The Corner

Conservatism and the National Defense

Senator Rand Paul is entitled to take any position he wants on whether and how to fund America’s armed forces. He is not entitled to redefine conservatism to make it fit the impulse, which he has embraced, to further weaken the defenses of the United States in an increasingly hostile and dangerous world.

Last night at the Republican debate, Senator Paul and Senator Marco Rubio had an exchange about defense spending. Senator Rubio has announced that as part of his national security platform, he will increase military spending to at least the levels that former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates requested in the ten-year budget plan he recommended in the spring of 2011. That budget increase is not only clearly justified; it is the minimum necessary to rebuild the armed forces – the “hard power” tool which is the foundation of American security.

Senator Paul attacked Rubio’s defense proposals during the debate. The gist of Paul’s critique was not that the armed forces are fully ready to meet the threats facing America; they clearly are not. Nor did Senator Paul deny that the defense sequester has been a disaster for American national security.

Rather Senator Paul claimed that increasing the defense budget wasn’t a “conservative” thing to do.  I have written on this subject before, and I ask readers to indulge me in quoting myself:

Conservatives believe that human beings — while capable of great things if sufficiently steeped in the values of an enlightened society — are by their nature weak and corruptible. That’s the reason conservatives are suspicious of government; government represents the harnessing of state power to the weaknesses of human nature.

For the equal but opposite reason, conservatives also believe that government is necessary as a restraint on the worst tendencies of human beings. Government must therefore exercise a police power, properly checked and balanced to prevent abuse. It must also provide for the national defense by maintaining military forces that are effective but also systematically constrained so that they do not become an agent of oppression.

The idea that government should be limited in its role and constrained in the exercise of power, but vigorous in its proper functions, is at the heart of conservatism, and of the Constitution as well. In Federalist #51, James Madison wrote, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

The Constitution, of which Madison was the primary author, assigns the function of national defense to the central government. In fact, the text of the Constitution makes clear that national defense is the primary, exclusive, and mandatory function of the federal government.

  • Of the 17 enumerated powers granted Congress in Article I, more than a third relate to defense. Congress is granted the full range of authority necessary to organize the defense of the United States as it was then understood.


  • Article II establishes the presidency and sets forth the general executive powers of his office, such as the appointment power. The only substantive functions of government specifically assigned to the president relate to national security and foreign policy, and the first such responsibility granted him is his authority as “Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States.”


  • Under the Constitution, national defense is exclusively the function of the federal government. Article I, Section 10, specifically prohibits the states, except with the consent of Congress, from keeping troops or warships in time of peace, and from engaging in war, the only exception being that a state may act on its own if actually invaded.


  • National defense is the only mandatory function of the federal government. Most of the powers granted to Congress are permissive in nature. But the Constitution requires the federal government to protect the nation. Article IV, Section 4, states that the “United States shall guarantee to every state in this union a republican form of government and shall protect each of them against invasion.” (Emphasis added.) In other words, even if the federal government chose to exercise no other power, it must, under the Constitution, provide for the common defense.

Senator Rubio responded to Senator Paul by reciting the growing threats facing our country and making the point that America is safe only when America is strong.  It was a powerful defense, as evidenced by the audience reaction. But had the debate format allowed Rubio more time, he could have added that conservative congressmen and presidents disserve their principles, and their oaths of office, just as much when they fail to do what the Constitution requires as when they intrude the federal government into areas where it doesn’t belong. 

In short, there is no coherent theory of government, conservative or liberal, which justifies public officials in not taking the steps necessary to defend their country against manifest threats to its homeland and its vital national interests. Even libertarians believe that the one legitimate object of government is to protect the innocent against violent crime or foreign aggression.

Senator Paul is, as was his father before him, the most prominent voice of libertarian conservatism in American life.  His presence in the Congress is an important check on the excesses of modern government. He argues his positions with vigor and often with eloquence, and he certainly does not bend his opinions to fit the popular mood. But courage on behalf of principle is one thing; dogmatism in support of error is another. 

Senator Paul needs to thoroughly reexamine his views on national defense in light of the real dangers which America faces.  Should he be elected President, he will have to grapple with those dangers, and he will realize then, if not before, the central role of military strength in protecting his country.   

Jim Talent, as a former U.S. senator from Missouri, chaired the Seapower Subcommittee. He is currently the chairman of the National Leadership Council at the Reagan Institute.


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