The Pentagon’s budget occupies center stage in the sequestration drama. Defense spending comprises approximately 18 percent of the 2013 federal budget, but accounts for 50 percent of federal spending cuts stipulated in the sequestration agreement.
Why is there such a disproportionate impact on the defense budget? The primary reason is that neither party has the stomach to address the elephants in the federal budget—the three entitlements (Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid) that together account for 48 percent of FY 2013’s federal expenditures.
Is there waste and inefficiency in the Pentagon budget? Of course there is, but this is because the Pentagon is a bureaucracy, not, as the left seems to believe because it is tasked with national defense. As Ludwig von Mises explained so clearly in his book, “Bureaucracy,” waste and inefficiency are inherent in the bureaucratic model of organization (note the reports of hundreds of billions of fraud and waste in the Medicare bureaucracy, for example). Such results are inevitable, due to the absence of a profit/loss calculus. The important lesson to be taken from Mises’ penetrating analysis is that no society can afford to assign many tasks to government bureaucracies.
What is the “right” amount of money to spend on national defense? I haven’t the slightest idea, nor do the experts, since nobody knows with certainty what threats will arise in the future. Rather than try to settle this impossible question, let me concede to those who wish to slash defense spending that history has not dealt kindly with geopolitical superpowers that have overextended themselves militarily and fiscally. And to those who favor maintaining or increasing defense spending, it is indisputable that we live in a dangerous world and that—when it comes to military matters—it may be prudent to err on the side of over-preparedness rather than under-preparedness.
Ideally, what all of us, hawk or dove, should want with regard to defense spending are two things: one, that the brave Americans who have volunteered for military service be supplied with what they need to carry out their assigned tasks effectively and with the fewest possible casualties; and two, that Congress, the president, and the Pentagon leadership identify our country’s defense needs and establish a coherent set of policies to meet those needs.
Practically speaking, both of those objectives may be reasonable, but they are problematic, especially the second one. In our debased political system, parochial interests too often trump national security. Seeing the way politicians determine the Pentagon’s budget brings to mind Bismarck’s comment that people would sleep better at night if they didn’t know how sausages and laws were made.
The Pentagon’s budget has become a political football. Congress and the president are treating it more like a bargaining chip in partisan deficit-reduction strategies rather than as their most solemn constitutional responsibility.
The football analogy is particularly apt, since footballs are “pigskins,” and many of our elected national office-holders forget all about national security and use the Pentagon to procure pork for political constituencies.
President Obama has exhibited a pronounced tendency to place politics above national security in his treatment of Pentagon spending. Even though he clearly wants a less muscular military (e.g., fewer ships and jet fighters, massive reduction in nuclear weapons), the president now claims that we can’t afford the projected Pentagon spending cuts.
I think his reasons are transparent. First, there is his well-known preference for public-sector jobs and his desire to keep people on the public payroll; thus, he views the Pentagon as just another federal jobs program. Second, since government spending is the key to government power, as a matter of ideological principle, he dislikes cutting government spending. Third, President Obama loves to reward his political allies and punish his opponents, so you can expect him to try to rescue some defense-related jobs and let others in “hostile states” like Texas be terminated.
Nobody should assume that Obama wants to rescind the sequester deal’s spending cuts out of a concern for military strength. He’ll find a way to beat the Pentagon’s swords into plowshares. Last year he ordered the Pentagon to buy higher-priced renewable energy to support his green-energy boondoggles.
We all should be embarrassed at the way national defense has been degraded to a political football. As cynical as the treatment of national defense has been, though, we, the people, should be feeling even more cynical about the hysterical, sky-is-falling rhetoric about sequestration. Even if the stipulated cuts in future spending somehow manage to stick, they will be so modest that it may end up being a case of winning a battle while losing the war against runaway federal spending.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared at Forbes.com.