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US Defense Spending and Cultural Imperialism

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles ) | May 02, 2012

Each time I have written about the horrendous tendency of Western states to spend beyond their means, I have emphasized the need to pull back from the creeping totalitarianism which characterizes first world nations. This would reduce or eliminate the nearly incredible costs associated with entitlement programs and the immense bureaucracies which must be maintained to support the scope of national regulatory power. And each time I have made this point, some readers have criticized me for ignoring the problem of defense spending in the United States. It is time to address this concern.

Before I address it, however, I would like to explain the reasons this has not been in the forefront of my other commentaries on budget problems. Part of this doubtless has to do with my own prejudices. Just as “liberals” are instinctively troubled by military spending but not by spending on domestic regulation and entitlements, so too are “conservatives” instinctively troubled by domestic regulation and entitlements but generally untroubled by defense spending. Why this should be so is hard to explain. But insofar as I may be guilty of instincts and attitudes that have not yet yielded entirely to a fully Catholic worldview, then my instincts would tend to be conservative.

There are reasons for believing that Catholicism is far more compatible with conservatism, which typically recognizes religion as an important source of values that ought to shape one’s cultural philosophy. After all, liberalism typically holds the reverse, that religion itself must be shaped by one’s cultural philosophy. But that is a subject for a deeper and longer essay, and in any case the default positions of conservatives are seldom fully informed by Catholic social teaching. So let me touch on some other factors.

Defending an Emphasis on Domestic Concerns

The first is that CatholicCulture.org has a worldwide audience. My discussions of budgets, regulatory power, entitlements, debt, and the economy are designed to apply equally to most Western nations. Among these, only the United States is conspicuous for its enormous defense budget. The expenditures of other nations are far more modest, yet most of these nations are in deeper economic trouble than the United States, precisely because they have gone even further down the road to the creeping totalitarianism of the classic secular nanny state (not to mention widespread demographic problems throughout the West, a problem traceable to the same selfish root). This in itself suggests strongly that military, defense and security issues are not the primary problem.

The second factor is that, very frequently, those who raise the question of military spending in America do so with wild exaggeration. It is frequently stated, for example, that the United States spends a majority of its Federal budget on war, defense and security. But in fact this is not true. The U.S. budget is actually dominated by three fairly equal behemoths: Defense (which has only in the last year or so become by a small margin the largest of the three), Welfare entitlements (with Social Security leading the way), and Health entitlements (with Medicare way out in front). In 2012, total U.S. expenditures are estimated at $3.7 trillion dollars. Of that total, the broadly-defined defense category accounts for almost exactly one-quarter. That is huge, but it is nowhere near a majority.

The third factor rests upon a proper understanding of the purpose of government, which is to promote the common good in ways that individuals and other organizations cannot do for themselves. No matter whose account of the purposes of government one may read, defense will always be included in the short list of things any legitimate government must take care of. But whether government ought to take charge of medical care or of economically sustaining all those in need is a much-debated question; the same debate surrounds constant regulation of human activity for fairness and safety. Many theorists would argue that once government has made its territory safe from malefactors and has done what is necessary to facilitate the development of important universal infrastructures—thereby creating a national zone in which citizens may flourish through their own proper activities—the best thing government can do is step aside and intervene as little as possible.

The degree to which this is true is eminently debatable. The devil is always in the details. But there can at least be no question that such a stance encourages citizens at every level of personal and organizational activity to work out solutions to the problems of their own communities, whereas excessive government interference discourages personal and local initiative while making the social order dependent on government, rather than—as it should be—the other way around. Typically, initiative and freedom are destroyed by one and the same blow.

This too is part of a larger debate. My point here is that national defense is without question proper to government in ways that constant domestic regulation and citizen entitlements are not. But now let me return, in broad terms, to the question of American military, defense and security spending.

American Foreign Policy

Whatever may be said about national defense against direct attack and the defense of American citizens against terrorist acts (two subjects which I will not address), I believe that American foreign policy tends to consistently violate both Catholic social teaching and prudence in three important ways:

