Interest groups have always tried to influence the state for their own unearned benefit. Despite what idealists in this country would like to believe, going back to the founding of the United States, immediately following the end of the Revolutionary War, everyone from farmers to manufacturers scrambled get theirs from the fledgling state(s) in the form of subsidies, tax breaks, and protectionist regulation.
The most pernicious and by far the most influential lobby nowadays is the military-industrial complex. The name itself denotes a recipe for big government and big business to collude in the worst ways of corruption and warfare. The military lobby is especially distinct, despite the utter normalcy it has acquired today.
Consider what American revolutionaries thought of what could arguably be deemed the country’s first military lobby. Historian Merrill Jensen, in The New Nation: A History of the United States During the Confederation, 1781-1789, describes the founding of the Society of Cincinnati:
Americans, partly as a result of their English Heritage, and partly as a result of their experience with British troops after 1763, had a healthy dislike of anything smacking of the professional military man. Revolutionary constitutions one after another forbade standing armies in peace time. The effort to create a permanent military force at the end of the Revolution was turned down. But many Americans who served during the Revolution as officers developed a keen desire to continue a military career.
…The founding of the Society of Cincinnati as the war ended was only further proof to many Americans that military men must be feared and controlled by civil power…The purpose behind the organization was partly political and partly social. Many officers felt that they must unite in order to be effective in their appeals to Congress and the states.
…As news of [the Society’s founding] spread abroad it was denounced in the press, private letter and pamphlet. Not only was there popular opposition, but men in high places, like Jefferson, John Adams, Sam Adams, and John Jay thought it a threat to new-won liberties.
…The popular clamor was so great that legislature after legislature denounced the Society. In Massachusetts a committee of both houses declared that the Society was “unjustifiable, and if not properly discountenanced, may be dangers to the peace, liberty and safety of the United States in general, and this commonwealth in particular.”
…In 1787, John Quincy Adams said that the Society was daily acquiring strength and “will infallibly become a body dangerous, if not fatal to the Constitution.”
How far the culture and politics of America has devolved from this “healthy dislike” of a military interest group. Last week was the 52nd anniversary of President Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address, in which he famously warned of the creation of “a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions” and the burgeoning “defense establishment” that contains millions of interested parties.
“In the councils of government,” Eisenhower said, “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.”
But it has endangered them. The federal government spends more on national security than the rest of the world combined. “Last year, in 2012,” wrote The American Prospect‘s David Callahan earlier this month, “the U.S. government spent about $841 billion on security—a figure that includes defense, intelligence, war appropriations, and foreign aid.” This means “about 80 cents of every dollar collected in traditional federal income taxes” goes to the defense establishment. That is unwarranted influence without parallel.
In a Boston Globe review conducted in 2010, it was found that “750 of the highest ranking generals and admirals who retired during the last two decades” moved “into what many in Washington call the ‘rent-a-general’ business.” “From 2004-2008,” the report found, “80 percent of retiring three- and four-star officers went to work as consultants or defense executives” in our massive military-industrial complex.
Besides facilitating the constant state of war the US has been in for decades, the military-industrial complex enriches itself at the expense of ordinary Americans; it bolsters government power, which in turn bolsters the military industry itself, in a perpetual feedback that results in a global military presence abroad, unnecessary wars, appalling domestic surveillance, and an embedded martial culture.
In early America, as corrupt and immoral as the political and social culture was, the birth of a minor military lobby “was a stench in the nostrils of good democrats,” Jensen writes. But today, hardly anyone notices. It is business as usual; a staple of the status quo that goes unquestioned by virtually everyone.