In arguing with my friends who are liberal, as well as those who are "conservative," I inevitably encounter an unbridgeable chasm when the topic of "public goods" arises. My liberal friends see every government expenditure as generating a public good. Even outlays that generally are not considered public goods take on that mystique as in the contorted response, "Welfare checks keep down crime so you involuntarily benefit." Left out of that equation is the involuntary contribution that I as a taxpayer make to fund what is arguably a public good. But that is a debate for a later time. My "conservative" friends imagine public goods in two cases. The first case is when one of their constituents directly benefits from a government transfer payment, like a paving company laying down the latest extension of interstate highway. I am scratching my head too. The second case occurs when, "Dadgummit, President Bush said so and he should know." While that argument could not withstand a freshman logic course, let alone the peer review process, "conservatives" offer it as unquestionable truth. Looking to either wing of the War Party will never prove enlightening when searching for the truth as both the tax-and-spend Democrats and the tax-and-spend Republicans deviously rationalize any expenditure to fit their statist agendas. The only thing we can know for certain is that national defense in the United States of 2006 is no longer a public good.
In Crisis and Leviathan, Robert Higgs provides an excellent definition of a "public good" when he writes, "[A public good] has the peculiar property of nonrivalry in consumption [emphasis added]: its enjoyment by one customer does not diminish its availability for the enjoyment of another. Once the public good has been produced, its use has no marginal cost, because its enjoyment by additional users requires no further sacrifice of valuable alternatives." As with almost every economics textbook, Higgs goes on to add that, "National defense is the most familiar example." Perhaps this statement was true when Higgs penned it in 1987. Unfortunately, these texts will now have to undergo revision as "national defense" today has next to nothing to do with "defense" and is no longer a net "good."
Yesterday’s events in Iraq vividly illustrate the preceding proposition. Wednesday afternoon the Associated Press reported that U.S. forces had killed two Iraqi women when the car in which they were riding failed to stop at an American "observation point" near the city of Samarra. One of the women, 35 year-old Nabiha Nisaif Jassim, was about to give birth and her brother, Khalid, was rushing her to the hospital for the delivery. The article quoted the distraught brother as saying, “I was driving my car at full speed because I did not see any sign or warning from the Americans. It was not until they shot the two bullets that killed my sister and cousin that I stopped." Granted, in the heat of the moment, those with guns fire them without perfect information. We occasionally see it happen here when a police officer shoots an unarmed citizen. It is terribly unfortunate but it happens. What we don’t usually hear from the victim’s surviving relatives is how Mr. Jassim finished his anguished testimony: "God take revenge on the Americans and those who brought them here. They have no regard for our lives." And by the way, the baby died too.
Here is a quick thought experiment. The Chinese military occupies your city and sets up roadblocks that make DWI checkpoints seem fun by comparison. Each and every time you approach a checkpoint the soldiers signal to you in a strange (that is to say, foreign) manner which not only confuses you but inevitably leads to them further reprimanding you. Before proceeding you must come to a complete stop while they search your car. As a result your daily commute is 20 minutes longer each way. After they wave you through while barking at you in Chinese or broken English you remain uncertain if they deem you a threat or merely the harmless starched-shirt business drone that in fact you are. This annoyance persists for 3 years and while you detest the process and the occupying force, there is not a whole lot you can do to stop it. Life goes on and this is just a major inconvenience.
Then one day while watching TV at home, your wife, who is in the ninth month of her pregnancy screams, "My water just broke!" You jump in the car to make a mad dash to the hospital for the eagerly awaited birth of your first child whose name you have already selected and whose room you lovingly decorated. You remember that there is a Chinese checkpoint on the main road to the hospital but in your glee you errantly think that the Chinese soldiers will remember you from your daily transit and quickly wave you through. Forgetting the rigor of their procedure, you drive at a greater than usual speed considering the urgent circumstances. One of the Chinese soldiers, nervous about protecting himself while in enemy territory, opens fire on your car for not slowing down soon enough and your wife takes it in the chest. You storm past the barricades to get her to the hospital all the while watching the bloodstain on her chest grow. You finally get her to the hospital and carry her into the emergency room while screaming for help. After the nurses escort you from the table on which your wife lays mortally wounded, you collapse in the waiting area praying that the staff can save her. Twenty minutes later a doctor comes out of the emergency room, his scrubs covered in blood and his brow heavy with sweat. Without introducing himself, he shakes your hand, looks down and says "I’m sorry." You shriek, "But what about the baby?" The doctor apologizes again and adds, "We could not save her either."
What kind of anger or hatred would that generate in the average expectant American father? I can safely say that in my case I would dedicate the rest of my life to maiming, attacking and killing the occupying forces. Mr. Jassim might think the same way. Our public good of national defense has likely created at least one mortal enemy.
Today’s bad news, coming on the heels of the alleged massacre in Haditha and the anti-American riots in Afghanistan, points to the fact that while war is indeed ugly, subsequent occupations can be even uglier. In a war civilians inevitably die. We can euphemistically call their deaths "collateral damage." Even in a just war civilians are slaughtered. However, when the Commander-in-Chief lands on the deck of an aircraft carrier to announce the successful completion of wartime hostilities we reasonably expect the slaughter of innocents to subside. Today we still have American troops killing Iraqis several years after our leader told us the war was effectively over. Even the most diehard proponents of preemptive war, unjust war, or even murder, should pause for a second to reflect on how this "accident" will make them any safer. In fact it will make all of us less safe as Mr. Jassim, his friends, and fellow countrymen deepen their hatred of the occupying forces for killing the next Iraqi generation represented by the child who died before being born.
In their growing resentment of the occupying US forces, Iraqi anger will first be directed at soldiers from places like Girard, Kansas and Irving, Texas, both cities which lost servicemen fighting there over the past week. US soldiers must now toe the microscopic line that separates their need to defend themselves against deadly attack from the mandate not to shoot innocent civilians. We can thank the Cheneys and Rumsfelds of the world for putting these GIs in this lose-lose situation. If they don’t shoot at a suspicious car approaching their checkpoint they might pay the ultimate price when the driver detonates himself. Shoot too soon and they risk court martial and murder charges for killing an innocent civilian just trying to live his life in his occupied homeland.
If the perpetually adolescent Bush twins, the Oxford-educated management consultant Chelsea Clinton, or the "sexually proud" Mary Cheney does not have to make this life or death choice on a daily basis, then no American GI should have to do the same thing. In theory we send our military in to win wars, not to perpetually occupy foreign lands. In reality this is exactly what our government does. And in so doing, national defense is becoming less and less of a benefit to the American taxpayer.
Mark G. Brennan [send him email] writes from New York City.