Dollars For Gas

IN THE LIMITED-GOVERNMENT GOSPEL that now dominates both the minds of America's leaders and the nation's political discourse, one homily in particular has received the nodding assent of liberals and conservatives alike: government can't solve problems by "throwing money at them." Yet the same leaders who preach the impotence of federal dollars in the war on poverty and social inequality show remarkably little skepticism about the effectiveness of the dollar in winning military battles.

The $196 billion military budget allotment which President Carter will bequeath his successor--who is sure to boost that total by several more billion--is not just the largest peacetime military budget in American history. It represents a gigantic dollars-for-grabs party. Defense contractors won't even have to compete with each other for the privilege of building mobile missile systems, the new XM1 tanks, and other weapons still on think-tank drawing boards; there will be plenty for all.

In spending these extra billions on new weapons systems, Congress and the incoming administration may think they are doing their part to safeguard American interests from perceived threats abroad, and keep pace with Soviet expenditures. But today's free-for-all spirit of assenting to each armed force's projected hardware needs is far more likely to foster waste, graft, and over-confidence within a military establishment that is already notoriously unthrifty. Extra defense dollars would be better allocated to raising military salaries and improving the maintenance of existing systems.

A far more sensible and effective way to use American armed forces to keep the nation safely at peace--the only sane purpose for maintaining the military--would be to limit its budgets carefully while revising official views of what exactly, constitute America's "interests." Forcing the Joint Chiefs to live within modest means would both encourage the innovation and good management that characterize any effective military and would prevent the kind of overbearing arrogance that has led America into wars of aggression in the past and that may do so again. And revising American foreign policy to reflect the inevitability of an evaporating oil supply--ordering American priorities towards the development of new energy sources, instead of the military protection of old ones--would undermine today's loud demands for massive American intervention in the Middle East.

The bloated arms budget not only threatens the quality and effectiveness of America's armed forces; in an era of accelerating inflation and tax-cut mania, it provokes justified fears of a "hyper-inflation" that would do more than any lag in missile production to erode American power. And if President-elect Reagan tries to dodge this specter by cutting giant swaths in social spending to make up for the tax cuts and the arms budget, the resulting domestic decay and turmoil would prove far more costly and damaging than any "perceived loss of military parity." And the American society that refused to spend money on the well-being of its people for the sake of its armaments would be hardly worth defending.