Poor man’s war, rich man’s fight: Is there a link between inequality and defense spending?

Former submarine officer and Northwestern University political scientist Jonathan Caverly has a compelling new working paper arguing that there’s a correlation between inequality and increased defense spending in democratic countries. The traditional view is that armed conflict benefits elites with the brunt of the costs falling on the less well off. But Waverly argues that ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
612304_rockwell-and-patriotism2_02.jpg
612304_rockwell-and-patriotism2_02.jpg

Former submarine officer and Northwestern University political scientist Jonathan Caverly has a compelling new working paper arguing that there's a correlation between inequality and increased defense spending in democratic countries. The traditional view is that armed conflict benefits elites with the brunt of the costs falling on the less well off. But Waverly argues that modern, capital intensive militaries decrease this burden by reducing casualties and the need for large numbers of troops. The poor are still taking advantage of the "public good" of national defense but taxpayers are picking up the check:

The fact that democracies build militaries in order to avoid casualties and attempt to substitute firepower for labor are not new suggestions. This paper builds on this foundation by examining the consequences of making arming and war into an exercise in fiscal rather than social mobilization, arguing that the median voter in a democracy can use the public good provided by this type of military as a means of redistribution. If the costs of arming decline for this median voter, she will lead increase her demand. The empirical section employed two datasets primarily to test cost distribution theory's microfoundations. It first presented cross-national surveys of individuals showing that the less wealthy are more likely to support increased defense spending. The more skewed the distribution of wealth within the country, the more likely the average voter will support higher defense spending. Furthermore, at least in the case of Israeli public opinion, the lower one's household expenditure (a proxy for socio-economic status and income) the more likely one is to take a hard line on concessions to avoid conflict.

One would expect this trend to only increase as unmanned systems like drones play a greater role in modern militaries.

Former submarine officer and Northwestern University political scientist Jonathan Caverly has a compelling new working paper arguing that there’s a correlation between inequality and increased defense spending in democratic countries. The traditional view is that armed conflict benefits elites with the brunt of the costs falling on the less well off. But Waverly argues that modern, capital intensive militaries decrease this burden by reducing casualties and the need for large numbers of troops. The poor are still taking advantage of the "public good" of national defense but taxpayers are picking up the check:

The fact that democracies build militaries in order to avoid casualties and attempt to substitute firepower for labor are not new suggestions. This paper builds on this foundation by examining the consequences of making arming and war into an exercise in fiscal rather than social mobilization, arguing that the median voter in a democracy can use the public good provided by this type of military as a means of redistribution. If the costs of arming decline for this median voter, she will lead increase her demand. The empirical section employed two datasets primarily to test cost distribution theory’s microfoundations. It fi rst presented cross-national surveys of individuals showing that the less wealthy are more likely to support increased defense spending. The more skewed the distribution of wealth within the country, the more likely the average voter will support higher defense spending. Furthermore, at least in the case of Israeli public opinion, the lower one’s household expenditure (a proxy for socio-economic status and income) the more likely one is to take a hard line on concessions to avoid conflict.

One would expect this trend to only increase as unmanned systems like drones play a greater role in modern militaries.

Hat tip: Monkey Cage

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

Tag: War

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