Bryan Caplan  

The Common Sense of Defense Cuts

The Inequality Fuss... Make-Work Bias of the Macabre...

As an equal-opportunity offender, I'm finding it harder and harder to keep up with the competition. After arguing that we should cut health spending in half, Robin Hanson now adds that we should do the same with defense spending:

But the simple argument seems compelling: The US with 27% of world product has about 46% of world military spending (up from 40% in 2000). Yet our "defense" needs are few, as we are rich, isolated, have friendly neighbors, and haven't been invaded for centuries. And it is hard to see how "offense" spending at this level could possibly be cost-effective.
This reminds me of an interesting moment during my recent interview with Bryan Suits*. When we were on the subject of anti-foreign bias, Suits suggested that Ron Paul exemplified it because of his opposition to military intervention in other countries. I disagreed. In my view, anti-foreign bias makes us over-estimate foreigners' ability and desire to do us harm, and therefore normally encourages military intervention.

* To hear the podcast, go here scroll to October 16, and and click on Listen.

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COMMENTS (8 to date)
Buzzcut writes:

What else could we cut spending on with little impact to well being?

Public transportation.

Food (how many of us eat far too many calories?)

Buzzcut writes:

Let me be even more provpcative:

Cut Social Security payments in half. Most geezers don't need the money.

caveat bettor writes:

I think it's important to look at the margins. For instance, the US fields roughly the same 2 million in forces as China, if you count US reservists. But the air power and air support spending between the two countries is highly disparate.

I like an all-volunteer force (a la Greenspan, Moynihan, et al) as I think it is truly democratic and forces the government and the generals to value a soldier's individual life more than if more soldiers could be had cheaply through coercion (i.e. conscription).

But if the US places a higher value on the life of its soldiers, then it's got to spend a lot more things like air support (which reduce casualties and increase medical recoveries). Cutting our spending will only cause more deaths. I can't get behind that in good conscience.

(Original comment posted over at Asymmetrical Info)

Robin Hanson writes:

Caveat, sure we spend more per soldier because we are richer. But the %GDP figure I used takes that into account.

8 writes:

There is a relationship between a humane military (relatively speaking) and the number of soldiers in it. A small army will care even more about its soldiers lives because they will be more intelligent and more highly trained than the average soldier in a large Army. They will prefer to fight at a distance, which likely means higher collateral damage. The question is how much less likely is it to go to war.

caveat bettor writes:


I posted this comment at OB, too, but am responding to you here, since this is where you seem to be.

My point was that the U.S. spent more on protecting and treating it's armed forces than other countries, which would lead to higher marginal spending. I don't have the time today to get you some data, but I would look at the infrastructure, equipment, and personnel tasked with treating wounded soldiers. I would look at ratios of armored personnel carriers and body armor relative to soldiers in the field.

And then I would look at all of this in context of GDP per country before drawing any conclusions.

But right now, there is the Marathon Oil stock deal for Western Oil Sands, i.e. my day job.

Great topic for discussion, thanks Robin.

John Thacker writes:

The US with 27% of world product has about 46% of world military spending (up from 40% in 2000).

The USA doesn't have mandatory military service, unlike many other countries. Therefore, there is excellent reason to believe that the official figures underestimate the true economic cost of military spending in other countries.

And, the US spends quite a bit of military spending doing defense on behalf of US allies who want the spending. Yes, there's obviously free-riding going on there, and you're free to argue that we should leave the defense of, e.g., Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan to those countries themselves, but surely that's part of it.

B.H. writes:

In 1938-39, federal military spending was only 1.6% of GDP, rising to a mere 2.5% in 1940 as WW2 raged. We ended up with Pearl Harbor, followed by Germany and Italy declaring war on the US. Subsequently, the ratio rose to 43% in 1944.

At WW2 ended, the ratio was quickly slashed to 6.7% of GDP in 1950. Then the Korean War started.

The ratio fell to 3.8% in 2000, the Clinton legacy that left it at the lowest since just before Pearl Harbor. We got 9/11.

Let me suggest you got things backward. Think of military spending as insurance and deterance. Weakness invites war, which causes casualties and higher spending. In expected present-value terms, maintaining a steady strong military deters aggressors and reduces costs (blood and money).

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