Privatizing the Department of Defense: A Proposal

By Callahan, Daniel | The Hastings Center Report, November-December 2006 | Go to article overview

Privatizing the Department of Defense: A Proposal


Callahan, Daniel, The Hastings Center Report


For the past few years I have spent a good deal of time arguing with economic conservatives about the value of market theory and practices for health care. I am dubious about the utility of the market and Far more impressed with the universal health care systems of Europe. The Nobel laureate Kenneth Arrow contended many years ago that health care was not a promising arena for market theory, and market practices in the United States have not generated robust health or economic outcomes.

Nonetheless, economic conservatives continue to press their case. The market, they say, has two distinct values: it can enhance our choices in health care, and it will force us to consider the cost of the care we want, which is currently obscured by third-party payments. They also dislike "big government" and "socialized medicine." Consumer-driven health care is their moral ideal.

Actually, there is a far better target for market enthusiasts than health care. It is the Department of Defense. No one has ever talked of a "socialized Department of Defense," which it surely is, nor objected to it on the grounds that it exemplifies big government in a most flagrant way. Why that has not been noticed mystifies me. But it is surely--as even conservatives might concede--bloated, inefficient, reckless about costs, and the ne plus ultra of bureaucracy.

I have a proposal. Why not privatize national defense, bringing to bear on the Pentagon all the virtues the market supposedly could bring to health care? First, if we should have a choice about the kind of health care want simply because people have different needs and desires, that principle should surely apply to national defense. We do not all want the same kind of security. Some of us want more high-tech planes and ships and antimissile systems, others more feet on the ground. Some of us like massive arsenals of nuclear weapons, while others have a taste for biological toxins or poison gas. Second, if we had more choice about the kind of defense we want, we would surely think about the cost and be willing to pay for our preferences. As it now stands we hardly have to give a thought to the defense budget because the money is just one more item of taxation--money out of our pockets, but not in a way that encourages prudent spending. …

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