Although after the profligate fiscal policies of the Trump administration, it is difficult to take seriously that substantial spending cuts were the reason that Trump and the MAGA Republicans were so eager to make the United States default on its debt and trigger a government shutdown by attempting to block legislation to avoid these bad outcomes. After all, Trump was famous for boasting that “there’s nothing like doing things with other people’s money,” and then did it by presiding over a $7.8 trillion dollar rise in the national debt. During Trump’s four years in office, the MAGA crowd regularly raised the debt ceiling and kept the deficit-ridden federal government open. Yet, suddenly, when a Democrat won the 2020 election and became president, MAGA Republicans became deficit and debt hawks.
Yet, MAGA Republicans’ hypocritical rhetoric aside, the federal budget does need to be significantly cut to help reduce the nation’s colossal budget deficits and debt. Of course, such reductions are politically difficult because both parties have powerful vested interests that would squawk loudly if that were proposed. Another problem is that given the giant entitlement programs—Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, most Veterans’ administration programs, unemployment compensation, and agricultural price supports—about two-thirds of federal spending is on autopilot, paying benefits to anyone who qualifies for them. About eight percent of the budget is the growing interest payments on the gargantuan and rising $33 trillion in national debt. About half of the remaining quarter of the budget—called “discretionary spending” that Congress appropriates yearly—is ever-ballooning defense spending. The other approximate half of that quarter is domestic discretionary spending—think of federal education, transportation, and infrastructure programs, etc.
When bank robber Willy Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, he said, “that’s where the money is.” In the federal government, the entitlement programs are where the pot of gold is. Thus, no serious budget-cutting plan should leave out entitlement reform, but only former Vice President Mike Pence has trumpeted it so far in the Republican primaries. In fact, former President Donald Trump, the overwhelming Republican frontrunner, has always promised he wouldn’t cut Social Security and Medicare. Because of powerful interest group support, politicians of both parties have learned over time that pledging to cut entitlements is a political loser. Pence, riding low in the polls, has only done so in a desperate attempt to distinguish himself from the large pack of candidates trying to challenge Trump for the nomination.
Powerful interest groups also vociferously denounce cuts in other programs. For example, the federal security bureaucracies, defense industries, and media—supported by politicians of both parties—usually play the “patriotism” card to defend, spending almost $900 billion per year to police the informal U.S. global empire. Yet equating support for an offensively oriented military designed to project power around the world would not comport well with the nations’ founders’ conception of patriotism. The founders’ generation, and all American generations up until the post-Korean War Cold War period, were highly suspicious of large standing armies in peacetime and getting unnecessarily involved in faraway overseas quarrels. The founders correctly realized that both led to threats to liberty at home through the creation of overweening government power at home.
So, public support in America for keeping such large forces on hand permanently and using them to police the world is a fairly recent phenomenon. Currently, the American military budget is bigger than the next ten highest defense spending countries combined, including China, Russia, and many rich and robust U.S. allies. Despite the Cold War having ended long ago, the United States still has 800 military bases in seventy countries, many designed to fulfill formal and informal U.S. commitments to defend a plethora of allies and friendly nations.
Frederick the Great, one of the best military minds in history, coined a phrase that best sums up a fundamental military principle: “To defend everything is to defend nothing.” Thus, adding countries under the U.S. defense umbrella (for example, adding Finland and maybe Sweden to NATO) or enhancing existing alliances (for example, President Joe Biden’s verbal pledge to defend Taiwan if attacked) merely adds to the already grossly overextended and therefore dangerous, U.S. security posture. Instead, given the excellent geographical security that the United States possesses, the U.S. government should choose more carefully what it critically needs to help defend, leaving the security of the rest to its many wealthy allies and friends worldwide. This more restrained American security posture would allow U.S. forces, bases, and defense budget to be cut, thus reducing the economy-dragging budget deficits and burgeoning debt. A healthy economy undergirds all forms of security through hard and soft power.
Ivan R. Eland is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute and Director of the Independent Institute’s Center on Peace & Liberty. He is the author of War and the Rogue Presidency. He tweets at @Ivan_Eland.