Defense and the Principle of Limited Government

Some libertarians and liberals allege that the policy of building up and generously funding a strong military is inconsistent with the principle of limited government -- one of the key principles of conservative ideology.  Yet this allegation could not be farther from the truth.

Modern conservatism was born in the United States in the 1940s, with William Buckley, Jr., Russell Kirk, James Burnham, and several notable others (including several Human Events columnists) serving as its intellectual progenitors.  Important contributions to the development of conservative thought were also made in the 1950s and 1960s by Barry Goldwater (author of The Conscience of a Conservative), the Cold Warrior who stood as a contrast against the soft LBJ.

As Jeffrey Lord has noted, it was agreed by the nestors of the conservative movement at its founding, during the 1940s, that the Soviet Union was a huge threat.  Therefore, a strong defense, coupled with a firm foreign policy of containment and rollback, was necessary to confront that threat.

The standard-bearers of conservatism firmly believed in such a strong defense, and they frequently reminded Americans of this necessity -- from Goldwater in the 1960s to Ronald Reagan in the 1970s and the 1980s to Sarah Palin today.

Despite libertarians' and liberals' pathetic attempt to cast their weak-defense-plus-isolationism policies as "conservatism" by calling themselves "paleoconservatives" (take for example Murray Rothbard), the fact is that they didn't found the conservative movemenet and were never conservatives; they are and always have been libertarians, period.  They were shunned by the fathers of the conservative movement, and, consequently, some of them, like Felix Morley, quit Human Events.

One of the tenets of conservative ideology is adherence to the Constitution.  What does the Supreme Law of the land say?

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Art. I, Sec. 8 of the Constitution lists 18 prerogatives of the Congress, nine (i.e., 50%) of which are related to military affairs, including "to raise Armies," "to provide and maintain a Navy," to regulate captures on land and water, to declare war, and to make regulations for the military.  As Ernest Istook of the Heritage Foundation has observed, "National defense receives unique and elevated emphasis under the Constitution. It is not 'just' another duty of the federal government."

Finally, Art. IV, Sec. 4 of the Constitution obligates the federal government to provide for the common defense:

The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government, and shall protect each of them against Invasion[.]

Thus, providing for the common defense is not an option; it's a constitutional obligation of the federal government.  It's a function that the government must, not merely may, perform -- unlike, for example, bankruptcy laws, which the Congress may pass, but doesn't have to and didn't bother to enact until the late 19th century.

It is therefore wrong, ridiculous, and insulting to treat defense as if it were just another budget line item, or just another government function, as various "fiscally conservative" organizations and most Republicans do.

One of the principles of conservatism is adherence to the Constitution.  That means obeying the Constitution as it is written.  And one of the parts of the Constitution is the obligation to provide for the common defense (but note: not to defend downtrodden peoples around the world and topple unpopular dictators).

And what were the opinions of the Founding Fathers on the subject of providing for national defense?

They were divided -- some, like Elbridge Gerry, believed that standing armies threaten liberty, but several of the most prominent ones understood the need for a strong military.  Following the Roman proverb "Si vis pace, pare bellum," George Washington said, "To be prepared for war is one of the effective means of preserving the peace."  In his first State of the Union address, President Washington said:

Among the many interesting objects which will engage your attention, that of providing for the common defence will merit particular regard.

During the 1790s, the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, repeatedly said: "A million dollars for defense, not a cent for ransom."  Even James Madison, for a long time an opponent of standing armies, and America's first real "wartime president," asked in 1788:

How could a readiness for war in times of peace be safely prohibited, unless we could prohibit, in like manner, the preparations and establishments of every hostile nation?

Madison eventually had to lead an unprepared U.S. military into the War of 1812, which showed how disastrous the consequences of military weakness and military unpreparedness are.

And all that comes well before 20th-century conservative leaders.  Barry Goldwater endorsed strong defense policies during his 1964 RNC acceptance address and even opposed the Limited Test Ban Treaty.  Ronald Reagan repeatedly spoke out in favor of a strong defense and against defense cuts, believing that strong defense policies were fully consistent both with conservative ideology and with the goal of maintaining peace.  As he said in 1986:

Peace does not exist of its own will. It depends on us, on our courage to build it and guard it and pass it on to future generations. George Washington's words may seem hard and cold today, but history has proven him right again and again. "To be prepared for war,'' he said, "is one of the most effective means of preserving peace.''

So, as stated clearly by the fathers of the conservative movement, by the Constitution, by (at least some of) the Founding Fathers, and by 20th-century conservative leaders like Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, defense is consistent with conservative ideology (including the principle of limited government) and with the goal of seeking peace.  Further, it is a constitutional obligation of the federal government.

This does not mean that the DOD should be given a blank check, exempted from scrutiny, or given a free pass for its past failings -- which it isn't, by the way.  It also doesn't mean that just spending more on defense will make America safer.  But it does mean that providing for the common defense -- including funding it adequately, in line with America's defense needs, not arbitrary budget constraints -- is a constitutional obligation, which must be met even during a time of financial crisis.

It is the policy of a weak defense that is actually inconsistent with the Constitution and unconservative.

It's time to stop pretending that supporting robust funding for defense and a strong peacetime military is a big-government policy.

Zbigniew Mazurak is an occassional AT contributor and the author of the ebook In Defense of US Defense Spending.