  1. Hedonistic Cultural Imperialism: The United States, along with the secular West in general, labors under a profound illusion that the proper—indeed the only—way to secure the common good is to eliminate the influence of tradition, religion and family so as to encourage a secular individualism which enables everybody to do exactly as he pleases. There are enormous flaws in our culture deriving from our blindness in these matters, all of which tend to break down many positive beliefs, habits and institutions which hold society together, foster strong intermediary organizations, strengthen the family, and promote virtue. Yet we export our own brand of individualistic hedonism everywhere we have cultural, economic or political influence. This is not only damaging; it also creates bitter enemies.
  2. A World Safe for Democracy: The United States also believes that the only solution to the question of polity in any nation or region is the implementation of Western-style secular democracy as it has evolved in our own culture over the past thousand years. As a result, whenever we do enter a particular country militarily, we are reluctant to depart until we have remade that country in our own political and cultural image, short-circuiting modes of expression and organization common to the surrounding culture, and leaving people with a form of government they are unprepared to understand, let alone implement and sustain. Our idea of “stabilization”, therefore, necessarily involves massive transformations and long commitments to seeing that things are done our way—projects which extend far beyond whatever threat induced us to take military action in the first place.
  3. Enforcing Our Own Self-Interest: While the United States seeks to portray itself as altruistic in its foreign policy (and may at times actually be altruistic), the justifications we offer for particular policies and interventions abroad are generally selectively implemented. For example, we may claim to act to eliminate some tyranny, but in fact we generally do not attempt to eliminate all tyranny but select as our targets those countries where some particular self-interest is at stake. Not only do these special interests often give the lie to any motives which might justify an intervention, but the overall impact is to display a remarkable hubris—an assurance that we are always sacrificing ourselves for the good of the rest of the world—which most people in most places find laughable, even on the occasions when it is at least partially true.

These three problems contradict Catholic social teaching in that they misconstrue the nature and ultimate good of the human person, they fail to respect both deeply ingrained human customs and religion itself, and they make of American power an excuse to police the world in ways which demean the equal rights of other peoples. Moreover, sometimes these failures result in a tortured use of just war theory to justify foreign adventures of an extremely dubious and imprudent nature. Finally, our hubris in these matters often causes our nation to overreach what it is really capable of achieving—to overreach, indeed, what any nation is ever capable of achieving.

Please note this important point. We are not wonderfully sensible, noble and good abroad and just the opposite at home, nor vice versa. The same tendencies which result in ill-considered utopian schemes at home lead to ill-considered utopian schemes abroad. The result is that we frequently increase enmity abroad in the name of friendship and support, while overburdening ourselves at home by investing far too much in situations which seem, to a more prudent intelligence, to be beyond our legitimate scope. I am very sad to note, as a Catholic, that too many conservatives in the United States have never met a war they did not like. I often wonder what friends we might have abroad if our foreign policy could be altered to have just the opposite effects!

I have painted these matters with a broad brush. I do not mean to oversimplify any question that arises out of the complexities of peace and security, any more than I mean in my discussion of domestic policies to oversimplify any question that arises out of legitimate human need here at home. Each issue must be examined on its merits. But in the United States, the economics of our perpetual spending on defense makes its own significant contribution to draining us dry. And to a large extent, I think the same argument applies that I have made about domestic concerns. Just as I am convinced we have arrived at a point when it will be almost universally wiser to cut back government intrusion here at home, so too am I convinced that the same is true of our foreign policy.

The world is not our oyster. And even if it were, an overweening, secular, hedonist America would only lose the pearl.

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Show 5 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: djpeterson - May. 06, 2012 2:10 PM ET USA

    "I am very sad to note, as a Catholic, that too many conservatives in the United States have never met a war they did not like." I agree, US is adopting the role of an imperial empire. The GOP is less anti-family but more pro-war. As Catholics, NEITHER Romney nor Obama is worthy of our votes.

  • Posted by: impossible - May. 05, 2012 12:35 PM ET USA

    Warts and all, we have been the best superpower. Disastrous warts: Exporting liberal amorality; Helping to create the Arab Spring, a/k/a empowerment of The Muslim Brotherhood (TMB); Obama giving TMB more access/face time than Speaker Boehner; Funding Arafat and other despots; Negotiating w/”Talleeebahn” and other terrorists; Killing America with phony social justice; Replacing Capitalism with Marxism. Wars? Liberals have never met a war they wanted to win, especially the war on poverty.

  • Posted by: debjmj9652 - May. 04, 2012 7:49 PM ET USA

    Yes, I am in agreement with your analysis.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - May. 04, 2012 2:36 PM ET USA

    America was a beacon of freedom long before she assumed the mantle of world leadership. We would probably improve our lot by pulling in our horns. It's true that we are less than perfect, but what do you think will come of domination by China, which is currently emerging out of the shadows? I do not fear being less than king of the hill. I fear the Chinese becoming king of the hill.

  • Posted by: Michael Burton - May. 03, 2012 1:45 PM ET USA

    One of the most disturbing aspects of American style orthodoxy is that you are not allowed to be strong in your anti-war stances. Apparently just-war theory can only be used to justify. Obviously abortion is top priority in our fight but that doesn't make unjust-wars somehow a non-issue, or even worse, something to be promoted.

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