Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Libertarians and National Defense

WARNING:  This blog post will explore matters of a political nature.  If you are offended by political speech (or by political speech with which you disagree), please skip this post.

Dr. Chris Preble of the Cato Institute was good enough to publicize this latest bit of his on Twitter this morning, which is how it came to my attention.  Preble--as many of you know--is a leading advocate of what I tend to view as a neo-isolationist strain of Offshore Balancing.  Bright and seemingly logical, Preble lays out his arguments in a straightforward manner.  Without examination of the underlying assumptions, his views appear responsible, even sometimes preferable.  When exposed to deeper inquiry however, they shoal upon the rocks of isolationism and an inability to explain why a less secure world is preferable to a more secure world.

Libertarianism strikes me (and others) as a fine bit of political ideology when alloyed with other ideologies.  Their preference for dramatically limited government helps pull Conservatives to the right, and the preference for removal of government from the private sphere appeals to many Liberals seeking to advance social policies.  Unalloyed however, Libertarianism is a quaint, interesting, and ultimately unsuitable approach to governing a modern Republic, especially a world power.

In his Foreign Policy post this morning, Preble aims his guns at both political parties and their Presidential candidates, though he is particularly disappointed in Governor Romney's approach (reminder:  I am an active and enthusiastic supporter of Romney for President), primarily because it moves the country and the defense budget in directions anathema to Preble's world view.  As is my custom, I will address individual statements and ideas from his post.

"The Republican Party has become a hallmark of inconsistency. The GOP claims to be committed to small government and fiscal discipline, yet advocates huge increases in military spending."

Straw-man:  Preble conveniently forgets the sizable portion of the GOP  that continues to believe in an active role for the U.S. in world affairs, and that such a role leaves the U.S. ultimately in a safer position.  He seems to believe that the GOP can be pigeon-holed into a small government, fiscally disciplined, small/defend the homeland military--but that isn't the GOP--that is Preble. 

"The key to turning around the American economy, they say, is to free up resources in the private sector, cut taxes, and shrink the size of government -- excepting, of course, the Pentagon. "

A strong national defense and a leading role in the world are not inconsistent with freeing up resources in the private sector, cutting taxes and shrinking the size of government.  Preble conveniently ignores the salutary impact of the former three actions on promoting growth in an economy, all of which generally are supported by Libertarians. Reverse America's economic decline, grow the economy, limit federal expenditures to 20% of GDP, rein in entitlements and the money will be there for a strong national defense.

"The party that opposes nearly all other forms of federal spending happily embraces the military variety."

Really?  I've been a Republican for nearly three decades, and I've never thought or been in a room where the prevailing opinion was that "all other forms of federal spending" should be opposed.  Indeed, such a view is more likely to be heard at Cato HQ than in a meeting of Republicans.   Yet another Straw-man.

"Republican candidate Mitt Romney accuses Obama of fostering a "culture of dependency" in the United States, yet ignores that U.S. security guarantees have created an entire class of affluent countries around the world that now rely upon U.S. tax dollars to pay for their defense."

Again--straw-man.   Mitt Romney and the Republican Party are not advocating eliminating the programs upon which the culture of dependency has thrived, but reforming them in a way that the truly deserving can be served without continuing and exacerbating the nation's slide into insolvency. Preble's approach internationally is to abrogate treaties, bring home the troops, and have the Navy (a greatly reduced Navy) postured off of San Diego and Norfolk awaiting continental invasion.  A domestic policy version of Preble's approach to international power would not be one of reform, but of destruction.

Additionally, Preble ignores the great value the U.S. had gained in terms of security as a result of its role as the leader of the free world, one that has indeed incentivized friends and allies to spend less on defense, but one that has also underwritten a period of stability and peace that is unparalleled in modern human history.  The resources spent on a web of alliances in Europe and Asia have arguably contributed to peace and stability  in areas in which the study of the past would suggest the absence of such qualities.

