• The Heritage Network
    • Resize:
    • A
    • A
    • A
  • Donate
  • The Founders on Defense Spending

    In the midst of the current budget battle, there are a lot of folks—right and left—who assume that defense spending is a luxury that America just can’t afford at the moment. This a view far removed from James Madison’s conviction that “security against foreign danger is…an avowed and essential object of the American Union.”

    America’s spending priorities are out of whack. Congress’s shortsighted intransigence on the budget will likely mean cutting back the number of delivery days for the U.S. postal service and indiscriminately slashing the defense budget (two items explicitly mentioned in the Constitution). Meanwhile a host of welfare programs (created in the 20th century) are treated as sacrosanct.

    Assessing the Founders’ constitutional understanding of federal spending priorities can most certainly help us judge the order and degree to which we cut and reform federal funding in this urgent environment of financial constraints.

    The historical record reveals that, today, we consider defense spending to be a lower priority than did the U.S. Congress in the first 70 years of the Republic (see chart). From 1792 to 1860, defense spending as a percentage of the federal budget averaged 48.1 percent, and—even in the most peaceful times—never fell below 23 percent. The next most important items were the costs of the country’s few federal infrastructure programs (e.g., post offices and post roads), maintaining the federal government’s buildings and staff, and the costs of maintaining diplomats abroad.

    Moreover, the original impetus for calling the Constitutional Convention in 1787 centered on growing security threats facing the newly independent American states. The Constitution makes national security a main priority. Congress shall have the power to “declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water.… To raise and support Armies.… To provide and maintain a Navy.… To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces.”

    The appropriate uses for the military—directed and commanded by the President—mentioned in the Constitution were to “provide for the common defense,” “insure domestic tranquility,” and “punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offences against the Law of Nations.”

    To keep the new Congress centered on the priority of national defense, President George Washington cautioned them in his 1790 address to Congress:

    Among the many interesting objects which will engage your attention, that of providing for the common defence will merit particular regard. To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace. A free people ought not only to be armed but disciplined; to which end a uniform and well digested plan is requisite.

    In the first year of Washington’s Administration, Congress established the War Department, confirmed Major General Henry Knox as Secretary of War, and raised the first peacetime military regiments. Since Washington’s Administration, the United States has had a standing army as well as a navy.

    During the early years of the republic (despite intense congressional debates, severe miscalculations about foreign risks, and a few explicitly anti-war and isolationist Congressmen), military spending for the common defense was the clear priority at the federal level.

    Yet today, at a time of massive spending, this constitutional priority is being increasingly neglected. With defense spending already at historic lows, if sequestration occurs, it would indiscriminately force the defense budget to absorb 48 percent of the overall cuts. That means cutting defense by anywhere from $500 billion to over $1 trillion from projected long-term spending, thereby severely undermining the ability of the U.S. military to accomplish its current and anticipated operational tasks.

    This is the potentially fatal side of the rise of America’s welfare state and its endless benefits and programs. There is no excuse, however, for persisting in upended spending priorities and neglecting constitutional functions that are the core, exclusive responsibility of the federal government.

    Posted in First Principles [slideshow_deploy]

    36 Responses to The Founders on Defense Spending

    1. John G says:

      Nice strawman… no one is saying national defense isn't a role for the federal government. No one is saying we shouldn't spend any money fulfilling that role. The question many have, and rightly so, is whether we need to spend upwards of $1T to do it. Is even half of the money we spend on our military used for defending this country from attack? Are we even using the military in a Constitutional manner? When is the last time Congress has declared War (required under the Constitution) before sending our children into harm's way?

      All you so-called conservatives are quick to point out that the gov't basically sucks at managing the taxpayers money, and is generally inefficient at everything it does, yet the moment anyone wants to apply those same principles to military spending, that person is marginalized, labeled an anti-american or accused of sympathizing with the enemy or any number of other ad hominem attacks.

      We currently spend too much money at every level of government. There is no justifiably reason military spending should receive any less scrutiny than any other government program.

      • Chapman says:

        I am one of those so-called conservatives. I am a member of the military. I think that the DoD is bloated and needs some trimming. What I don't agree with is the way the liberals would go about it. I don't think we should be cutting the military when we are in the middle of a war, that just doesn't make any sense. I feel that we can afford to cut welfare programs that don't require a person to put in any effort to collect tax dollars. I think we should be looking in the social program direction much harder than we look at defense.

