Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The ethics of 'humanitarian intervention.'

          What if the United States had a military whose strength was at least roughly commensurate with the military threats we face?  At present, our military is gargantuan: In 2009, the US spent $668 billion on defense, fully 43% of all the money spent on armaments in the entire world.  In the midst of a severe recession, we devoted 4.3% of our GDP to defense, far higher than any other democratic, industrialized country except Israel.  Yet, in military terms, we are in a remarkably secure position.  We have oceans on two sides of us, and the smaller, friendly countries of Canada and Mexico on the other two sides.  Furthermore, there is no country that threatens us from afar.  Not only is America far and away the leader in military spending, but of the next 19 countries rounding out the top 20, 15 are allies of ours.  Even China– mildly hostile and several times larger than us– spent less than 1/6 what America did on its military.  We fear terrorism, of course, but that’s not a military threat, and experience has shown that there is little or nothing that a conventional military force can do to prevent it.  Indeed, it may make the danger greater.  So clearly, if the purpose of our military were to defend America against threats, it ought to be a fraction of its current size. 
            Obviously, in a world of limited resources, maintaining a military force as absurdly bloated as ours requires strong justification.  And this is relevant for thinking about “humanitarian interventions” such as our most recent foray into Libya.  Taken in isolation, the argument for intervention is straightforward and compelling: Clearly the world would be a better place without Muammar el-Qaddafi, and better still if he could be replaced without massive bloodshed among the rebels trying to topple him.  The allied assault will cost lives, of course, but in the overall balance it will save them and, in utilitarian terms, produce a favorable balance of pleasure over pain.  (This is only true, however, on the questionable assumption that everything in this operation goes according to plan.  There is plenty that could go wrong: The rebellion against Qaddafi might falter, leaving us with a choice of deeper involvement or accepting a slaughter after all,.  The rebels might win, and turn out to be as bad as Qaddafi.  The operation might succeed, but provoke anger in the Arab world over yet another Western attack on a Muslim country.  We just don’t know.)
            But helping the heroic Libyan rebels is not the only outcome of “Operation Odyssey Dawn.”  It also contributes to justifying the military-industrial state that America has become.  Let us assume that we support attacking Libya.  But that attack is possible only because we have a military that far exceeds our defense needs.  Support for the attack therefore entails support for the necessary condition of the attack.  More generally, the widespread acceptance among the American people of the legitimacy of humanitarian interventions has served to justify the farthest tentacles of empire.  Our conquest of Iraq was supported by many liberals, and both on the left and on the right that particular adventure was lauded as a preemptive defensive act but also (especially when the claims of self-defense were revealed as lies) as a good deed we were doing the world.  The US Navy now lures recruits with images of American seamen helping the helpless at home and abroad, under the slogan “A Force for Good.”
            The cost of maintaining a military as large and powerful as ours is draining our economy and weakening our democracy.  It is also alienating people around the world who might otherwise be our allies.  If we want to change that, we must accept that that will mean that we are not able to right some of the wrongs we see in the world.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Case For The ‘Repair Bill’

    It is now more than a week since Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) introduced a so-called ‘repair bill’ to fix the state’s sorry finances.  This bill would make sharp cuts in a number of areas, including education and state worker pensions, but also, most controversially, would strip Wisconsin’s unionized public employees of the right to negotiate with the state on any topic other than wages.  The intervening week has seen protests on a scale unequaled even in Madison, a town that roiled in radicalism in the 1960’s.  Emotionally, my sympathies are entirely with the protesters—how could they not be?  But intellectually, it’s worth asking what can be said for the repair bill, not only as a step toward forming a judgment, but also to add to understanding what motivates the protesters. 
     The case for Walker’s bill can be summed up in one word: necessity.  The Governor estimates that Wisconsin faces a budget shortfall of $3.6 billion over the next two years.  For a state with a population of fewer than 5 million, this is a huge hole to plug.  Wisconsin has fiscal problems it shares with many other states.  The Affordable Health Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare), for example, has saddled the states with a huge burden for Medicaid over the next several years.  The pension fund for the state workers is also underfunded, and if it were fully funded the result would be a major burden for Wisconsin taxpayers.  Health care is expensive, too, of course, and thus state employees are being asked to pay for more of their own coverage, too.  Even the move to bust the state employees’ unions can be justified on this basis, since (the argument goes) without this move the state will not have the flexibility it needs to deal with what might well be a fiscal crisis of several years.
