Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Founders on Defense Spending

In the midst of the current budget battle, there are a lot of folks—right and left—who assume that defense spending is a luxury that America just can’t afford at the moment. This a view far removed from James Madison’s conviction that “security against foreign danger is…an avowed and essential object of the American Union.”

America’s spending priorities are out of whack. Congress’s shortsighted intransigence on the budget will likely mean cutting back the number of delivery days for the U.S. postal service and indiscriminately slashing the defense budget (two items explicitly mentioned in the Constitution). Meanwhile a host of welfare programs (created in the 20th century) are treated as sacrosanct.

Assessing the Founders’ constitutional understanding of federal spending priorities can most certainly help us judge the order and degree to which we cut and reform federal funding in this urgent environment of financial constraints.

The historical record reveals that, today, we consider defense spending to be a lower priority than did the U.S. Congress in the first 70 years of the Republic (see chart). From 1792 to 1860, defense spending as a percentage of the federal budget averaged 48.1 percent, and—even in the most peaceful times—never fell below 23 percent. The next most important items were the costs of the country’s few federal infrastructure programs (e.g., post offices and post roads), maintaining the federal government’s buildings and staff, and the costs of maintaining diplomats abroad.

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