Opinion

Sequestration is still better than the alternatives

Photo of Christopher Preble
Christopher Preble
VP for Defense and Foreign Policy Studies, The Cato Institute

One explanation for the GOP’s cognitive dissonance is the erroneous belief that Pentagon spending stimulates the economy, and that cuts would cause hundreds of thousands of people to lose their jobs. So says the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), despite the fact that Northrup Grumman CEO Wes Bush, the group’s new chairman, once said, “The defense industry should never be looked at as a jobs program.”

He’s right. The purpose of the military budget is to provide our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines with the tools that they need to do their jobs. If this can be accomplished while employing fewer people and spending less money in the process, all the better. That would free up individuals and resources to be used elsewhere in the economy, especially in the more productive private sector.

A number of commentators, from Ramesh Ponnuru to Tyler Cowen, have demolished the generic jobs argument. The AIA’s figures, in particular, haven’t fared any better. A state-by-state analysis published this morning by William Hartung of the Center for International Policy should nail the coffin shut.

Another common concern among Republicans is that defense spending is a core function of government, and therefore should not be treated on an equal footing with federal spending on education, agricultural subsidies, or Obamacare. This is true, to a point. The Constitution clearly stipulates that the federal government provide for the common defense. Our founding document contains no mention of common learning standards for grade schoolers, guaranteed prices for a bushel of wheat for farmers, or powered wheelchairs for senior citizens.

But the Constitution was written for these United States, and the government it created should defend the 315 million Americans who are parties to its unique social contract. Today, the U.S. military remains largely focused on defending other countries from non-existent threats. The Red Army is no longer in Eastern Europe; why is the U.S. Army still in Germany? Meanwhile, many of today’s most urgent challenges are not conducive to military solutions. Aircraft carriers aren’t very useful for stopping distributed denial of service attacks against American businesses. Adapting to these realities would allow for substantial savings in the Pentagon, well beyond what is contemplated under sequestration.

In short, an effective defense need not be an expensive defense, and certainly not as expensive as the military that defeated the Soviet Union. By restructuring our military to address its most solemn obligation — defending the United States — we can keep faith with our troops, and reduce the burden on U.S. taxpayers.

Christopher Preble is the vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute.