S. mass transit systems for nearly 14 years.
Still other statistics illuminate the scope of the resources consumed by the military. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, during the period from 1947 through 1987 it used (in 1982 dollars) $7.62 trillion in capital resources. In 1985, the Department of Commerce estimated the value of the nation’s plants, equipment, and infrastructure (capital stock) at just over $7.29 trillion. In other words, the amount spent over that period could have doubled the American capital stock or modernized and replaced its existing stock.
Then there are the damaging effects on the private sector. Since World War II, between one-third and two-thirds of all technical researchers in the United States have been working for the military at any given time. The result, Melman points out, has been “a short supply of comparable talent to serve civilian industry and civilian activities of every sort.”
Meanwhile, firms servicing Pentagon needs have grown almost indifferent to cost. They operate outside the market framework and the price system: the prices of the goods they produce are not determined by the voluntary buying and selling by property owners that comprise the market, but through a negotiation process with the Pentagon in isolation from market exchange.
Beginning in the 1960s, the Department of Defense required the military-oriented firms with which it did business to engage in “historical costing,” a method by which past prices are employed in order to estimate future costs. Superficially plausible, this approach builds into the procurement process a bias in favor of ever-higher prices since it does not scrutinize these past prices or the firm’s previously incurred costs, or make provision for the possibility that work done in the future might be carried out at a lower cost than related work done in the past.
This is not nit-picking: advancing technology has often made it possible to carry out important tasks at ever-lower costs, yet rising costs are a built-in assumption of the historical-cost method. Moreover, if some piece of military equipment—a helicopter, plane, or tank, for example—winds up costing much more than initial estimates indicated, that inflated price then becomes the baseline for the cost estimates for new projects belonging to the same genus. The Pentagon, in turn, uses the resulting cost hikes to justify higher budget proposals submitted to Congress.
Melman also found administrative overhead ratios in the defense industry to be double those for civilian firms, where such a crushing burden simply could not be absorbed. He concluded:
From the personal accounts of ‘refugees’ from military-industry firms, from former Pentagon staffers, from informants still engaged in military-industrial work, from the Pentagon’s publications, and from data disclosed in Congressional hearings, I have found consistent evidence pointing to the inference that the primary, internal, economic dynamics of military industry are cost- and subsidy-maximization.
“In one major enterprise,” Melman reported, “the product-development staffs engaged in contests for designing the most complex, Rube Goldberg-types of devices. Why bother putting brakes on such professional games as long as they can be labeled ‘research,’ charged to ‘cost growth’ and billed to the Pentagon?”
The American machine-tool industry can tell a sorry tale of its own. Once highly competitive and committed to cost-containment and innovation, the machine-tool industry suffered a sustained decline in the decades following World War II. During the wartime period, from 1939 to 1947, machine-tool prices increased by only 39 percent at a time when the average hourly earnings of American industrial workers rose by 95 percent. Since machine tools increase an economy’s productivity, making it possible to produce a greater quantity of output with a smaller input, the industry’s conscientious cost-cutting had a disproportionately positive effect on the American industrial system as a whole.
But between 1971 and 1978, machine-tool prices rose 85 percent while U.S. industrial workers’ average hourly earnings increased only 72 percent. The corresponding figures in Japan were 51 percent and 177 percent, respectively.
These problems can be accounted for in part by the American machine-tool industry’s relationship with the Defense Department. Once the Pentagon became the American machine-tool industry’s largest customer, the industry felt far less pressure to hold prices down than it had in the past.
In the short run, the American machine-tool industry’s woes affected U.S. productivity at large. Firms were now much more likely to maintain their existing stock of machines rather than to purchase additional equipment or upgrade what they already possessed. By 1968, nearly two-thirds of all metalworking machinery in American factories was at least ten years old. The aging stock of production equipment contributed to a decline in manufacturing productivity growth after 1965.
