July 26, 2017 Reading Time: 2 minutes

In 1969, as the war in Vietnam was raging, AIER Founder Edward C. Harwood and his brothers wrote an open letter to President Richard Nixon. The letter (click on the PDF link here) held true to Hardwood’s views on limited government, and is equally relevant as we think about the United States’ military interventions and defense budget today.

The letter began by stating the Harwood brothers’ principle that “our youth in the Armed Services should be ordered to risk their lives in combat under only two circumstances:

  1. For strictly limited ‘police actions’ to remove American citizens endangered by riots or revolutions and then only for the purpose of evacuating such citizens promptly, not for the purpose of protecting American investments abroad; and,
  2. In a formally declared war or in response to an attack on the United States when there is no other practicable way of protecting the vital interests of the United States.”

The letter then urges the President to either get our troops out of Vietnam as soon as possible or treat the effort as a full-on war. Regarding the second option, however, the Harwood brothers note that “if there is any proof the Southeast Asia is vital to the defense of the United States, we do not know it.” The letter also harshly criticizes the notion that decisions in the war be motivated by either commercial or political interests.

The war in Vietnam continued for several years after the Harwoods’ prescient warning, and the United States has intervened militarily overseas several times in subsequent decades. One’s views on the size and role of the military depend on many factors of personal philosophy and experience, and this is not the space to fully debate them. But it would be hard to argue that some of our recent military actions fit either of the two criteria listed above.

Today our defense spending accounts for about one sixth of our budget, and dwarfs the spending of any other nation. These facts raise not only the issue of when to intervene militarily, but also the frequent inefficiency of government programs. Had Bernie Sanders made it to the general election, many conservatives would have screamed fiscal bloody murder at his proposed trillion dollar infrastructure program, spread over ten years. But “big government” is far bigger than that when it comes to military spending. Reevaluating some of this spending is an idea that cuts across traditional political lines. A recent post at the Mises Institute entitled “Peace is Popular” stated the “resonates with young and old alike, with rich and poor, and across racial lines. It’s popular with the alt-Right and the progressive Left, budget hawks and Greens, Burkean conservatives and tie-dyed peaceniks. We just need to get the message to Mr. Trump.” The Harwood brothers would likely be preparing an open letter today.

Max Gulker

Max Gulker

Max Gulker is a former Senior Research Fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research. He is currently a Senior Fellow with the Reason Foundation. At AIER his research focused on two main areas: policy and technology. On the policy side, Gulker looked at how issues like poverty and access to education can be addressed with voluntary, decentralized approaches that don’t interfere with free markets. On technology, Gulker was interested in emerging fields like blockchain and cryptocurrencies, competitive issues raised by tech giants such as Facebook and Google, and the sharing economy.

Gulker frequently appears at conferences, on podcasts, and on television. Gulker holds a PhD in economics from Stanford University and a BA in economics from the University of Michigan. Prior to AIER, Max spent time in the private sector, consulting with large technology and financial firms on antitrust and other litigation. Follow @maxg_econ.

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