Defense as an Investment in Liberty and Prosperity

Drawing on GDP statistics provided by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, I constructed the following graphs. The red bands indicate years in which U.S. armed forces were fighting wars: WWII, 1942-1945; Korean War 1950-1953; Vietnam War, 1965-1973; Gulf War, 1990-1991; Afghanistan and Iraq, 2002-2011.

Source: Derived from Table 1.1.5, Gross Domestic Product (then-year dollars).

Source: Obtained by averaging two estimates. The first is a top-down estimate, which applies the percentages displayed in the preceding graph to the estimate of constant-dollar GDP given in Table 1.1.6, Real Gross Domestic Product, Chained Dollars. The second is to construct a chained 2005 dollar estimate of defense spending from Tables A, B, C, and D, which cover overlapping periods (1929-1947, 1942-1962, 1962-1982, 1977-1997, and 1995-2011), and to divide the resulting “double chained” values by the top-line estimate of GDP given in table 1.1.6.

The point of the second graph is that defense spending should not be thought of as a “share” of GDP but as the cost of protecting Americans and their interests from the world’s evil-doers, who are always in plentiful supply. If the real cost of defending America in the 21st century approaches the real cost of fighting World War II, so what? The threats are what they are; today’s enemies (actual and potential) have access to weapons and technologies that far outstrip the relatively primitive weapons and technologies used in WWII.

Moreover, critics of defense spending to the contrary, the object of defense is not to have “just enough” for a “fair fight”; the object of defense is to deter enemies and, if deterrence fails, to defeat them. It is ludicrous to say — as some pundits have said — that the U.S. has “too many” aircraft carriers because their number exceeds the number owned by the rest of the world’s navies. That is a plus, not a minus; Americans should take comfort in such superiority and demand it across the board. America’s enemies do no discriminate between left-wing appeasers and right-wing zealots; we are all targets.

In any event, here are my “takeaways” from the graphs and the history that lies behind them:

Capsule history
Low defense spending and anti-war fervor in the 1930s German and Japanese aggression lead to WWII.
Hasty demobilization after WWII N. Korea invades S. Korea after U.S. declares “lack of interest.” The Korean War is a proxy war for the USSR, which finds U.S. wanting in resolve.
Buildup of strategic forces in the 1950s Nuclear war does not ensue.
Buildup of conventional forces in the early 1960s Domestic opposition leads to a faltering (and eventually failed) U.S. effort to counter Communist aggression in Vietnam.
Post-Vietnam drawdown in the 1970s, followed by Reagan buildup in the 1980s Nuclear war does not ensue. Conventional superiority enables the U.S. to score an easy win in the defense of Kuwaiti oil from Saddam (who, mistakenly, is allowed to remain in power).
Post-Gulf War drawdown in the 1990s (Clinton balances budget on the back of defense.) Drawdown and other signs of U.S. weakness encourage 9/11; subsequent campaigns to stabilize hotbed of terrorism hindered by domestic opposition.
Incorrect: Correct:
The availability of armed force leads to war. The appearance of weakness encourages aggressors.
The U.S. is a war-like nation. The U.S. reluctantly prepares for and fights wars.
Defense is a huge drain on the economy. Defense protects Americans and their vital overseas economic interests. As the economy grows, peacetime preparedness and regional wars take an increasingly smaller share of GDP.
Defense takes money away from vital social services. Defense is the most vital of social services; it keeps Americans alive, free, and prosperous.

Related posts:
Libertarians and the Common Defense
Libertarianism and Pre-emptive War: Part I
An Aside about Libertarianism and the War
Right On! For Libertarian Hawks Only
Conservative Criticism of the War on Terror
Why Sovereignty?
Understanding Libertarian Hawks
More about Libertarian Hawks and Doves
Defense, Anarcho-Capitalist Style
War Can Be the Answer
Getting It All Wrong about the Risk of Terrorism
Why We Fight
Getting It Almost Right about Iraq
Philosophical Obtuseness
But Wouldn’t Warlords Take Over?
Sorting Out the Libertarian Hawks and Doves
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Foxhole Rats
Foxhole Rats, Redux
Know Thine Enemy
September 11: A Remembrance
September 11: A Postscript for “Peace Lovers”
The Faces of Appeasement
Libertarianism and Preemptive War: Part II
Torture and Morality
Give Me Liberty or Give Me Non-Aggression?
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My View of Warlordism, Seconded
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The Constitution and Warrantless “Eavesdropping”
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A Footnote about “Eavesdropping”
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Torture, Revisited
Waterboarding, Torture, and Defense
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Cato’s Usual Casuistry on Matters of War and Peace
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Delusions of Preparedness
A Moralist’s Moral Blindness
A Grand Strategy for the United States
The Folly of Pacifism
Why We Should (and Should Not) Fight
Rating America’s Wars
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The Next 9/11?
The Folly of Pacifism, Again
September 20, 2001: Hillary Clinton Signals the End of “Unity”
Patience as a Tool of Strategy
The War on Terror, As It Should Have Been Fought
The Cuban Missile Crisis, Revisited
Preemptive War
Preemptive War and Iran
Some Thoughts and Questions about Preemptive War