The moral case against defence cuts

Launch of a Trident missile (picture US Air Force)

Amid the arguments about the forthcoming spending cuts should fall, a new argument has been voiced to protect defence spending.  It is a moral argument.

A letter in the Daily Telegraph on 5 October, from Professor Gwyn Prins of the LSE and three others, argues as follows:

First, recollect that the moral case for taxation rests on the state exercising the monopoly of violence to protect the citizen from the enemy. That makes the “nightwatchmen” functions of the state the only non-discretionary area for spending tax money.

Pitt the Younger so observed when introducing income tax as a temporary measure to help fund war in 1798. It remains true today. So the defence of the realm alone is in a different category to other public expenditures. This needs to be restated bluntly when we are at war but retain a peacetime mentality, as today. It is the Government’s duty to explain this to a doubting population.

Normally, the claim for the moral high ground in defence spending comes from people who say that the money should be spent on something worthy like aid for the poor, rather than on bombs and missiles.  So Professor Prins is to be congratulated for his boldness.

And he may be right in asserting that the state has a moral duty to protect its citizens and to use taxation for this purpose, but it does not follow that the defence budget should be unlimited.

It would be wrong to spend more than is necessary on defence because to do so would deprive other valid claims on the public purse, such as health and education.  The current debate is about how much expenditure is enough and at what point it becomes excessive.  In that respect, defence is exactly the same as the rest of public expenditure, moral pronouncements to the contrary notwithstanding.

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