The recently passed Budget Control Act calls for automatic across the board budget cuts of $1.2 trillion if the Congressional “super-committee” cannot agree on targeted reductions. About half of this amount would come from the defense budget, which already is slated for $350-400 billion in cuts over the next decade under the debt-ceiling legislation. In all, the Pentagon could lose $1 trillion in funding, on top of the $430 billion lost so far under President Obama. According to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, such “disastrous” cuts “would do real damage to our security, our troops and their families, and our ability to protect the nation.”
Unfortunately, democracies have a bad habit of shortsighted reductions in defense spending in order to finance other priorities, leaving them vulnerable to aggressors. In 4th-Century B.C. Athens, a fund called the theorikon distributed public monies to citizens so that they could attend religious and theatrical festivals. A law directed that budget surpluses go into this fund rather than into the stratiotikon, the military fund. Indeed, other legislation made any attempt to direct surpluses into the military fund a capital crime. This prioritizing of income redistribution over defense took place at the same time that the autocrat Philip II of Macedon was aggressively moving against the free Greek states, which he would defeat at the battle of Chaeronea in 338, destroying their political freedom. The historian Theopompus linked that defeat to such entitlement spending, castigating the Athenians for becoming “less courageous and more lax” because of the state-distributed dole and funding of festivals, upon which “the Athenian people thoroughly squandered their resources.” Corrupted by these state-funded entitlements, Theopompus observes, “the entire citizenry spent more on public festivals and sacrifices than on the management of war.”
England repeated Athens’ mistake after World War I. Between 1918 and 1920 England reduced its forces by three million men––“the Army had melted away,” as Churchill put it. Between 1919 and 1921, the military budget was reduced by four-fifths, and continued to decline until 1933. The government rationalized these reductions by arbitrarily formulating the “Ten Year Rule,” which assumed that England would not be called upon to fight a major war, and thus would not need an expeditionary force. The arms industry languished as well, falling behind in investment and technological development. By 1934 the shortfall in funding was so bad that it would have taken more money than England spent on defense in one year just to make up the deficiencies in one service, the army. Meanwhile, Germany had been secretly rearming and developing its arms industries since 1920, with the result that by 1938, it was spending five times as much on its military than England, and manufacturing twice the munitions of England and France put together.
Like Athens, one of the reasons England pursued this disastrous policy was the need to spend more money on social welfare programs, which meant spending less on defense. As Donald Kagan and Frederick Kagan write in their indispensable study of such feckless disarmament, to many in England, the reliance on the League of Nations to keep global order would allow the British government and people “to turn their attention inward, to correct the failures and flaws in the British body politic, to mend the holes in Britain’s social fabric.” Germany’s devastating aggression, which it had been preparing for nearly two decades, graphically illustrated once again the folly of stinting on defense spending while an aggressor is on the loose.
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