A History Dangerous to Repeat

Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, a Research Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, and a Professor of Classics and Humanities at the California State University. He is the author of nine books and numerous essays on classical culture and its influence on Western Civilization. His most recent book, Democracy's Dangers and Discontents (Hoover Institution Press), is now available for purchase.


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The recently passed Budget Control Act calls for automatic across the board budget cuts of $1.2 trillion if the Congressional “super-committee” cannot agree on targeted reductions. About half of this amount would come from the defense budget, which already is slated for $350-400 billion in cuts over the next decade under the debt-ceiling legislation. In all, the Pentagon could lose $1 trillion in funding, on top of the $430 billion lost so far under President Obama. According to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, such “disastrous” cuts “would do real damage to our security, our troops and their families, and our ability to protect the nation.”

Unfortunately, democracies have a bad habit of shortsighted reductions in defense spending in order to finance other priorities, leaving them vulnerable to aggressors. In 4th-Century B.C. Athens, a fund called the theorikon distributed public monies to citizens so that they could attend religious and theatrical festivals. A law directed that budget surpluses go into this fund rather than into the stratiotikon, the military fund. Indeed, other legislation made any attempt to direct surpluses into the military fund a capital crime. This prioritizing of income redistribution over defense took place at the same time that the autocrat Philip II of Macedon was aggressively moving against the free Greek states, which he would defeat at the battle of Chaeronea in 338, destroying their political freedom. The historian Theopompus linked that defeat to such entitlement spending, castigating the Athenians for becoming “less courageous and more lax” because of the state-distributed dole and funding of festivals, upon which “the Athenian people thoroughly squandered their resources.” Corrupted by these state-funded entitlements, Theopompus observes, “the entire citizenry spent more on public festivals and sacrifices than on the management of war.”

England repeated Athens’ mistake after World War I. Between 1918 and 1920 England reduced its forces by three million men––“the Army had melted away,” as Churchill put it. Between 1919 and 1921, the military budget was reduced by four-fifths, and continued to decline until 1933. The government rationalized these reductions by arbitrarily formulating the “Ten Year Rule,” which assumed that England would not be called upon to fight a major war, and thus would not need an expeditionary force. The arms industry languished as well, falling behind in investment and technological development. By 1934 the shortfall in funding was so bad that it would have taken more money than England spent on defense in one year just to make up the deficiencies in one service, the army. Meanwhile, Germany had been secretly rearming and developing its arms industries since 1920, with the result that by 1938, it was spending five times as much on its military than England, and manufacturing twice the munitions of England and France put together.

Like Athens, one of the reasons England pursued this disastrous policy was the need to spend more money on social welfare programs, which meant spending less on defense. As Donald Kagan and Frederick Kagan write in their indispensable study of such feckless disarmament, to many in England, the reliance on the League of Nations to keep global order would allow the British government and people “to turn their attention inward, to correct the failures and flaws in the British body politic, to mend the holes in Britain’s social fabric.” Germany’s devastating aggression, which it had been preparing for nearly two decades, graphically illustrated once again the folly of stinting on defense spending while an aggressor is on the loose.

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  • tarleton

    England had a global empire to protect, as well as patrolling the sea-routes upon which the globalized economy depended. And America has inherited England’s role as the global “sheriff” needed to keep order and ensure the free movement of trade, especially the transit of oil, most of which originates in a region disordered by Islamic jihadist aggression.

    =================================================
    He who controls the sea , controls trade …he who controls trade , controls the world ….WALTER RALEIGH

    I agree that the US has inherited the ''white man's burden'' from the old lion , ENGLAND , after it's bankruptcy during WW2..the US has always been a reluctant super power…kinda reminds me of shakespear's description of Henry 11….'''some men are born great , some men become great and others have grreatness forced upon them ''

    • Derek

      ".kinda reminds me of shakespear's description of Henry 11….'''some men are born great , some men become great and others have grreatness forced upon them ''"

      DUH!!