"His  (Obama's)  reasoning is straightforward: He wants Republicans to agree to tax increases to offset the extra Pentagon spending. It is a clever ploy that highlights the inconsistency and confusion within GOP ranks. Some Republicans are open to tax increases to pay for an even-larger military, but Romney is not. It isn't clear, however, how he would pay for his promised increases, which exceed the president's plans by at least $1.7 trillion over the next decade."

Inconsistency and confusion?  Because some in the Party are open to tax increases?   This strikes me as cherry-picking to the nth degree.  Of course, some in the Party are open to tax increases.  Some in the Democratic Party are dead set against them.  The prevailing views within the Party are what is important, and on this front, Republicans are consistent--a lack of revenue is not our problem. Too much spending and too little growth are the problems.  As to Preble's charge that it isn't clear how Romney would pay for his promised increases, one wonders how clear Preble needs things to be to be satisfied.  Romney's already aiming at federal spending at 20% of GDP which should EXCITE a Libertarian.  Clearly this means cuts in domestic programs.  Lots of them.  AND it means executing policies designed to GROW the economy.  Because domestic programs will be cut does not mean EVERY domestic program will be cut, and the Constitutionally mandated requirements for national defense will get a more privileged position toward the front of the funding line.  If Preble's complaint is that he wants meticulous detail, then he is tilting at windmills.  President Obama ran a brilliant campaign in 2008 that was short on specifics but long on "I'm not George Bush".  Getting elected President in this country remains a race to alienate the fewest while motivating the largest.

"Republicans could reasonably claim that military spending should get a pass because the Constitution clearly stipulates a federal role in defending the country. But nowhere is it written that Americans must provide security for others; that is the job of their governments, not America's."

Republicans can and do point to the Constitutionally mandated federal role in national defense.  The suggestion that doing so should consist solely of minding our own knitting is simplistic and irresponsible in a world of ballistic missiles, terrorism, and rising powers.  Preble would have us believe that we should pull back from the world and allow new security balances to emerge, ones in which we are less crucial to their maintenance.  He does not suggest what our actions should be should a balance emerge inimical to our national security interests, but he does consistently describe force structures and postures that would be powerless to reverse such an outcome.   Nor does he address what is to my mind, the crucial question neo-isolationists must answer, and that is "what is your evidence that a world resulting from from your approach to American power would be MORE stable and MORE favorable to American interests than the world we've enjoyed, underwritten by our military power, for the past seven decades?"

"Indeed, the Republicans' reflexive commitment to more military spending is particularly curious given their appreciation for how incentives work in the domestic sphere. Republicans know quite well that people are not inclined to pay for things that others will provide for them. GOP leaders speak often of moral hazards -- when individuals or businesses behave irresponsibly because others are there to bail them out. The same problem exists in international politics, but is strangely ignored in the GOP's plan to continue policing the world."

Republicans are also sophisticated enough to recognize the differences in the public and the private spheres, and the differences between the incentives of business and the incentives of international relations.  Preble ignores the completely rational--and ultimately counter to U.S. interests--potential decision of friends and allies to cast their lot with a regional power in response to the vacuum created by a U.S. pullout.  It is just as easy to turn to (insert the rising power) to provide regional stability while protecting bloated welfare states as it is to turn to us.  Why Preble thinks such a state of events is preferred is beyond my ken. 

Preble is right in asserting that certain nations should be called to account for anemic contributions to their own defense; this is the stuff of persistent and nuanced diplomacy, diplomacy that recognizes the domestic challenges faced by the leaders of these countries.  It is not properly pursued by unilateral withdrawls and public shaming.

 It's not easy being a Libertarian.  Your ideas are often respected but rarely implemented.  Allies are sought wherever available, creating fleeting alliances with politicians as different as Tom Coburn and Barney Frank.   Polls are seized upon that demonstrate the willingness of the American people to cut defense spending, but rarely is there any discussion with those polled of what the possible consequences could be and the status of the United States that would result. 

Bryan McGrath

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