Bernie Sanders, the Defense Budget, and the Lessons of Venice

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign town hall meeting in Portsmouth, N.H., November 24, 2019. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
The Venetians knew their civilization could flourish only with a strong military to protect it.

Venice has been struggling, in the (literal) wake of November’s nearly unprecedented tidal flooding that swamped even some of its most hallowed religious and architectural sites. So for those of us who care about the world’s great cities and the civilizations they’ve spawned (in the case of Venice, think of the Renaissance), it seemed like a good time to visit Venezia — before perhaps it sinks into the Adriatic. (The streets were dry, in point of fact.)

One is prepared for, although still overwhelmed by, the aesthetic beauty of its built environment. But who knew (at least I didn’t) that its great art, music, and architecture had been made possible by what was, in the 12th through 14th centuries, a dominant military on which the city at the heart of a maritime trading empire — reaching from Asia Minor to Northern Europe — spent heavily?

It was the combination of military strength (a great navy and innovative gunboats, particularly) that made possible the legacies we view today as the heart of great Western humanist traditions: art (Titian and Tintoretto, among so many); architecture (Palladio, whose style Thomas Jefferson revived and channeled into American landmarks); democracy (Venice was a republic governed by an elected 45-member “great council”); and tolerance (it incorporated ethnic and religious minorities into its borders and economy).

It’s a combination — military strength and a thriving civilization — that is important to keep in mind, particularly as Democratic candidates outdo themselves to cast the military and a healthy domestic quality of life as antagonists.

Bernie Sanders, as the hard Left has always done in the post-WWII era, has made clearer than any other candidate that he views the federal budget as a zero-sum game — and that more spending on the military inevitably comes at the expense of domestic needs. That theme was clear in a Vox interview in which he referred to “major crisis after major crisis in affordable housing, infrastructure. I think we have to get our priorities right, and our priorities should include not spending more than the 10 next nations on earth [on defense]. As president, I would certainly look at a very different military budget.” As president, he would, he pledged, not continue “supplying billions of dollars of unnecessary money to the military-industrial complex.”

But the idea of a tradeoff between domestic prosperity and military spending — a trope of the Socialist Left since its Cold War view that the Soviets should actually not be viewed as an enemy — ignores lessons of history, as per Venice.

For the leading city of Europe at its zenith, one that would give us republican government and Vivaldi, the military was understood not to detract from domestic prosperity, but to make it possible. The city invested heavily in a shipbuilding arsenal (incredibly, it’s still an Italian naval base today) and may have spent as much as 10 percent of its annual public budget on its military. (The U.S. currently spends 15 percent on defense and international security, with a far larger territory to defend than that of a small city-state.) The Venetians understood that unless the sea lanes of the Mediterranean were safe for commercial vessels, the tradeable goods of the East (Marco Polo was a Venetian) could not be brought west and north — at great profit, which financed the churches and palazzos over which Western aesthetes (me included) now drool. Think here how the U.S. Navy keeps open the Strait of Hormuz — based on the insight, beyond that of Venice, that free commerce for and among all nations leads to greater wealth generally.

For those on the left — including but hardly limited to the surging Sanders — who view the military as the arm of conquest and control and the enemy of tolerance, Venice also offers a key lesson.

The republic’s elected leaders understood that the safety its military provided also permitted it to offer a haven to minorities. Although its establishment of the world’s first Jewish ghetto (the word itself comes from Venetian dialect) would seem to indicate the opposite, in reality Venice was a refuge for Jews from the Inquisition and a magnet for others from the Levant — whose language and financial skills were appreciated and permitted to flourish through participation in the economy. Jews could practice their religion openly — and built glorious synagogues (some still active today), with the help of some of the same craftsmen who built the city’s churches. (Because Jews were not permitted to join craft guilds!)

So, memo to Sanders, Warren, and the rest: An effective, indeed far-reaching U.S. defense does not subtract from the wealth you’re so eager to redistribute: It’s essential to its existence. And a final note: The prime mover behind the preservation of Venice today is Save Venice — an American organization. The wealth of a new, benign power saving a predecessor.

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