May 282013

army adWe’re still a ways away from human labor being unnecessary, but out of compassion many countries have social welfare programs in place to help the very poor anyway. I don’t know how it works in other countries, but in the US there is a lot of resistance to giving people aid simply because they are poor. There must be an excuse to give the aid, to make sure the recipient is worthy or deserving. Alone has pointed out (in his unique way) that this has lead to the pathologizing of a whole class of people as “disabled” to the enrichment of a class of professionals. But while this program (SSI) paid out $45B in 2009, a much bigger program cost $680B that same year, and had arguably greater negative impact on the world.

It’s a bit of an open secret that the US Military is a combination social welfare program and employer of last resort in the US. If you can’t find any other work, you can always join the army. The pay is decent, the benefits are amazing (free health care for life! Most of your college tuition paid!), and there’s a rock-solid pension program. That’s one of the reasons that women, gays, and minorities all fought for the right to join the military. It certainly wasn’t for the privilege of being maimed and killed. The only catch is that you have to be willing to advance America’s global interests using violence, and risk your life/limbs/health.

My brother spent a year in Afghanistan. He didn’t need to join the army, but most of the other people he met were forced into it by life circumstances – ie: they needed the welfare benefits. He described the fear of walking through IED-laced areas. He saw a friend lose a leg to one. He was pretty upset that in the USA, we demand that the destitute young take these risks for us before we’re willing to help them pay for college and medical care. He has a point.

In addition, the military is not the most efficient welfare provider. Of that $680B annually, only $2.2B went to college expenses. Vast sums are spent on training tens of thousands of people to kill, and buying top-of-the-line war machines. If half this amount was instead used to train engineers and fund public works, we wouldn’t have nearly the infrastructure crisis we have now. We could provide all these people with wages, benefits, and education and actually have something to show for it as well.

There is a point where more military spending creates disutility, and like many liberals, I’m of the opinion that we’ve passed this point quite a while back. A large, expensive military is hard to justify if it stands unused. And when your best tool is a hammer, soon most problems start to look suspiciously nail-like. The mere existence of such a large standing army has probably caused wars simply by being available (*cough* Iraq *cough*), leading to trillions of dollars in waste and hundreds of thousands of lives lost or ruined.

Does our social welfare program really have to have such insanely negative externalities? People talk about the hazards of unconditional transfer payments – the disincentives to being productive – but are those consequences really worse than inflicting physical and mental trauma on our poor, and killing a percentage of them?

It seems that for now, we do require such blood prices. It’s not like I’m advocating a grand new idea, it’s been tried before. But the voting public looks to be unwilling to fund a massive social program right now unless violence is involved. It seems we’ve become so used to being politically motivated by fear that nothing else has any impact anymore. And in the meantime, the government will keep getting a bigger, stronger tool of destruction to tempt them.

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