Somewhat Conflicted on the Budget

Reading up on the latest budget battle stories (yawn), I had one of those moments that make me pause and think about what I think about government.

The line that made me blink was;

House Republicans passed a bill last year that would replace most of the defense cuts in the sequester with more domestic cuts, such as trimming the food stamp program and cutting federal worker pay.

I had a visceral negative reaction to the idea of not cutting the defense budget, but then I paused. I think defense is one of the indisputably appropriate activities of government, whereas domestic spending like food stamps is not within what I see as government’s core necessary and proper duties. So I had to rethink my stand on the issue.

And ultimately I ended up back in the same place. Food stamps cost $78 billion in 2012. That’s double or more in the last 4 years, but it’s only 7/10s of one percent of the deficit of about $1 trillion. In comparison, the defense budget is over $600 billion. By some accounts, taking a broader view of what counts as defense spending, it’s almost $1 trillion. At any rate, it’s close to half of all military spending in the world.

So I say if we’re going to balance the budget, let’s focus on the military more than programs like food stamps (which will naturally decline in cost anyway, as/if the economy picks up).

That’s not a surprising position, and I don’t proffer it as a bold or insightful claim. What interests me here is how my foundational beliefs about what are more legitimate government activities and what are less legitimate ones do not determine my position in this case.

About James Hanley

James Hanley is former Associate Professor of Political Science at Adrian College and currently an independent scholar.
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8 Responses to Somewhat Conflicted on the Budget

  1. ppnl says:

    Meh, we should just find the military hating anti-gun tree hugging liberal that coined the phrase “military industrial complex” and kick his ass.

  2. Matty says:

    I suspect that the kind of defence you think is a legitimate role of government does not include everything currently done in the name of defence. In fact there is probably only a small part of that budget which goes on defence in a limited libertarian sense and that part is not going to be cut. The choice you faced then was not between cuts to something you regard as core to government and something extra but between one extra thing (expansive military power) and another (food stamps). To prefer cuts to the first seems perfectly consistent with a ‘chains before crutches’ approach to reducing the size of government.

  3. James Hanley says:


    Matty–That’s a good point and a fair guess. I have to admit, though, that I’m an imperfect libertarian on defense issues, a little more hawkish one would expect. I think a close look through the defense budget would find that I’m supportive of most of the “kinds” of defense spending, but that I would think smaller amounts in most of those kinds would be more than sufficient for our needs. (Of course there’s an argument that just having those kinds actually makes us more likely to use them, because unused capacity is a bureaucratic no-no. But as I said, I’m imperfect.)

  4. ppnl says:

    I dunno I think it is relatively easy to justify most of the spending as legitimate military spending. I have no problem with that. Without a vast industrial and scientific program we may as well not have a military.

    But at the same time it cannot be a sacred cow. The “military industrial complex” is no different than the “welfare state”, the “regulatory state” or anything else that government does. It becomes a beast that demands that we feed it.

    It is insane to spend more than the rest of the world combined.

  5. AMW says:

    Dr. Hanley:

    Your blog’s subtitle is: “In praise of marginal libertarianism.” There’s nothing shocking about preferring defense cuts to domestic cuts at the present margin.

  6. lancifer666 says:

    I’m pulling for the sequester to go into effect. It won’t actually be cutting anything, just reducing the increase in spending. Would I prefer a more surgical trimming than an across the board reduction?

    Sure, but that’s about as likely to happen as Lindsey Graham and Harry Reid announcing their gay marriage.

  7. James Hanley says:


    Good point. That’s probably the answer.

  8. Dr X says:


    Well that would certainly come as a surprise to Reid.

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