Thursday, June 16, 2011

US military and socialism

Nicholas Kristof, in his op-ed Our Lefty Military, makes an observation that has long been known by politically astute veterans: the US military is socialist. We even highlighted that aspect of the military in our civil-military advocacy at Columbia.

Kristof, however, leaves out five key features of the military that deter the military's socialist model from scaling up effectively to the entire nation.

One, the military populace is bounded by strict membership standards, regulations, and population caps tied to available jobs. Free riders and an inefficient labor market, chronic problems in centrally controlled socialist economies, are reduced in the military by extraordinary controls of its populace and the smaller scale.

Two (and related to one), while the military is diverse, it is also socio-culturally homogenous, paternalistic, hierarchical, and tribal, even insular, in ways that heterogeneous America as a whole is not. Using Max Weber's typology of authority, the military, while structurally bureaucratic, is based culturally on traditional authority, which relies on the social glue of heritage, honor, and mutual loyalties, whereas heterogeneous American society is based primarily on legal-rational authority.

Three (and related to one and two), military values are ascetic, austere, and selfless, unlike the individualism, drive to prosperity, and other self-centered values that characterize civilian life.

Four, the military performs necessary services for the nation, but one fundamental thing the military does not do is generate direct economic value or capital, ie, the military does not pay for itself. A nation must be able to pay for itself. Centrally controlled socialist economies have struggled to produce sufficient income and revenue to cover costs, a problem that's been removed from the military. The military is a national company town with an external source of capital, not a self-sufficient national economy.

And five, the most simple but perhaps also most important feature, military members can leave the military relatively easily and return to greater American society. Many military members do, in fact, step away from soldiering at an early stage of their military career. The military can also remove members with more ease than American citizenship can be revoked. It is far more difficult to sever one's American citizenship than one's membership in the military.

In other words, socialism can work for the military because of its specific set of selected populace, conditions, culture, absence of need to generate capital, and relative ease of departure or removal. The composition, conditions, culture, absence of need, and simple exit of the military are not shared by American society at large.

I agree with Kristof (and Markos Moulitsas Zuniga of the Daily Kos) generally that the military embodies important cultural values and provides positive examples for society. I believe in Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers notion that veterans have a great deal to offer as paternalistic leaders to shepherd America in uncertain times. But I don't agree with a wholesale application of the military's organizational model to all persons and parts of the nation. The costs/benefits calculation of socialism within the confines of the military is not the same as the costs and benefits calculation of socialism for the whole nation.

Moreover, applying a militaristic socialist template has been tried on a mass scale already. Mao Ze-Dong, likely motivated by the same admiration for the military's team culture, attempted to remake heterogeneous China with a militaristic socialist template. It didn't work.

Military service is right for men culturally. Veterans who have internalized military values and individually live by, lead using, and teach those traditional masculine values are good for society. But - big but - shoehorning all of a large diverse nation with different needs, cultures, and conditions into a militaristic socialist legal and economic template - while an attractive idea for many progressives - has been tried already and has not worked.




Blogger JACKIESUE said...

I've said that for years..up until I was about 12 I thought I was a 'brat'...but when General Curtis Lemay came to Bergstrom Air Force back to visit Col. Carlyle and he said the army kids were brats, but Air Force kids were troopers..
I've grown up my whole life knowing that I was special..the live I had lived made me special..and I was not only proud of my Dad, my uncles, my Father-in-law, and husband for their service but I was proud of the families ..because we served too.

10/17/2012 5:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You make the wrong assumption that socialism is everyone being equal. Socialist countries are very heirarchical in just the same way as capitalist or private enterprise corporations.

The difference is in socialism is that no one is left behind, whereas in free market capitalism its every man for himself, social darwinism. Capitalism is more primitive and anti-human. Socialism is much better and you prove it yourself by admitting the world's largest military is socialist and runs very well.

5/26/2013 10:01 AM  
Blogger Eric said...


You read my post extremely selectively. Try again.

5/28/2013 1:18 AM  

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