As the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (otherwise known as the deficit “super committee”) gets down to business, the 12-member panel should give serious consideration to what America’s Founding Fathers would have done to control federal spending. If the committee members did that, they would have little choice but to recommend that the Obama administration immediately begin a steady withdrawal of all US troops from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and reduce America’s military presence overseas.
It’s not that committee members will be unable to find other candidates for the $1.5 trillion in required cuts over the next decade, which must be presented to Congress by Nov. 23. There are lots of choices. Surely, entitlements, farm subsidies, corporate bailouts and giveaways, and pork of all kinds should be top candidates, as the Independent Institute’s online “Government Cost Calculator” demonstrates.
But America’s Founders also would be concerned about the reach and cost of our global military empire. It’s not part of the country they envisioned.
As my colleague Charles V. Pena has pointed out, even before the United States went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, nearly a quarter of all US active duty forces – some 250,000 of the more than 1 million men and women in the active duty military – were deployed overseas.
In addition to Afghanistan and Iraq, US military installations are now located in dozens of countries, including Australia, Bulgaria, Germany, Greece, Greenland, Italy, Japan, Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, Netherlands, the Philippines, Portugal, Qatar, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Turkey, and the British territory of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. This presence doesn’t come cheap.
According to the Congressional Research Service, the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan (which spills over into Pakistan), and Libya are costing US taxpayers some $169 billion annually, or about 4.4 percent of total federal spending. At this rate, over a 10-year-period, the price tag would equal nearly $1.7 trillion.
Ending these interventions alone would almost certainly reduce future US spending by more than the amount the deficit super panel is charged with identifying. As a bonus, it would save countless lives and injuries, and restore America’s prestige as a beacon of liberty and justice.
The advantages of such a move go far deeper. As Robert Higgs observed in his pioneering book, “Crisis and Leviathan,” war crises always lead to the expansion of government, even in areas unrelated to war. After the crisis ends, he shows, government never shrinks back to its former size. The new bigger government becomes the new “baseline.”
Consider the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which was created through the consolidation of 22 existing agencies by the Bush administration after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Today, DHS includes not only the 22 original agencies, but an additional large layer of bureaucracy. Total employment: more than 230,000.
Legal commentator Jeffrey Rosen accurately described DHS as “an institutional money pit that has more to do with symbols than substance.” What is substance is the DHS budget: $43.2 billion in fiscal year 2012. Many debate whether America requires a government agency to undertake the significant security initiatives that currently fall under the DHS’s jurisdiction. What is undeniably clear, however, is the utter inefficiency of the current program.
The debt-inducing reach of American foreign military campaigns should come as no surprise to students of America’s Founders, who were especially mindful of the relationship between wars, debts, and government growth. In a letter to Thomas Jefferson, James Madison wrote, “Of all the enemies of public liberty, war is perhaps the most to be dreaded... From these proceed debts and taxes. And armies, debts and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the dominion of the few… No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”
Jefferson conveyed his own thoughts on the matter to his close friend William Short in 1801: “Peace is our most important interest, and a recovery from debt."
If we heed the words of Madison and Jefferson, it becomes clear why it’s a fool’s errand to advocate reductions in entitlement spending and the end of subsidies alone, as long as wars foment the expansion of big government.
To solve the enormous fiscal crisis facing the United States, America needs to bring its troops home. The vibrant blessings of American liberty can be restored only when the US ends its invasive wars and restores its constitutional republic of limited government.