James K.A. Smith’s tweet the other day got me thinking.
(He has a way of doing that.)
You want to shrink the government but expand the military. You realize those are mutually exclusive, right? Military = government.
— James K.A. Smith (@james_ka_smith) June 24, 2012
I’ve wondered the same thing. Those who oppose “big government” — generally, Republicans and Tea Party supporters — are also the most likely to oppose any cuts to defense spending.
Given that the U.S. accounts for more than 40% of global military spending, this is not a trivial discussion. (Put another way: our defense budget is bigger than the entire economic output of 85 countries. Combined.)
Twenty cents of every American tax dollar goes to defense. The unpaid-for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have contributed $1.3 trillion dollars to the federal debt. Republican leaders chastise Democrats — with good reason, I might add — for creating expensive government programs without bothering to pay for them. But they did the same when they launched our two most recent military ventures.
Big military IS big government. How do you support one while opposing the other?
Is it because defense is closer to the “natural function” of government? If so, how do you decide what constitutes a government’s natural function and what amounts to a dangerous overreach?
Some try to base their view of government on the Bible — for example, interpreting the apostle Paul’s statement about rulers “bear[ing] the sword” (Romans 13:1-7) to argue that a government’s role should be limited to defending its citizenry from external (military) and internal (criminal) threats. (Though it’s worth noting that Paul was writing about a tyrannical Roman emperor who just as likely to set Christians on fire as protect their liberty.)
But what about all those prophetic injunctions to care for the poor, orphans, widows, and foreigners? They weren’t just written to private citizens. The biblical prophets were addressing governments, kings, and whole societies.
For others, opposition to big government often boils down to a basic mistrust. The government, many argue, cannot be trusted with too much power. “Most bad government has grown out of too much government,” as Thomas Jefferson once said.
Therefore, if the government can mandate private health insurance for everyone today, then by tomorrow they’ll be rationing healthcare and telling everyone which doctors they can go to. That’s how the argument goes, anyway. A small expansion of government power now inevitably leads to a much bigger one later.
I respect that. A healthy mistrust of power is a good thing, because power does indeed tend to corrupt.
But here’s my question:
If you don’t trust a politician with a checkbook, why would you trust him with a nuclear missile?
If government tends to abuse what power it’s given, why would you allow it the power to kill with impunity?
How is it that the same government that can’t be trusted when it says, “We need to give everyone healthcare,” is entitled to our full, unquestioning support when it says, “We need to invade such-and-such country?”
The founding fathers understood this. That’s why they were ambivalent about even having a permanent military force. They knew all too well that ordinary citizens have little recourse for holding a government with guns to account.