The Corner

Guns v Butter

Glenn Reynolds on why butter’s a bigger threat than guns. An excerpt:

Now we’ve had over five years of war in Iraq, finally winding toward a successful conclusion, and in the process have spent a lot of money and made some changes in the law. But the changes in the law are promised to be undone by President-elect Obama, and the amount spent in five years on Iraq has already been dwarfed by the $5 trillion dollar tab run up during this fall’s bailout-mania.

What’s more, there’s lots of pressure to pull our troops out of Iraq; Barack Obama was elected president largely on the strength of that sentiment, after all. While there may be some number of troops in Iraq for years to come, the Iraq War is pretty much over. By contrast, it’s a safe bet that whatever new social and regulatory programs are put in place as a result of the current economic situation, they will persist for decades. Ronald Reagan himself couldn’t get rid of the Department of Education, notwithstanding his campaign promise to do so.

Furthermore, war is politically risky in a way that new programs are not. Though people still speak of a decision to go to war as something done to enhance the political position of incumbent presidents, history doesn’t support that. Truman fought in Korea and lost the next election. LBJ had to give up the White House over Vietnam. George H.W. Bush won in Iraq and enjoyed 90% approval ratings but lost the next election anyway. And George W. Bush’s political position certainly doesn’t seem to have benefited from the invasion of Iraq; even in 2004, it was an electoral drag, and things only got worse.

By contrast, presidents who push big social programs generally get a political boost and–because the costs and disasters of social programs are less obvious than the costs of war–there’s seldom any real downside.

So the notion that war is the friend of big government seems questionable to me, based on things that have happened in the past century at least. Rather, it seems that economic crisis, and economic intervention, is the thing to worry about if you want to keep government under control. Which bodes poorly for current times, when the war’s won but the bailouts are coming fast and furious. Eternal vigilance–especially now.

I think Reynolds is largely right. I would add the classic libertarian/Old Right paradigm of equating a larger national security apparatus with loss of freedom at home isn’t as easily sustained as many think (though obviously there’s some truth to it). Wars have generally expanded the liberties of women, blacks, gays etc., in both formal and informal ways. The Supreme Court has become much friendlier to free speech and the rights of the accused even as the military-industrial complex has expanded. The problem with guns is that we pay for them with butter (I should say “a problem” because there are other problems with a large military industrial complex other than merely its effect on domestic welfare state expansion). But this is a very thorny argument and I’ve got a very busy morning. So I’ll just reserve the right to revise and extend my remarks.

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