Another factor is at work as well: the more an industry caters to the Pentagon, the less it makes production decisions with the civilian economy in mind. Thus in the late 1950s the Air Force teamed up with the machine-tool industry to produce numerical-control machine-tool technology, a technique for the programmable automation of machine tools that yields fast, efficient, and accurate results. The resulting technology was so costly that private metalworking firms could not even consider using it. The machine-tool firms involved in this research thereby placed themselves in a situation in which their only real customer was the aerospace industry.
Some 20 years later, only 2 percent of all American machine tools belonged to the numerical-control line. It was Western European and Japanese firms, which operated without these incentives, that finally managed to produce numerical-control machine tools at affordable prices for smaller businesses.
Economist Robert Higgs wonders: “Why can’t the Department of Defense today defend the country for a smaller annual amount than it needed to defend the country during the Cold War, when we faced an enemy with large, modern armed forces and thousands of accurate, nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles?”
In fact, a great many military experts have begun to conclude that the enormously expensive and complicated equipment and programs that the Pentagon has been calling for would be of limited help even in fighting the Second Generation Warfare with which the American military seems most comfortable, and a positive detriment to waging the kind of Fourth Generation Warfare of which the war on terror consists. William Lind, a key theorist of Fourth Generation Warfare, says the U.S. Navy in the 21st century is “still structured to fight the Imperial Japanese Navy.”
The Department of Defense is the only federal agency not subject to audit.
It is not uncommon for the Pentagon not to know whether contractors have been paid twice, or not at all. It does not even know how many contractors it has. Meanwhile, so-called fiscal conservatives, who know nothing of this, continue to think the problem is excessively low military budgets. This, no doubt, is just the way the establishment likes it: exploit the people’s patriotism in order to keep the gravy train rolling.
Higgs suggests that the real defense budget is closer to $1 trillion.
Winslow Wheeler reaches a comparable figure. To the $518.3 billion, he adds the military-related activities assigned to the Department of Energy ($17.1 billion), the security component of the State Department budget ($38.4 billion), the Department of Veterans Affairs ($91.3 billion), non-Department of Defense military retirement ($28.3 billion), miscellaneous defense activities spread around various agencies ($5.7 billion), and the share of the interest payments on the national debt attributable to military expenditure ($54.5 billion). When we add the roughly $155 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to Wheeler’s tabulation, we arrive at a grand total of $948.7 billion for 2009.
And we’re worried about trivialities like “earmarks,” which comprise such a small portion of spending that they barely amount to a rounding error in the federal budget?
Meanwhile, $250 billion is spent every year maintaining a global military presence that includes 865 facilities in more than 40 countries, and 190,000 troops stationed in 46 countries and territories. It is not “liberal” to find something wrong with this.
Out with the phony conservatives, the Tea Party movement says. We want the real thing. But the real thing, far from endorsing global military intervention, recoils from it. The conservative cannot endorse a policy that is at once utopian, destructive, impoverishing, counterproductive, propaganda-driven, contrary to republican values, and sure to increase the power of government, especially the executive branch.
As Patrick Henry said, “Those nations who have gone in search of grandeur, power and splendor, have always fallen a sacrifice and been the victims of their own folly. While they acquired those visionary blessings, they lost their freedom.”
Note: While many civilians believe the myth that conservatives are pro-war, the truth is that many of the most highly-decorated military men in history – including conservatives – became opposed to war after seeing what really goes on. See this, this and this.
Indeed, I have spoken with some very high-level former military and intelligence officers. They are true patriots, who dedicated their life to protecting our country. They are also very passionate about not starting unnecessary wars, because they reduce America’s national security and cause many more problems than they could possibly solve.
Those who call themselves “conservative” but advocate military adventurism are really “neoliberals” … and they are not really conservatives at all.
Obviously, I am not advocating complete disarmament. We should be ready to defend ourselves if we are attacked. But I am opposed to attacking other nations unless it is urgently and absolutely needed or engaging in endless war. See this, this and this.