By Other Means

“You say socialism like it’s a bad thing!”

“You say socialism like it’s a bad thing!”

Some readers are taking me to task for impugning the military with the word socialism. I should be clear: though I may be one of the last three people in America who feels this way, I don’t use "socialism" as a dirty word, at least if what we mean by "socialism" is having a society that takes decent care of its people. (No, no, no, I’m not gonna defend the USSR. I’m just saying that there’s something to be said for the welfare state.)

I’ve also been taken to task ("Ungrateful moron!," writes a Mr. David Hurley) for failing to see that a) the military deserves these great benefits, damn it, because they may get shot at/must at times live away from their families etc., or b) the benefits aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, because the on-base housing sucks! the health care sucks! the pay for junior enlisted troops sucks! Etc.

I don’t disagree. I’m all in favor of the majority of the benefits for which military personnel are eligible. (The sole exception might be the ability to immediately draw pensions after 20 years). In some cases, I agree that the benefits could use improvement: the quality of some services is uneven.

Whether the current level of spending on military benefits is sustainable, given economic realities, is a separate and critical question, but I will leave that to a future column or blog.
My real beef? It’s not that benefits for military personnel are "too generous," morally speaking. They’re not. What strikes me as sad is that we seem to lack a similarly generous instinct for the large majority of citizens who aren’t in the military. I think it’s fine to reward those who serve in important ways with some "extras," but I don’t think access to affordable health care, housing or higher education should be considered rewards or extras. Those are the bare minimum benefits a decent, functioning society should strive to provide for all its citizens.

As I said, I’m cool with the military welfare state. I just wish we’d spread it around a bit more.
My Georgetown colleague David Luban picks up on a related point. He writes:

"[Your column] made me think about a major contradiction in our national psyche:

1. Americans mistrust big government.

2. Americans believe in free markets as opposed to command economies.

3. Americans trust the military more than any other pubic institution.

4. The military is the biggest thing in big government, and it’s run through a chain of command?

How is it that people who don’t believe in top-down command to run society think that a top-down command organization is the most trustworthy and reliable one in society?"

Good question. American attitudes towards the military are full of contradictions and ironies. We want the military to do more; we want it to stick to it’s "core competencies," we worship it; we don’t want our children in it; we want it to have the generous benefits we decry as socialistic and and anti-freedom when a Democrat urges them for the rest of the country; we want the military to solve our problems and go everywhere; we want it to stay out of our sight.

This first column introduces some of these themes. I look forward to exploring them more fully in the coming months. Meanwhile, keep the comments and emails coming.