The Corner

Spending & Wartime

From a reader:

Subject: I take your point.

But I’m with Ferguson. While we ARE indeed at war, President Bush has allowed us to increase spending as if we weren’t.

As … Brian Riedl wrote a few years ago, “Excluding defense and all 9/11-related costs, federal spending grew by 11 percent from 2001 through 2003–the largest two-year increase in nearly a decade. Instead of trading off new security costs by cutting elsewhere, lawmakers actually accelerated non-defense and non-9/11-related spending.”

If we were serious about both winning the war AND holding the line on spending we would have done so. And while I’m convinced we do want to win and that we will win, our spending since September 11 isn’t going to help.

Me: I agree with this entirely. Indeed, one of the pieces of crow I’ve had to eat — for the most part in the privacy of my own head, until now — is my former opposition to the idea that wars don’t necessarily have a deleterious effect on freedom at home.

A few years ago, I butted heads with a few libertarians on this point, in particular Nick Gillespie (I can’t find the relevant links). While it was always obvious to me that many wars have resulted in encroachments on domestic freedom, I disputed that there was some iron law dictating that it must be so. I now pretty much have to concede that freedom takes it in the neck during war. Of course, sometimes these encroachments are necessary and temporary. But one encroachment that seems the least necessary and the least temporary is the metastasizing of the federal government. I don’t mind reasonable defense spending, never have, probably never will (of course, the debate is all over the word “reasonable”). It’s the side plate of butter than comes with every order of guns that drives me batty. It seems that there is something of an iron law which says that government must expand during wartime. And if you are going to score growth of the welfare state as the shrinkage of individual liberty, then I think the libertarians are right.

I think the problem is that there’s an inherent catch-22 to war. If a war is “small” voters will think it isn’t vital enough to warrant curtailment of entitlements and other goodies. If a war is “big” Americans will agree to “sacrifices” but these sacrifices usually drag the state into over-regulating as a way to defuse the political consequences of that sacrifice and minimize the downsides for the war effort itself. The “we’re all in it together” logic leads to rent control, coupons and other command-and-control rationing. And, in both circumstances, political leaders are unwilling to fight a two-front war, against the real enemy abroad and bureaucratic fiefdoms at home (“now’s not the time!”). The result in both cases is that butter production chugs alongside gun production. When the wars end, the curtailments of civil liberties — necessary and unnecessary alike — tend to evaporate but the calcified carbunkles of statist economics hang around for generations.

This isn’t an argument against war in all cases, of course. The Civil War and World War II both ultimately led to an increase in freedom in the long run. But they certainly required a sizable down payment up front. My guess and hope is that the war on terror will remembered likewise.

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