        • John G says:

          Thank you for your service Chapman. While I can't claim to be an expert in budgeting for a program as large as the US military, I would tend to agree with you that you do have to be a little discriminating when it comes to priorities. That said, if the role of our military is to respond to attacks and credible, imminent threats made against us, we likely could spend half of what we currently spend (nearly $1T annually) without any impact to core military functionality. Many of the cuts would be natural byproducts of a shrinking global military footprint.

          I don't think we should be cutting the military when we are in the middle of a war
          We're seemingly in a state of perpetual war. That alone represents more than enough reason to re-assess our military policy, and pull out of so many of these countries and arguably unconstitutional military conflicts.

          I feel that we can afford to cut welfare programs that don't require a person to put in any effort to collect tax dollars
          I will not disagree with you that our domestic welfare programs need to be reassessed, but it could easily be argued that many military contracts are nothing more than welfare programs for defense contractors, so it does cut both ways.

        • Ryan says:

          We shouldn't even be in a war. If we wait until there is no global threat to cut military spending then it will never happen. Defense spending is one of the biggest wastes of taxpayer dollars and a true economic conservative would understand that we need to curtail defense spending with our current budget situation

      • snarkysob says:


        Also missing from this post is a discussion of what the ratio of federal spending to GDP in the respective eras was.

        The best figure I can find is that in 1792 federal spending was about 3% of GDP; now it's more like 23%. If you go with the average of 48.1%, that means that defense in 1792 was 1.44% of GDP. Today, defense covers more like 5.75% of GDP – it's more than doubled since 2000.

        It is true that the U.S. is a much larger country than in 1792 and has far more to defend. But it is equally true that we've taken on missions that are none of our damned business, and certainly not in our national interest. And we continue to maintain a presence in countries we have no business being in.

    2. JohnC says:

      This is kind of an odd argument. First, we're supposed to let the perspectives of 200 years ago determine our current needs and wants? I thought the Founders created the Constitution to enable the people to make these decisions on an ongoing basis. Second, selective use of statistics aside, I am not sure Washington's speeches and writings would support the extensive defense and national security apparatus that we have constructed in the past 60 years (not to mention a modern general named Eisenhower who warned of a military-industrial complex). Even Ron Paul gets it. As another post noted, it's not the false choice of defense/no defense. The budget conversation should be about what kind of (defense/social welfare/education/…) programs do we want? More broadly, what kind of society do we want and are willing to pay for?

      What was so great about the Founders, brought into sharp relief by commentary like this, is that in times of national crisis they were willing to come together, debate and compromise in the national interest

    3. Ray Calvert says:

      Actually, there was division on the issue of supporting standing armies and navies in the time of the first elected Congress. Many, including Jefferson, were suspicious of the potential abuse of Federal power represented in the maintenance of a standing army. That Washington, a Federalist supported a strong national defense is consistent with the Federalist position. That view was not shared by the Democratic-Republicans who viewed state militias as being adequate for the nation's defense.

    4. Rand Guevara says:

      Look at other things too!

      What did the founders think of Medicare? Not much, in the 18th century, doctors couldn't cure the poor OR the rich.

      What did the founders think of Social Security? Not much, people rarely traveled for work; most kids stayed with their parents.

      What did the founders think of the Education Department? Not much, reading, addition & subtraction was enough for a farmer.

      What did the founders think of the Clean Air Act? Not much, the U.S. wasn't industrialized.

      What did the founders think of the NSF? Not much, electromagnetism and quantum mechanics hadn't yet revolutionized technology.

      What did the founders think of the DOE? Not much, they didn't know atoms existed, much less that they could be split.

      What did the founders think of giving women the right to vote? Of slavery? Of the rights of Native Americans?

      I am thankful for progress. "That's what they did 240 years ago" is not a rational argument for anything.

    5. Andrew says:

      Is this some sort of joke?

      Question: Do we spend the appropriate amount on "defense" spending?

      To get to this answer, let's consider:
      1. We spend roughly SIX times more on military spending than the next closest country.
      2. The United States, ALONE, spends more on military spending than the COMBINED military spending of the next 19 countries.
      3. The total spending of the top 20 countries in military spending was roughly $1.4 trillion in 2010. Of those 20 countries only two are not strong allies, China and Russia. (And they aren’t exactly “enemies”, either…well, not yet, anyway.) That makes 90% of the $1.4 trillion of military spending of the top 20 countries attributed to the US or our strong allies.
      4. Our government can't definitively tell us how many military bases we have across which countries. Perhaps we lost count?? The answer is somewhere between 500 – 1000+ bases across 130+ countries. That’s almost 70% of the countries of the world.

