The warfare state

A few weeks ago I remarked on the relatively high current defense spending for the United States. In hindsight I think this was somewhat unfair, the proportion of the budget that the United States spends on defense is rather small in a world-historical context. I was reminded of this by a datum in The Age of Confucian Rule: The Song Transformation of China (highly recommended by the way), even this exceedingly civilian dynasty allocated ~80% of its budgetary outlays toward military expenses. Historical surveys of the Roman Empire also infer that most of the expenditure was directed toward paying for the legions, not bread & circuses. These two civilizations were relatively unique in that they placed great emphasis on the need for a civilian aristocracy who were soaked in literate culture (the first non-literate emperor of the Roman Empire took power in the early 6th century, and that fact may be a slander).

As a rule an incredibly high proportion of expenditures in pre-modern states which have left a non-trivial number of records produced by a bureaucracy (e.g., China, Rome, Byzantium, the early Caliphates) was allocated to the military. In those polities, such as the ones termed "feudal," where exchanges between the individual and the powers that be occurred in the form of service and not currency (i.e., tax), there was a martial tinge to service (e.g., knights and samurai). The shift from hunter-gatherer bands to large political organizations seems to have produced an equilibrium of rent-extracting thugs whose competition for said rents generated the need for taxation to support their very existence in a vicious spiral. Of course there is also evidence that per capita violence has been decreasing since the days of yore, and concomitantly since the rise of social insurance and public utilities & works there has been a radical shift away from the a preponderant proportion of the state-sector budget being devoted toward the military (the Soviet Union seems to have perpetuated the pre-modern model). So I do not want to paint a trend toward red in tooth & claw.

Also, I do understand that some might argue that the pre-modern state captured far less of the economic output of a society in the form of taxes than the modern Leviathan. I will leave that debate to economic historians and their normative political philosophers, though I generally am of the position that the past was miserable by and large, and that the miseries of the present take a toll only because of the luxury which we have been habituated to.

Note: Many criticize the Confucian model of China for trapping that society in relative stasis. But at lease the political theorists of China generally understood the non-zero sum nature of military expenditure and warfare. Military pursuits were held in low esteem, even if it was acknowledged that they were needful.

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"Military pursuits were held in low esteem, even if it was acknowledged that they were needful." Like lawyers and prostitutes nowadays, I suppose. And politicians. And journalists. And.....

By bioIgnoramus (not verified) on 14 Feb 2010 #permalink

lawyers and prostitutes were also held in low esteem (legalism at least). i think the prostitute analogy is pretty good. though there is a certain amount of fakery in the contempt for soldiers; the founder of the song dynasty was a general.

Transformations of economics, government, finance and fiscal affairs, and warfare since 1800 make long-range comparisons pretty dodgy.

Traditionally, unproductive economies left large parts of the population not too far above subsistence, and the trick for government was to extract as much surplus as possible without pushing too many people below subsistence (which happened in bad years). Except for public works (bridges, dams, canals) the positive functions of government (welfare, science, education) were few. In China even local policing away from the capital was left in private hands.

So defense was the most important function by far, with cultural spending / luxury spending / prestige spending by the elite coming second. This has been described as the king of the vultures theory -- the Roman state protected Romans against competing military groups hoping to exploit the Romans, but also kept the Romans themselves under control so they would keep on paying their taxes.

Government's ability to extract from the non-government economy was also more limited when roads and communications were bad, finance was inefficient, and many were off the cash economy.

Anyway, modern states have taken on a lot of responsibilities besides the military and also have a bigger share of the economy.

Absolute and relative size apart, I think that two questions to ask about our military are 1.) if we're signed up for premanent war, and we seem to be, shouldn't all war costs be budgeted instead of being treated as extraordinary emergency expenditures, which they aren't, and 2.) is the military there to meet some kind of need, or does the military come first, with the needs found afterward?

My understanding is that we are signed up for permanent war and that these wars will usually be, for better or worse, aggressive or imperial wars. It's hard to argue this in public at all because most Americans don't like the idea of imperialism, so all wars have to be described as defensive. Many of the strongest supporters of American imperialism specialize in explaining that we are not imperialists, but are merely defending ourselves against super-villains. Occasionally one of them will slip and argue that imperialism isn't really a bad thing, and a few (Niall Ferguson and some neocons) do that openly and without pretense.

I'm not sure that resistance is possible anymore. Most Republicans, at least half of the Democrats, most of the media, the standing military and intelligence services, and many or most of the American people support de facto imperialism, and a fair number of them support imperialism outright.

By John Emerson (not verified) on 15 Feb 2010 #permalink

That ~80% figure holds for Western states at least in Early Modern times. Any major 17th or 18th-c. state--- say, France or England or the Habsburg Monarchy ---would spend at least 2/3 to 3/4 of its budget on the military.

By DesertHedgehog (not verified) on 15 Feb 2010 #permalink

With all of the jabbering going on out there about ways to cut spending, only Bernie Sanders of Vermont (God bless him!) has had the common sense to state what should be blatantly obvious: We need to make drastic slashes in military spending.

âIn the councils of government we must guard against the acquisition of power, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties and democratic processes.â

Dwight D. Eisenhower
January 17, 1961

We could cut our military budget in half and still have enough really cool bombs in our arsenal to destroy the world three times over â and then some. The Cold War is over, folks. Why on earth are we still pissing away our national treasure on these military contractors? Could it possibly be that our very economic survival depends on our stockpiling the entire planet with weapons of mass destruction? That is the question we all should be asking.

âBlessed are the peacemakers;
for they shall be called sons of God.â

Jesus of Nazareth

Now thereâs something for the so-called âChristian Rightâ to ponder. Just a thought.

Tom Degan
Goshen, NY

Does anyone know the budget of the church for the same period?
Since a number of functions of the medieval church (education, welfare etc) have shifted to the state, it would be more accurate to compare both state and church budgets

Yeah, the state's increased proportion of the economy and the spending of government money on anything other than war and the subsidized aristocracy only began during the 19th century, and in many states, late in the 19th century.

By John Emerson (not verified) on 15 Feb 2010 #permalink

Karl XII of Sweden, who had a series of victories against the Danes, the Poles, the Russians, and German states before he was defeated, seems to have financed his wars by plundering as he went along. His troops were paid in cash, and his mobile headquarters was a wagon filled with coin (which the Russians got when they won in 1709). His wars cost Sweden very little and were not fought on Swedish soil, which was a good thing because Sweden was then a poor nation. His predecessors (Gustavus Adolphus) had similarly plundered Germany to Sweden's benefit.

I've been told that he was actually a good ruler for the Swedes (or that his government ruled Sweden well why he was raging around), but in the big picture his activities look purely parasitic and zero-sum, and scarcely different than the plundering wars of steppe nomads 1000 years earlier.

By John Emerson (not verified) on 15 Feb 2010 #permalink

It's also instructive to look at per-GDP military spending. In that context the US isn't even particularly exceptional by contemporary standards - currently it's ranked in the low 20s.

With new technology and vastly increased wealth, even small pre-GDP expenditures give many time the destructive power that, for example, Napoleon's army had.

By John Emerson (not verified) on 15 Feb 2010 #permalink

"per GDP"

By John Emerson (not verified) on 15 Feb 2010 #permalink