    • Jim_C

      Calling us a "reluctant" superpower is needless self-flattery. We have never been too reluctant about it.

      • tarleton

        That's rubbish dude ….the US is a nation that has been dragged , kicking and screaming into the role of premier world power …it had a hopelessly anachronistic policy of isolationism until WW2, and only came into the war after been attacked by the japs and declared war upon by the nazis
        The US didn't enter WW1 in any meaningful way until it was almost over and then promptly retreated back into isolationism for twenty years …it was only the danger of cold war nuclear weapons and the need to occupy germany/japan that stopped the US from returning to it's former isolationism

        • Ghostwriter

          I agree with much of tarleton's statement. Most Americans would rather take care of our own business rather than be a global cop. That role was forced on us. Hopefully,another tragedy won't have to remind us of the folly of isolationism.

      • tarleton

        The US got involved with the war against Radical Islam after a Pearl Harbour like attack on sept 11th…it's a response to Jihadist barbarism

  • http://www.contextflexed.com Flipside

    This is entertaining pap, but history actually shows that civilizations collapse when their core commodity-monopoly fails and a small group of elites try to insulate themselves from economic pressure by escaping taxation. Large civilizations tend to bloat and overextend beyond their ability to rule and new localized powers throw off the yoke, taking a turn at conquest. It really has nothing to do with cutting off the money supply to specific military industries.

  • StephenD

    Flipside you are hilarious! So, to your mind, a "community organizer" ("localized powers") conquering the "commodity-monopoly" (I assume you refer to successful businesses) and the "small group of elites…escaping taxation…." (do you mean "the corporate jet owners? LOL) is what can lead to a (deserved) downfall of a civilization. Nothing at all to do with the invading forces against whom they could not defend.
    What a Dolt!

    • http://www.contextflexed.com Flipside

      No, I am referring to the fall of actual large scale civilizations. Localized powers refers to provinces. Commodity monopolies refers to civilizations based on oil, or rice, or obsidian. Small elites refers to high priests, Hohenzollerns, Orange County. America is in its decline, but the people to blame are corporatists, offshore tax evaders, bankers who got bailouts instead of jail time. It has nothing to do with hordes of invading Muslims. We live in America, not Constantinople.

      • mrbean

        Listen and learn. We are not a capitalist system any longer: we are a mixed economy, i.e., a mixture of capitalism and statism, of freedom and controls. A mixed economy is a country in the process of disintegration, a civil war of pressure-groups looting and devouring one another. A mixed economy is rule by pressure groups. It is an amoral, institutionalized civil war of special interests and lobbies, all fighting to seize a momentary control of the legislative machinery, to extort some special privilege at one another’s expense by an act of government—i.e., by force. In the absence of individual rights, in the absence of any moral or legal principles, a mixed economy’s only hope to preserve its precarious semblance of order, to restrain the savage, desperately rapacious groups it itself has created, and to prevent the legalized plunder from running over into plain, unlegalized looting of all by all—is compromise; compromise on everything and in every realm—material, spiritual, intellectual—so that no group would step over the line by demanding too much and topple the whole rotted structure.

  • 58TROJAN

    What about the United States after WW 1?!? Talk about reduction in the military!

  • http://www.tartanmarine.blogspot.com Robert A. Hall

    I will link to this from my Old Jarhead blog. The reason I wrote my short book, “The Coming Collapse of the American Republic,” was that, while many people were writing about each of the four factors I saw potentially destroying our country (overwhelming debt at all levels of government, illegal immigration, Islamist jihad and the challenge of China), no one seemed to be writing about how they reinforced each other. The desperate fiscal situation makes it almost impossible to deal with jihad, with the rise of China and with the illegal invasion. And they acerbate the fiscal problems. It grows increasingly difficult for me to see how we avoid a fiscal collapse, followed by a political and social collapse. Unfortunately, the changes needed are so politically painful, they will only happen when the pain of not changing is greater. I hope I’m wrong, but I greatly fear that will involve riots and bloodshed in the streets. 