      Given 1-4 above, does this sound like "defense" or "offense"? Does it sound like we spend too little on defense spending or too much?

      There’s no need to answer this question, as the facts speak for themselves. The military-industrial (congressional) complex remains strong!

    6. Brian s says:

      John, don't think anyone is saying defense spending should be exempt from consideration. The point is that a 48% cut resulting from the sequestration is arbitrary and indiscriminate considering defense spending only accounts for approximately 15% of the federal budget. Common defense spending is a constitutional mandate, the other social programs which consume the majority of the federal budget are not. Nothing should be sacrosanct from cuts; they should all be proportional to our national priorities. I am one that believes it is not the federal governments responsibility to subsidize or provide for basic human services for everyone; I.e.nanny state.

    7. GHG says:

      This is pointless ,,,,,

    8. donkjen says:

      are the Brits still coming?
      Is there stil a frontier to defend?
      When we are spending 48% of our busget on Defense, were we at the same time accounting for 47% of the worlds spending on defense? This only makes sense if you actually think that the other half of the world is going to attack us.
      So, exactly how many nuclear subs do we need?

      and, we are still spending about 1/3 of our budget on defense related spending. Straight pentagon might only be about 25%. But, that does not take into account vetern affairs, counter intelligence, and a host of other defense related spending.

      But, yeah, we should keep accounting for almost 50% of the worlds defense spending, because you know… Small Government.

    9. Rob says:

      Ummmm. Weren't we fighting for, ya know, um…the right to exist as a nation and stuff? OUr GDP was wildly different. I'd go so far as to saying it was comparing apples and asteroids. I wish stupidity was painful.

    10. harmonious says:

      Doesn't the difference in Gross Domestic Product in 1700,and 2000, have say in statistics?

    11. David Hill says:

      The odd part is that most people who laugh at liberal's budget concerns regarding the military think that we can fix the budget by getting rid of food stamps.

      I still want to see why so many red states get so much more money in federal appropriations than they send out in federal taxes.

      Naah, I'm just being silly, we REALLY need to fix the budget by getting rid of Obama's teleprompter. Until a Republican is in office, in which case it won't be that big of a deal.

    12. neil says:

      Why is there a 110 year gap in the graph? Why would you pick pick spending as a % of the budget when spending as a % of GDP makes more sense?

    13. Gertwise says:

      Up until the early 1900's the government also wasn't taking in as much in taxes as they do now. The income tax didn't exist.

    14. Guest says:

      the cost of maintaining a military encounters diminishing returns and does not have a linear relationship with the size/growth of an economy or population. as such, unless we were doing something horribly wrong we would expect to find defense spending as a percentage of overall spending decline over time. spending on services is expected to grow with population. spending on infrastructure and other investments will as well, only not in so linear a fashion. of course, this entire article appeals to emotional/irrational premises (not least of which being that we should not have expected our fiscal policy to have changed in the past 230 years) so time spent addressing the argument on the basis of its rational merits or, in this case, the lack thereof, is probably not well spent.

    15. @Osagesage says:

      This argument is just what DD Eisenhower warned us about and conservatives support because it serves as a way to keep social programs from being funded and successfully managed. The founders were extremely wary of a standing army for numerous reasons and they knew that arms are among one of the most expensive items in which a nation can invest or waste its capital. Iraq and Afghanistan have shown us that our investments in weapons and the logistical overhead that both operations entail violate Sun Tsu's primary military protocols for achieving success. "When a country is impoverished by military operations, it is because of transporting supplies to a distant place. Transport supplies to a distant place, and the populace will be impoverished."

    16. Mike turner says:

      Even then most ardent defender of the defense budget would admit that billiions is used to dole out political pork or to secure overseas oil fields. Both acting as corporate welfare to those related businesses. it's time for an honest accounting and discussion of this issue, not to deflect it in the dishonest way the author suggests.

    17. Chris G says:

      I'm Australian, so I might have my wires crossed here, but I would have thought that the priorities of the Founding Fathers were influenced by the fact that they were challenging Great Britain and that large-scale war was, rightly, expected. Last time I checked, the United States was no longer in a desperate struggle for independence from a colonial superpower, which surely means that even a military budget of 34% is pretty damn high.

