Recently, Neal Freeman wrote an article for NRO on Bill Buckley’s famous maxim that, in election campaigns, conservatives should support the “rightwardmost viable” candidate. Mr. Freeman focused on the meaning of the word “viable” in that formulation. That was a useful exercise, but it’s also helpful to consider what Mr. Buckley understood by the term “rightwardmost,” especially as it relates to the national defense.
We can assume that Mr. Buckley used “rightwardmost” as a synonym for “most conservative.” In a Townhall interview near the end of his life, he described conservatism this way: “Conservatism aims to maintain in working order the loyalties of the community to perceived truths and also to those truths which in their judgment have earned universal recognition.”
One of those truths is the essential weakness of human nature. Conservatives believe that human beings — while capable of great things if sufficiently steeped in the values of an enlightened society — are by their nature weak and corruptible. That’s the reason conservatives are suspicious of government; government represents the harnessing of state power to the weaknesses of human nature.
For the equal but opposite reason, conservatives also believe that government is necessary as a restraint on the worst tendencies of human beings. Government must therefore exercise a police power, properly checked and balanced to prevent abuse. It must also provide for the national defense by maintaining military forces that are effective but also systematically constrained so that they do not become an agent of oppression.
The idea that government should be limited in its role and constrained in the exercise of power, but vigorous in its proper functions, is at the heart of conservatism, and of the Constitution as well. In Federalist #51, James Madison wrote, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
The Constitution, of which Madison was the primary author, assigns the function of national defense to the central government. In fact, the text of the Constitution makes clear that national defense is the primary, exclusive, and mandatory function of the federal government.
One of the ironies of modern times is that the bigger the federal government has become, the less effectively it has exercised its primary responsibility. Over the last two decades, the government has systematically cut the size of the military and failed to recapitalize its inventory, while increasing its missions. In 2011, with no consideration whatsoever of the impact on national security, the government cut defense spending by almost $500 billion and followed that with another $500 billion sequester of funding. All this was done in defiance of the recommendations of Secretary of Defense Bob Gates (who was no profligate when it came to defense budgets; he ruthlessly cut a number of modernization programs in 2009–10) and the bipartisan Perry-Hadley Commission on defense, which specifically warned in 2011 that the U.S. military was facing a “train wreck” unless the size of the Navy was increased and all four of the services were recapitalized.
As a result, the military is becoming a hollow force. The Navy has fewer ships than at any time since before World War I; the Air Force is smaller, and its aircraft older, than at any time since the inception of the service in 1947; the Army and Marines are stressed, badly in need of new vehicles and helicopters, and — even if the sequester does not occur — scheduled for a substantial reduction in their end strength. The Pentagon is so broke that it recently had to delay deployment of a carrier to the Persian Gulf.
There is currently an undercurrent of disagreement among conservatives about the defense sequester and, more broadly, the importance of funding the armed forces at a time of mounting federal debt. That disagreement was reflected in the speeches given by Senator Marco Rubio and Senator Rand Paul in response to the State of the Union address. Senator Rubio condemned the defense sequester as “devastating” and assigned primary responsibility for it to the president. He was right on both counts. The sequester is devastating — the chairman of the Joint Chiefs compared it to “shooting ourselves in the head” — and the president, as commander-in-chief, is primarily responsible for it, whether he sponsored it or, as he claims, simply agreed to it.
Senator Paul did not condemn the defense sequester in his speech. His sole comment regarding the defense budget was that “Republicans [should] realize that military spending is not immune to waste and fraud.” He’s right in the narrow sense. The Pentagon, like all agencies of government, wastes money. But focusing on that now, given what is happening to America’s armed forces, is like sending a letter to George Washington at Valley Forge telling him to save money on pencils.
Moreover, talking about the budget crisis in terms of defense funding simply helps the president avoid confronting the main challenge to the government’s solvency. Anyone who looks at the federal budget can see that the problem is the structural gap between the revenue collected for entitlement programs and the cost of those programs. That gap is growing and is crowding out everything in the discretionary budget, including funding for the military. Cutting the defense budget is not the answer to the fiscal crisis facing our nation; it is a symptom of it.
Conservatives in Congress are admittedly in a difficult position regarding the defense sequester. They have to work to reform the federal budget; they can’t do that unless the president actually presents a comprehensive plan; and tolerating the sequester in the short term may be the only way of inducing him to do that. But that doesn’t make the damage to American security any less real, and it will increase the importance — if and when a budget agreement is reached — of repealing not only the sequester but also the cuts that preceded it, and returning at least to the level of military funding that Secretary Gates recommended before he left office in 2011.
In that same Townhall interview, Bill Buckley freely acknowledged that, like many conservatives, he had a strong libertarian streak. The interviewer, Bill Steigerwald, followed up by asking why he had feuded so often with libertarians. Here is his response:
I suppose the most important argument is the dogmatic character of libertarian conservatism.
I once wrote an essay on the subject in which I said that if I were at sea on my boat and saw a light flashing I would not worry deeply whether the financing of that light had been done by the private or public sector. This became a kind of playful debate with the [University of] Chicago [economists]. By and large it has to do with the tenacity with which some libertarians tend to hold on to their basic [principles].
To turn Buckley’s illustration into a metaphor, the United States is now sailing in a sea of growing danger and seems to have lost sight of the light on the shore. China is flexing its muscles in support of its national ambitions. Iran and North Korea are advancing their nuclear and missile programs. Al-Qaeda and its allies are expanding their bases of operation. And in an age of nuclear and cyber and biological weapons, the oceans no longer protect the United States.
The answer to these challenges is not to plan on sending American troops into combat around the world. Senator Paul makes that point often, and he’s right. The surest (and cheapest) way of protecting America is to deter these threats before they ripen into war. That requires, first and foremost, a robust military. Conservatives may disagree about a lot of things, but they should agree on that. In fact, liberals should agree, as well. President Kennedy was able to prevent the Soviets from putting missiles into Cuba, without a shooting war, because the United States had a strong Navy. And as Ronald Reagan used to say, “Of the four wars in my lifetime, none came about because America was too strong.”
— Jim Talent served on the House and Senate Armed Services Committees. He is currently a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a member of the U.S.–China Economic and Security Review Commission, and an appointee to the Independent Panel that will review the next Quadrennial Defense Review of the Department of Defense. The views expressed in this article are his own.