Defense Spending as a Global Public Good

In this clip, both Cato’s Will Wilkinson and Joseph Heath from the University of Toronto agree that America’s massive defense spending is, in effect, subsidizing the national defense of other countries and both agree that it’s perverse that American conservatives like this. As they say, the right would be none-too-keen on the idea of the United States paying for Italians’ health care, so why should they like paying for Italians’ defense?

I like the conclusion of this argument (that defense spending should be cut) and I like the subsidiary thesis that conservatives are stupid and hypocritical. But I’m not 100 percent satisfied with the conclusion. Is it really the case that cutting U.S. defense spending would force Canada to increase its defense spending? In a generic sense, it’s hard to see the argument. If our military were smaller, Canada would need a bigger military to defend it against . . . what? Invasion from the United States? An amphibious attack mounted by Peru?

It’s even harder to see when you pour into the details. Right now our nuclear arsenal has about 4,000 warheads. If we entered a bilateral agreement with Russia that cut that arsenal down to about 1,500 warheads we could spend money. But obviously that wouldn’t imperil Canada’s defenses and require it to build up a nuclear arsenal. Or say we had one fewer carrier group what would the implications of that really be for, say, Portugal.

Now I think it’s true that if the United States massively scaled back our defense spending then other allied countries would need to step up to an extent. The US Navy does provide some real public goods in terms of freedom of the seas, and some of the responsibility for shouldering that load would need to devolve to Europe and Japan with hopefully China and India pitching in as well. But a considerable portion of American defense spending is genuinely wasteful. If we didn’t do it, it just wouldn’t be done. After all, it’s important to understand that excess capacity in military equipment is about as close as you can get to a real-world example of entirely wasteful public sector activity. A land-based nuclear missile that’s not genuinely needed to establish a credible deterrent threat is absolutely useless. Even a “bridge to nowhere” might help someone have a fun camping trip. Consequently, arms races where China builds up its military aviation to counter American superiority and then we build up our military aviation to maintain our superiority is a negative sum enterprise. And many actual uses of our defense capacity — invading Iraq, for example — are directly harmful to us. The kind of instability that results from misguided adventurism (see also, on a smaller scale, the US and Ethiopia in Somalia in December 2006) is a global public bad.