Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Ethics of Defense Spending

Jonathan Shine


April 15, 2011
by Jonathan Shine

Like most good policy debates, the issue of reining in our federal budget goes well beyond “what works” to “what’s right;” it is a moral argument. But how do we parse the morality of the Defense budget to know what’s right?

Whenever people talk about the Defense budget, two things come up: the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the fact that we spend more on defense than the rest of the world combined.  Like most major Defense acquisitions, the F-35 costs a lot and doesn't actually exist yet.  It is supposed to be the most technologically advanced, and therefore the most expensive, air platform in history.  Obviously, where there is waste and fraud all citizens should deplore it and applaud its being brought to light.  At the same time, the American way of war is to show up for the fight with the absolute best equipment and training.  We do not accept, or even envision, our troops going into battle with weaponry less advanced than that of the enemy. 

That gets to the larger issue of the Defense budget, which by any measure is enormous.  One reason is that we buy equipment (like the F-35) that requires cutting edge research and development, which is necessarily expensive.  The only way to guarantee that our gear will be the most advanced is to keep pushing the research envelope firmly in front of everybody else’s.  But is it right that we spend so much?

We have the military that we want to have; it costs a lot because we expect more of it than any other people do of their own forces.  Our level of security defies almost any historical comparison.  We fear nobody; not our neighbors, not our allies, and certainly not our competitors.  We were shocked by 9/11, but we remain unique in the world in that we sleep every night secure in the absolute certainty that no outside force has the ability to seriously threaten our territory.  Presumably our friends don’t worry too much about an invasion from us either, but they still know that if we decided to, we could.  Americans do not accept that possibility from any other nation.  We demand the ability to project invincible power into any corner of the world on an hour’s notice.  And we have it.  We may not be sure if we should intervene in Libya (or Darfur or Rwanda or East Timor), but we won’t accept the inability to act if we wanted to.  And we can.  But it's expensive: more than the rest of the world spends on defense, combined.

Do any of those reasons make the enormous Defense budget right?

As with every question of right and wrong, our faith should inform our opinions.  And yet we so often conflate our faith with our politics that it becomes easy to assume that our team's policies must be in line with our faith.  Of course in a pluralist, secular polity this cannot be so.  As with a wide range of policy problems, Christians probably should disagree on the size of the Defense budget. 

Physical security is a necessity for almost all other needs of humanity.  The Israelites could not enjoy the “milk and honey” God had promised them until Joshua and his armies conquered the Land.  We as a nation, living in a fallen world, have a responsibility to make reasonable measures for defense – not in lieu of trusting God, but knowing that ultimately He is the determiner of the success or failure of our domestic and foreign policies.  The question is “what is reasonable?”  Christians in particular ought to be continually asking it.

Because we are the world superpower we have an unavoidable responsibility beyond our borders, including seeking justice and security for others.  We cannot do everything, but we can and should do many things.  There is no clear “Christian” position on what, how many, and how costly those things should be.

To all of this, the sincere believer must seek wisdom and move forward actively with both passion and grace.  Where does the path of wisdom and justice lie?  Honesty demands that we recognize that we can only see the issues imperfectly, and therefore our brothers and sisters in the Church are likely to perceive them differently.  Would Jesus buy guns or butter? 

—Jonathan Shine is a Major in the United States Army.  The opinions are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Army or the Department of Defense.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”