Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine has renewed conservative calls for big increases to our defense budget. The extra money, we are told, would fund more weapons to better prepare us to respond to aggression in a world that seems increasingly dangerous. As persuasive as these arguments can be in times of stress, it’s not that simple.
Providing military defense is a valid function of the federal government. However, this does not authorize Congress to simply rack up more spending, even when dangers exist. Nor does it mean that more spending will result in a completely safe world for us Americans. It’s partly because that world doesn’t exist. There is not a lot of money for security.
While I certainly don’t claim to know what the optimal budget is for our military, we already spend a lot on national security and on the Pentagon. In fiscal year 2023, the United States is expected to spend more than $770 billion on national defense, including $729 billion on Department of Defense military operations. This huge sum is more than the next 10 countries are spending combined. Russia, for example, spends nearly $62 billion. France and Germany each spend nearly $53 billion. Assuming China‘s numbers are correct, it spends $252 billion.
When considering how much extra money we think is worth spending, we must keep in mind that every extra dollar of military spending will not translate into improved national security. This is because government intentions do not equal results. Elected officials and bureaucrats have little incentive to manage taxpayers’ money wisely. They are not rewarded for maximizing taxpayer value, nor generally punished for unnecessary risk. In addition, interest groups often shape policy decisions that run counter to the best public interest.
Military spending is not immune to these forces, nor are the law and welfare components of the budget. Just look at the arms industry‘s lobbying machine, which in 2021 alone spent $117 million on lobbying expenses and utilized 763 lobbyists, likely pushing the Pentagon to spend as much as possible. This explains why Congress continues to allocate funds to produce weapons that the Pentagon itself says it doesn’t need. This also explains the endless saga of its cost overruns, as well as delays and malfunctions like those of the F-35. The Department of Defense has been allowed to fail its audits on several occasions, meaning no one is quite sure where some of that money is going. The result is a less than optimal allocation of our large defense budget.
These facts alone do not mean that there is no basis for the argument that the military is underfunded to do whatever Congress asks of it. In 2017, Mackenzie Eaglen of the American Enterprise Institute argued for more military spending because “the United States is now fielding a military that could not even meet the demands of a Clinton-era benign world”, and that “(w)as the United States continues to field the best military in the world, policymakers have asked it to do too much with too little for too long.”
I have no reason to doubt Eaglen’s assertion. However, unless the political system that produced these poor results is reformed, one must remain skeptical about the effectiveness of even more spending.
What about the idea that we should spend 4% of our GDP annually on defense, compared to the 3% we currently spend? I find this argument lacking. As a measure of economic activity, GDP has very little to do with our ability to defend ourselves. There is no reason why 3%, 4% or any other part of GDP should be considered the right number.
If the measure of defense spending relative to GDP reflects anything, it’s affordability. This brings us to our huge budget deficits and the resulting growing debt. Unless Congress drastically cuts non-military spending, increasing the military budget would increase the deficit. However, if additional defense spending is financed from the deficit, we can expect slower growth, as Harvard economist Robert Barro and I demonstrated in a study in 2013. This reduces, not increases, the affordability of our defense budget.
In other words, let’s make sure we ask the right questions before we rush to increase the defense budget.
Véronique de Rugy is the George Gibbs Chair in Political Economy and Senior Fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. To learn more about Véronique de Rugy and to read articles by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.
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