    Robert A. Hall
    Author: The Coming Collapse of the American Republic
    (All royalties go to a charity to help wounded veterans)

    • http://www.resonoelusono.com/NaturalBornCitizen.htm Alexander Gofen

      I wrote about these (and more) factors of the "perfect storm" and how they reinforce each other:
      http://www.resonoelusono.com/Imminent.htm

      • WilliamJamesWard

        Mr. Gofen you are absolutely on target and as time moves forward even
        more so, we approach today the "generation of wrath"……….I think that
        each and every step into the future will be dramatic and inevitable.
        William

  • Alexander

    Flipside & StephenD & mrbean & Robert A.Hall

    I hope you've seen Arnold Ahlert's excellent article http://frontpagemag.com/2011/08/10/weapons-of-mob

    • StephenD

      Alexander, Thank you for the reference and yes, I did read it.

  • Alexander

    Quotes from the article above:
    "…Whether they realize it or not, many Americans, as well as their British counterparts, are undermining the social integrity of their own societies. Little incentive remains for providing for oneself — or for that matter, one’s offspring — when the grotesqueness of the “social safety net” renders this virtue irrelevant. When society has removed all negative consequences to poor life choices, which keep people and their progeny nestled in the underclass (child abandonment, disdain for eduction, glorification of thug culture, etc.), it effectively rewards them. It is thus absurd to expect these behavioral trends to disappear rather than the reverse."

    "…If race was the match that lit the London conflagration, the culture of bitter class resentment and entitlement to unearned wealth, part and parcel of the socialist state, was the gasoline….It is a rationale ignited by the cradle-to-grave expectations perpetrated by the welfare state. One that ignites anger, resentment and rioting when those expectations are threatened with extinction."

  • http://www.resonoelusono.com/NaturalBornCitizen.htm Alexander Gofen

    Cutting the defense in order to placate bums is only one factor of our demise and self destruction.

    The massive trade and unprecedented transfer of wealth to our enemies such as Islamic countries and China are even more damaging factors (and there are more):
    http://www.resonoelusono.com/Imminent.htm

  • money_or_defense

    The military industrial complex in the U.S. is a business whose primary goal is profit. Like the U.S. auto industry it promotes more expensive and larger systems with a higher priority than effective lost-cost solutions. Their profits are not necessarily aligned with the best military options. The terrorists are using extremely low-cost weapons. The military industrial complex will suck the U.S. economy empty before they make low price weapons, just like the Detroit automotive industry. And if the military expenditures do not flow, the economy of some states will experience economic problems because the U.S. is a culture hooked on a relentless exploitation of everybody and everything for increased growth of profits where even a little bad news has an exaggerated impact. Capitalism and the free market are institutions necessary for fundamental human rights and freedoms, but corruption and short-sighted decision making are not the exclusive property of socialism, or union-organized peace-loving Democrats.

  • WilliamJamesWard

    Time moves on and we leave American by inheritance, birth and education
    behind in the multicultural government schools so much so that those of us
    who are now the seniors have almost no connection with the youth of America.
    My generation could defend America but our political class destroyed the
    basics of American life, placed obligation to government money into education
    and thus influence to ideation that is anti-American and fully leftist ideology
    with one world government thinking based in no American culture, no Judeo-
    Christian culture. What's left to defend, our youth are become strangers in
    what is becoming the strangest of lands. When we are dead and gone who is
    left that will claim American heritage, who? The handful if they exist, will they
    understand what has been lost, if so thank the leftists for the vacuum you will
    inhabit………………………………………………………………………..William

  • cindip

    The thing that most people seem to not remember is that we are NOT a democracy, we ARE a republic! There is a difference, not a large one, but a difference, nonetheless.