More Guns and Butter - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
More Guns and Butter

Daniel Larison takes issue with my post from the other day in which I pointed out that defense spending is below the 45-year average, cited the explosive growth of mandatory spending as the primary reason, and advocated a different type of fusionism.

Here is the portion of my post to which Larison had the biggest objection:

For all the recent talk about fusionism, the one blend of fusionism that’s the most practical has been largely ignored: neoconservative hawks uniting with advocates of limited government to take on entitlement spending so that America has more money to spend on national defense, which is the primary function of government.

To be fair to Larison, I’ll acknowledge that the phrase “most practical” was probably too strong on my part. Oftentimes blog posts are written in haste, and don’t allow for the type of reflection and precision of language that columns do. With that said, I do think there is something to be said for the brand of fusionism I propose. As I wrote in my initial post, I don’t think it would be possible now, given the animosity that has developed between the two groups over the past several years. But Larison argues, generally speaking, that such an alliance would not be electorally viable and that it is fundamentally incoherent. Here we still disagree.

While actually cutting the size of government (and specifically reforming entitlements) will always politically difficult, I would argue that the post-9/11 environment represented a unique time to take such action. It was a dramatic moment that hammered home the idea that providing a strong national defense is the primary function of government. Just as World War II spending put the breaks on the New Deal, a post-9/11 military buildup could have provided the impetus to seriously address our long-term entitlement mess. No doubt, liberals would have attacked this argument on the grounds that Republicans are depriving the elderly of medical care to buy bombs, but this was at least the best environment possible to argue that the government cannot do everything, so given scarce resources, we have to make a choice between national security and entitlement spending. At the very minimum, President Bush could have abandoned the idea of his Medicare prescription drug plan by making the argument that 9/11 changed everything, and now America had to marshal its resources into fighting the war on terror.

While big government conservatives argue that President Bush would have lost to John Kerry were it not for the prescription drug plan, there is scant evidence to back up such a claim. As I’ve written in the past, comparing exit polls from 2000 and 2004, we see that Bush actually lost ground among voters who identified health care as their most important issue. “In 2000, Gore had a 64-33 advantage among these voters; in 2004, despite the passage of the Medicare prescription drug law (or perhaps even because of it), Kerry was favored by a margin of 77-23.”

While the type of fusionism I suggest, like all forms of fusionism, is imperfect, it has a lot to offer both sides. For neoconservatives, such a fusionism would provide the wiggle room in the budget to increase the size of the military to a size they believe is more appropriate. That’s just in the short term. Viewing things in the long term, there is simply no way we will even be able to maintain current levels of military spending (and strategically balance the emerging China) given the projected growth of entitlements over the next several decades. Simply put, if neoconservatives truly care about our national security, they need to get serious about reforming entitlements.

If neoconservatives did get serious about wanting to reform entitlements, it would have huge advantages to limited government types. One of the difficulties of arguing for entitlement reform is that opponents of reform can show all the here and now impacts of cutting benefits, but all reformers can counter with are boring actuarial charts and graphs. Linking entitlement reform to national defense would provide a strong argument for why we need to act immediately.

Critics may counter that if money saved by reforming entitlements would be used to increase defense spending anyway, we aren’t really shrinking the size of government. My response to that would be that defense spending is much more preferable because it is discretionary, and can be adjusted based on the nature of threats we face (note the “peace dividend” of the 1990s). By definition, there is not much room to control annual mandatory outlays.

Larison notes “a fundamental incoherence of a limited government philosophy at home and an activist, interventionist foreign policy overseas.” While this is a fair point, it should also be noted that most advocates of limited government (other than Rothbardian and anarchist types) still acknowledge that defense is a legitimate function of the state. I’d like to discuss this issue further, but given the length of the post already, for now I’ll avoid getting into what actually constitutes a legitimate defense of our national interests.

As I noted, a lot of animosity has developed between these two groups in the years since 9/11, and certainly much of that has to do with the Iraq War. However, I believe that such animosity was amplified by the fact that on top of being for military intervention, neocons acquiesced to the Bush administration’s spending spree. If neocons were committed to fighting spending, I don’t think the gulf between the groups would have become as wide as it has today.

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