Arnold Kling  

The Longstanding Debate over National Defense

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When Elbridge Gerry proposed in the [Constitutional] Convention that no standing army exceed three thousand men, Washington is supposed to have made a countermotion that "no foreign enemy should invade the United States at any time, with more than three thousand troops."
That is from Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty It seems Gerry would have agreed with Bryan's proof that national defense is not a public good, but Washington begged to differ.

My view is that people tend to view the competition for status partly in group terms. In the Cowen-Hanson view, that competition for group status is what gives rise to political loyalty. Remember, politics is not about policy. It is about group status.

Group status competition also means that there is a strong propensity for group violence. The goal of a military hegemon is to restrain this group violence. It helps for the hegemon to have goodies to hand out to pacify some groups and to have overwhelming military prowess with which to intimidate others.

I'll believe that we can live without hegemony when I see signs that group status competition and group loyalty have disappeared from human nature.

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CATEGORIES: Political Economy

COMMENTS (8 to date)
Nate writes:

An invading army is essentially a very large centrally coordinated criminal enterprise. Once you concede the terminology that it is anything other, national defense becomes a public good. Otherwise the public good being debated is just law enforcement.

ryan yin writes:

I find it odd that so much of the discussion about Caplan's comment on national defense insists that because a world with zero armies is impossible (or at least unlikely), his proof fails. Some commentators even suggest that anything that is not a Nash equilibrium must not be good, as if the two have anything to do with each other!

Eric H writes:

Caplan loses me.

I don't understand how the benefit of national security can be smaller than the cost of individual security.

For example, the value of solidarity to the vanguard of the Russian revolution rose to the opportunity cost of liquidating tens of millions of people. Who is to say such a nation would let a bunch of wealthy libertarian city states stand in the way of global revolution?

Is the benefit of outlasting such a regime really smaller than the benefit each of us derive from personal security? Really?

SydB writes:

My primary concern with respect to national defense: the arms race (in a general sense). The cocktail party problem. The noise (arms) increase so everyone has to raise their voices. A vicious feedback. Hence the need for arms control, to at least try to periodically reset the race.

Dave writes:

Both Communism and Libertarianism won't work for the same reason, that whatever their internal logic, in practice they would bump up against human nature.

jr writes:

Buddha, Confucius, Jesus, Mohammad, in chronological order, all offered grand consistent theories.

If I must follow your libertarian ideas, why shouldn't I follow Buddha? Why shouldn't we all follow Buddha? Does it mean economics is a solved problem 2,000 years before Adam Smith was born?

And you don't get to blame Human Nature, that mysterious concept. It's not your scapegoat for your failure in building a theory that should be correct. (Or, correcter, in wonderland talk.)

CJ Smith writes:


"If I must follow your libertarian ideas..." is an oxymoron.

"...why shouldn't I follow Buddha?" Feel free to, or any of the others. If you focus on the message of love, peace, brotherhood, charity and forgiveness, you'll support Caplan's theory. Focus instead on crusading, jihad, Shoalin mysticism, or the Bushido of the Samurai, you won't.

"... you don't get to blame Human Nature, that mysterious concept." Not so mysterious.

Change the term to "rational market theory." You have a good or resource I want, and are either unwilling to trade for it, or ask a price that is higher than my marginal cost to produce. However, my economy either already supports a military, or can raise one at a lower marginal cost than producing the good (given that you have no military, not a cost constrained problem to me, except in extremis). My military is more than capable of taking the good or resource, at little additional marginal cost to me (establishment and regular maintenance of a standing army being a sunk cost to me). Would I invade? Absent "ethical considerations," under a purely economic analysis, I sure would. This is where I believe Caplan goes off the deep end. He not only assumes an unrealistic universal agreement to abolish military forces, he implicitly assumes absolute equality of goods and resources, with no input advantages or disadvantages to any party - both ludicrous economic assumptions.

CJ Smith writes:

Dr. Kling:

You made the statement, "Remember, politics is not about policy. It is about group status." Two questions, in reverse order - first, is politics really about group status, or about power to influence society to the group's (or at least the leaders of the group) benefit? Second, if politics is about power to influence society to the group's benefit, isn't this accomplished through policy decisions, including taxing, spending and social legislation?

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