     Philosophically, then, the argument for the repair bill is a garden-variety utilitarian argument: The overall consequences for Wisconsin voters of passing the bill will be better than the consequences of defeating it.  And it follows quite naturally that the workers who oppose it are defending their particular interests at the expense of the general welfare.
     Now, there are good reasons for doubting that the state’s budget situation is as severe as the governor maintains, and even more reasons to doubt that whatever problems there are will be solved by the repair bill.  But this is a philosophy blog, not a public policy blog, so the question I want to ask is, Even if everything presupposed in the above argument were true, would it still follow that it is unreasonable to oppose the bill? 
     No, it would not, because the utilitarian perspective is not the only possible way of looking at the situation in Wisconsin.  In order to understand the opposition to Walker’s proposals the relevant concept is, I think, the social contract.  Contractarianism is an idea that goes back to ancient Greece: The principles of justice in society arise through an agreement between the citizens limiting the power of each in order to gain the benefits of law (and, some would say, collective action).  On Thomas Hobbes’ view, at least, in the absence of such a contract, there is no justice, and thus also no injustice. 
     I will not say that a state of nature reigns in my native state—though if there were, I’m sure it would be friendlier and more polite than the nasty, brutish and short situation that Hobbes describes.  But the position of the protesters makes a lot of sense if we think of it as resulting from widespread suspicion that the social contract is not being honored, and thus that cooperation at one’s own expense is not reasonable.  The conflict we see there is a predictable consequence of the dramatic increase in economic inequality in America over the last 30 years, and it is precisely the chief danger of inequality that it undermines the social contract and makes it more difficult for societies to act collectively for the common good. 
     This increased inequality can be traced at least in part to economic trends beyond anyone’s control: As the labor market has become more globalized, the gap between high-skill and low-skill workers has grown.  But inequality in the US is also a creation of government policy, most particularly since 1980.   Trade unions, for example, are the most powerful tool lower-skilled workers have in negotiating for higher wages, but under Republican presidents, and to some extent under Clinton, too, the Federal government has been actively hostile to unions, and union membership has steadily sagged.  The minimum wage has fallen in real terms while taxes for the rich have been cut, and health care costs have been allowed to spiral out of control.  As a result, wages for average Americans have fallen, while the number of billionaires has spiked.  My own hometown of Janesville, once home to a comfortable middle class of unionized auto workers, has been deindustrialized as job prospects for local labor have disappeared with the town’s General Motors plant.
     This is crucial background for the standoff in Wisconsin.  The protesters surely do not think of themselves as being at war in a state of nature, where everything is allowed.  But they have good reason to reject proposals for the common good that harm them severely, and cannot be convicted of selfishness for this, for they have no reason to think that their government will act on their behalf.  What Walker proposes is just a Wisconsin-sized version of what Reagan did when he handed tax breaks to the wealthiest while busting the air traffic controllers’ union.  Indeed, before he proposed destroying the public employees’ union in order to decrease the budget, he increased that deficit by passing the tax cuts that Republicans seem to think heal all social ills.  It has also emerged that Walker's budget-balancing plan includes a provision for selling off state-owned energy facilities, which dovetails nicely with the interests of his financial backers, the Koch brothers.  Wisconsinites affected by the repair bill cannot kid themselves that the present state government is going to act reliably for the benefit of all, for this would stand in stark contrast not only to Walker’s own views, but to the broader policies that have defined the Republican Party since 1980.  Sadly, in the Age of Reagan, anyone who is willing to sacrifice for the common good, in expectation that others will do the same, is just a fool.
     By the way, one consequence of this analysis is that it is a mistake to distinguish, as most Wisconsin Democrats do, between the cost-cutting measures Walker has proposed and the union-busting measures.  Both are aimed at redistributing wealth upward, without a compensating benefit for those harmed.