    18. Mike turner says:

      Even then most ardent defender of the defense budget would admit that billiions is used to dole out political pork or to secure overseas oil fields. Both acting as corporate welfare to those related businesses. it's time for an honest accounting and discussion of this issue

    19. William says:

      There is no Constitutional mandate for welfare spending, there is however Constitutional mandate for military spending. John, you only read what you wanted to read.

      So we have to wait until we're attacked to put together or pay for military readiness? The best defense is a good offense.

      What is a "Constitutional use" of the military in your world???

      All Congress has to do is to not appropriate the money for any war they feel has been declared outside of their Constitutional authority. Why didn't the Democrat controlled Congress do that, if it so objected to the "illegal" war???

      The government may suck at managing our money, but our military kicks butt, of course when left to do what they do best, and when not accused by the likes of Democrats like John Kerry, John Murtha, et al of being no more than thugs.

      Ah, John, you and the wonderful left wing in this nation are such hypocritical liars.

    20. Anonymous says:

      Look, John. Allow me to explain how the modern "think tank" works. You have to remember the following when you write an article: you start by determining what does you the greatest benefit to say, then follow up by cribbing a bunch of information you remember from those American History courses. You'll want to remember to glorify the real or imagined historical facts of American history that support your view, while simultaneously you ignore awkward institutions, public practices, and quality of life issues. If you did it right then your article will be on message, and have only the trappings of critical thinking. What is the point of a fancy degree if you can't manipulate people?

      They have no marketable skill. They can't fix your water heater. They don't know how to use a pipette. This is it for them. They are perched at the height of their ability. Honestly, they know better, they're educated enough to know better, so when you shine a light on them, their initial reaction is to feel slightly smug and if you were to get one in a room and verbally put them up against the wall by tearing down their weak one-dimensional worldview, they get this furtive look on their face that may make you feel a bit sorry for them. Generally, they stay within polite company to avoid the embarrassment of reality.

    21. Chris Brennan says:

      This is completely skewed and designed to make us think that we value defense less today than we did 200 years ago and is simply not true. 200 years ago the federal government operated within the confines of the constitution, this article itself says that it spent nearly 50% on defense and 50% on infrastructure. If you were to remove all of these unconstitutional entitlement programs that we have today, Medicare Medicaid, Social Security, and just compare how much we spend today on defense vs. infrastructure I'm sure we would find that the ratio would be more like 90% defense and 10% infrastructure. We should cut defense and all of these entitlement programs. Don't try to fudge numbers and make us think we aren't spending enough on defense when the truth is were spending way too much on defense and way to much on entitlements.

    22. Tim Reeves says:

      I wonder what graph would look like if it measured military spending vs. GDP instead of the federal budget. Fact is that the federal budget almost never exceeded 5% before WW1, so I doubt military spending was near what what it is now at any time in the (peace time) early republic (before WW1)

      • Ryan says:

        Glad to see someone gets the point. Our government placing extra emphasis on entitlement spending and wasteful bureacracies doesn't have much to do with defense

    23. Jonathan says:

      "There is no justifiably reason military spending should receive any less scrutiny than any other government program."

      Actually, there is. Entitlement programs (even Social Security and Medicare) were never intended to be a role of the federal government. If they were abolished, tax revenues could be decreased by about half, and we'd still be running a small surplus. And people could afford to pay for their own health care and retirement plans.

      Government wealth-transfer programs are inherently unstable; once created, they always expand until one of two things happens: a) people realize they are fiscally unsustainable and abolish them, or b) they collapse the economy and/or the government under the weight of their unsustainable costs.

      We are seeing b) in action in Greece and elsewhere in Europe right now. I would prefer to see the USA choose a).

    24. LiberalsIsDumb says:

      Marion, you are absolutely right: the current federal budget should mirror that of our Founding Fathers! Those guys had ALL the answers!

      First, we'll eliminate funding for the interstate highway system and fund only "post roads" made of dirt and (occasionally) cobblestones. Post offices still get funded… but only the same number of post offices that we had in 1860; the other 29,000 get bumpkus. And while we're at it, no more trucks, jeeps or planes for the USPS; all mail transport must be made by Pony Express.

      By the same token, we only pay for the same number of federal employees and diplomats as we had in 1860; the other 3 million can get real jobs.

