James C. Banks

Elite Culture vs. Military Spending

In Uncategorized on February 25, 2011 at 5:24 am

As conservatives debate how to balance the budget, cuts to defense spending should probably be on the table, but whether or not they will be remains to be seen. It is difficult to ascertain why, specifically, conservatives have always had such an aversion to cuts in the military budget. It is rooted in the 1950’s, with the reaction to the Red Threat. However, since that time it has intensified to the point where it is almost instinctive. More traditional and isolationist conservatives will probably point to neoconservatism as the reason for this, but I am skeptical.

Strong national defense has always been a mainstay of American conservatism. It was, in fact, probably the most important pillar for uniting the post-WWII conservative movement. William F. Buckley, Jr. and Russell Kirk were both opposed to the New Deal while Peter Viereck and Irving Kristol supported it, but they agreed–and are considered to be part of the same tradition because they believed–that the co-existence of the West and the Iron Curtain was impossible.

But not all conservative support for vigilance abroad can be explained through purely rational or theoretical premises. There is also a populist element to the expansion of defense spending.  Generally, the American public has been reluctant to go to war; but this has not meant that the military has not proved useful during peace-time as well. Since even before the American  Republic was founded, the military has been an institution for upward mobility–many of the revolutionary veterans received colonial property for war payment and, thus, became not only property owners but enfranchized citizens of the new republic.

This upward mobility has expanded over time, with the introduction of the G.I. Bill, the expansion of the ROTC to all but the Ivy League schools, and the development of military postgradute colleges; anyone who attains a high commissioned rank in the military can almost be guaranteed a comfortable livelihood as many in the private industry are eager to hire someone of that discipline and non-commissioned officers are able to do well for themselves also. 

But the military is not really part of “elite culture”–increasingly, as the culture has become more polarized, soldiers have vanished from the halls of academia and politics.  In every presidential election since 1992, a war veteran as failed to be elected or re-elected, and, somewhat humorously, a senior policy advisor to the president can now have so little exposure to military personnel that she might mistake a Lt. General for a waiter. 

Furthermore, the states which often lose the most soldiers (per capita) in foreign wars–states like Idaho and Montana–also tend to be generally conservative states with fewer alternative institutions of upward mobility, such as colleges. Traditionalist culture–which is more easily found in rural towns than urban centers–in areas like these, the young have no need of Harvard, because the military is their Harvard. Military spending is, to conservatives, much as education spending is to progressives.

The military is not as conservative an institution as many on the Left presume, but it is often preception that matters, particularly the perception of those who govern.  And it is for this reason primarily that Republican legislators will be likely to oppose any attempt to cut back on defense spending.

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