January 3, 2012
To the Members of the 112th Congress:
In the past few years, America’s best minds have said about everything they could conceivably think of saying about the state of the economy. But they don’t seem to have achieved a meeting of the minds, and the economy still has a mind of its own, so maybe a few words can still profitably be said on the subject—in particular, about the relation of the economy to America’s national security. What is the relation of our prosperity to our freedom?
In a speech he gave at West Point a couple of springs ago, the President said, “[A]t no time in human history has a nation of diminished economic vitality maintained its military and political primacy.” There is an immediate surface plausibility in the President’s words. It is clear, we say to ourselves, that economic prosperity is essential to the military strength that secures our freedom as a country. Whatever enhances America’s commercial, financial, and industrial power increases its military potential.
And the converse seems true, as well. We are pleased to hear the President’s eagerness to maintain America’s “political primacy,” and to hear the realism with which he recognizes that this will depend on our military primacy. Military strength, we say to ourselves, is as essential to economic prosperity as it is to political primacy. There can be no production without security; prosperity is the gift of freedom. Ninety-five percent of America’s foreign trade, for example, comes and goes across the seas. We depend on the United States Navy to ensure the freedom of the seas that enables our maritime commerce and reciprocal trade to flourish. Because of this, the fact that we now have the smallest navy America has deployed in almost a century is a matter of concern, as is the President’s apparent determination—shared with leaders in both parties—to continue to reduce American military power in general.
Many reasons are given for this bipartisan determination to reduce military expenditures. One of them has particularly to do with our theme of economics and military power. It is that America’s security commitments have outstripped available economic resources—a mismatch between capabilities and commitments we understand some of the experts call “imperial overstretch.” Some even suggest that this is what ails the American economy: that its fiscal problems arise from excessive spending on defense. Nonsense—if you will forgive our candor.
Cutting the entire budget for the Department of Defense would have little impact on the budget deficit and ultimately the national debt. We currently spend about 4.6 percent of America’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on defense. Operational war costs are less than one percent of GDP. By 1945, at the end of World War II, America was spending almost 40 percent of GDP on defense. In peacetime over the past 60 years Americans spent on average 5.7 percent of GDP on defense. On the other side of the ledger, for all our economic woes, in 2007, America’s GDP was $14.061 trillion; in 2010 it had increased to $14.870 trillion (not adjusted for inflation).
To give you some perspective on economic woes, in 1929, GDP was $103 billion; in 1933, it was $55 billion—a decline of 46 percent. The country’s economy continued in the doldrums throughout the ’30s, averaging a GDP of $77.5 billion, which is why the plausibility of the President’s West Point remarks remains on the surface only. A nation whose “economic vitality” had been “diminished” more profoundly than at any time in its history immediately went on to fight and win the greatest war in history, preparing the way for the longest, most widely spread era of prosperity the country or the world has ever known. So there are some mysteries in the relationship between prosperity and freedom.
There is another way in which such reasoning is nonsense. The national debt that we are used to talking about is incommensurate with another much more important national debt. This is a debt by which we are ennobled and which we can never adequately repay. It is the debt each of us, enjoying the blessings of freedom each day, owes to those whose names we do not even know, who, from Valley Forge, to the beaches of Normandy, to the streets of Baghdad, offered and gave—and continue to offer and to give—the last full measure of devotion so that we can enjoy these blessings.
We can see how these two different national debts are incommensurate when we reflect that what we spend on national defense is in some ways entirely independent of economic considerations. The cost of providing for a successful defense of the country, no matter how high, will always pale in comparison with the loss of freedom, and all that comes with it, that is the cost of defeat. By the end of WWII, Americans were spending 86 percent of the federal budget on defense—perfectly sensibly.
Of course, we quite reasonably have never wanted to throw money at the military. But today, and in the days to come, we hope our elected representatives will not hesitate to say in public that Americans will be ashamed not to spend every cent necessary to equip their soldiers with ample—and even redundant—means to achieve victory with the least possible loss. If these expenditures should ever require us to be more self reliant at home and less dependent on this or that government assistance, remind us in cheerful tones that we should be grateful. We should be grateful for the benefit to our characters and proud to share in our small way in the sacrifices of prosperity that may sometimes be necessary to preserve our freedom. And, who knows? In the mystery of human events, those very sacrifices, reminding us as they do that we are free people able to stand on our own two feet as Americans always have, may be one of the most important conditions for increasing both our prosperity and our freedom, down the road.