      Any federal agency that wasn't around by 1860 ain't gonna be around by 2012! So bye bye CIA, FBI, NSA. You too TSA. (Who needs security anyway?) Federal oversight on pollution and food safety? Phhhhht. EPA and FDA are gone. In fact, let's make this easy and just eliminate all of the Cabinets and their money-sucking "help". Anything to do with airports and the FAA? Somebody else's problem now. NASA? What have they done for us lately anyway?! Federal parks? Sold off. Heck, the Washington Monument kinda looks like an oil derrick all ready.

      NOW WE'RE GETTING SOMEWHERE! The US military of 1860 didn't have planes, helicopters, tanks, armored vehicles, battleships or aircraft carriers so THAT'S gonna save a buttload right there. Course, we'll have to downsize our fighting force quite a lot to match 1860 troop levels…but with half of our federal budget now going towards Eli Whitney muskets and salt peter, every enlisted man (sorry ladies) will have 700,000 rifles to call his own.

      Yup Marion, you put a LOT of thought into this article! Thank you so much for the 20 seconds.

    25. Recoveringliberal says:

      So if we follow your logic, we should all admit we need to spend double when the government is involved in planning and spending. That doesn't address the change in priorities as defined by the %'s of spending. So what was your point, strawman?

    26. Micah B. Haber says:

      Mr. Smith is being horrifically dishonest. Percentage of defense spending as part of the federal budget is a fool's trick and statistic. Mr. Smith takes a period of relatively Constitutional government, 1792-1860, and then commits statistical fraud on his own metric by jumping ahead 85 years to post-New Deal, Great Society and Compassionate Conservatism American, 1945-2010, where the massive expansion of government spending just happens to have the side-affect of proportionally reducing the amount allocated to defense spending, utterly ignoring the quantitative figures. Mr. Smith's premise is a lie, and he should be ashamed of himself.

    27. Jim Jones says:

      irrelevant history is irrelevant.
      In the time frame your mentioning our defense spending as a total compared to other arguably more prosperous and populous nations was minuscule.
      today our defense spending is larger in total then the next 10 countries combined.

    28. Smallgovliberal says:

      1) I'd like to see these same figures as a percentage of GDP.

      2) I'd like to see this same figures as a comparison to global military expenditures.

    29. Arthur Sido says:

      John G is exactly right. The chart above is irrelevant when you look at the way government has expanded since the 1792-1860 time frame makes defense spending as a percentage of total spending a meaningless number. Certainly military spending is a legitimate role for the Federal government but that doesn't give the Feds a blank check for spending or blanket authorization for military adventures around the world.

      When you look at pertinent stats, like the U.S. accounting for 43% of all the military spending in the world and spending more than the next 14 nations combined, it becomes obvious that we need to cut back on the size and scope of the military. I have a hard time believing that the founders would have approved of "National Defense" including maintaining hugely expensive military bases around the world defending against a threat that stopped being realistic decades ago. Nor would they have been keen on an enormous standing army and navy that acts as the world's policeman on our own dime. (cont.)

    30. Arthur Sido says:

      Absolutely we need to cut back on all sorts of domestic spending, eliminating entire departments if possible. The fact that military spending is a legitimate function of the Federal government does not mean that military spending is off the table. The apocalyptic language used by many conservatives to describe ANY proposal to cut defense spending is worthy of the histrionics one expects from the left, not the sort of reasoned discussion that should define discourse from conservatives.

    31. Chris Brennan says:

      Small government liberal is right. The numbers are skewed to make it look like were not spending enough on defense. In reality defense spending is way to high, so I'd like to see the numbers as percent of GDP. The real problem is how much the federal government has grown over the past 200 years. They were never meant to have that much power or be in charge of massive unsustainable social programs.

    Comments are subject to approval and moderation. We remind everyone that The Heritage Foundation promotes a civil society where ideas and debate flourish. Please be respectful of each other and the subjects of any criticism. While we may not always agree on policy, we should all agree that being appropriately informed is everyone's intention visiting this site. Profanity, lewdness, personal attacks, and other forms of incivility will not be tolerated. Please keep your thoughts brief and avoid ALL CAPS. While we respect your first amendment rights, we are obligated to our readers to maintain these standards. Thanks for joining the conversation.

    Big Government Is NOT the Answer

    Your tax dollars are being spent on programs that we really don't need.

    I Agree I Disagree ×

    Get Heritage In Your Inbox — FREE!

    Heritage Foundation e-mails keep you updated on the ongoing policy battles in Washington and around the country.