The Standing Army: A Threat to Peace

"What, sir, is the use of a militia? It is to prevent the establishment of a standing army, the bane of liberty. …Whenever Governments mean to invade the rights and liberties of the people, they always attempt to destroy the militia, in order to raise an army upon their ruins."

~ Elbridge Gerry,  Fifth Vice President of the United States

All too often, government-produced defense is discussed as an ideal – a force that protects people and their rights. Seldom does reality enter the picture. Standing armies, after all, often do not only practice defense.

Once established, a government’s military, its bureaucrats and leaders, as well as laymen all face a different set of incentives. Those with a job related to the military have an incentive to keep their job. In most cases, they probably also desire to see the scope of their power expanded and their pay increased. The support for war then, is the ideal policy for achieving those goals. These incentives may not transform a champion of peace into a war-loving bureaucrat, but they can have effects on the margins. It’s much easier to rationalize a war if your job depends on it.

Changes on the Ground

More interestingly, the average citizen’s incentives change. To see what I mean, let’s take a look at the introduction of the permanent standing army in 19th century America.

Prior to the rise of the U.S. standing army, relations between natives and white settlers were relatively peaceful. It’s not that white settlers always felt warm feelings toward native Americans (or vice versa). Many did not. The reality of fighting one’s own battles, however, entailed significant costs. In an essay entitled Exchange, Sovereignty, and Indian-Anglo Relations, Jennifer Roback remarks: "Europeans generally acknowledged that the Indians retained possessory rights to their lands. More important, the English recognized the advantage of being on friendly terms with the Indians. Trade with the Indians, especially the fur trade, was profitable. War was costly" “More than is generally appreciated, the contact (between Indians and whites) was even friendly, or at least peaceful.”

Subsidizing War

After the US maintained a permanent army, however, things changed. Most of the disincentives for war disappeared. The monetary costs that maintained the army were spread out over the entire populace and those who demanded the army’s services paid no additional price. Nor did they now need to risk their own life. Frontiersmen could now call upon subsidized troops to do their fighting for them. This had the effect of lowering the threshold for when settlers could justify resorting to violence against their Indian neighbors.

In Raid or Trade? An Economic Model of Indian-White Relations, the authors accounted for a number of possible contributing factors, such as population change and newly settled land, and concluded the establishment of a standing army during the Mexican War had an independent effect of an increase of almost 12 battles a year. They estimated the buildup of the standing army before and during the Civil War caused an increase of around 25 battles a year.

From Raid or Trade? An Economic Model of Indian-White Relations by Anderson and McChesney

As the quote at the beginning of this piece indicates, the Founding Fathers feared a standing army, and for good reason. While its ideal purpose is to create peace, we do not live in a world of ideals. The actual effects are to lower the costs of war to those who would have it, and to create a special-interest group of bureaucrats and military personnel who have a vested interest in advancing the war machine. As long as the army stands, peace is unlikely to be achieved or long-lasting.

Andrew Kern writes for and is editor in chief of principledlibertarian.com. His writing focuses on an intellectual defense of libertarian theory, and using real-world examples to illustrate the superiority of the market over the state.

24 thoughts on “The Standing Army: A Threat to Peace”

    1. It’s a start. Modern defence requires some military presence though. We need WMD, missiles, and planes, at the least.

  1. Well, sure. I’m for the raising of the militia in a time of crisis. But (a) could that be done without conscription, which I find to be a form of slavery and (b) would essentially untrained men and women be competent to prosecute war as it is envisioned in current DoD scenarios?

    1. “would essentially untrained men and women be competent to prosecute war as it is envisioned in current DoD scenarios?”

      We shouldn’t desire to prosecute war as it is envisioned in current DOD scenarios. The only “war” we should ever fight is if a foreign power actually attempted to invade us. Widespread private ownership of arms would be plenty to accomplish that, and there would be no shortage of volunteers, we would not need a draft in any way.

      1. It takes a few weeks to turn a civilian into a competent infantryman.

        Longer, of course, for more complicated jobs.

        IMO, a small standing force, dedicated mostly to 1) rapid reaction, 2) maintaining equipment and 3) giving basic and recurring training to a fairly large volunteer reserve would be sufficient for actual defense purposes.

        It’s continuous adventurism abroad that requires a large standing force.

        1. Yes, a national guard, reinforced by state militias, competent to defend and repel any enemy, is necessary. A “standing army” –the tool of the military/industrial complex, is not.
          We must rebalance our priorities and orientation.

      2. Even in invasion scenarios, we would probably not be looking at combat in the field but at urban warfare. Then again, imagine the millions of nerds who already know everything about this from videogames (except how to stand up gracefully from the sofa).

        I do agree that the standing army is a temptation that should not be given to the medal-hungry generals and the corporate profiteers. A few divisions of CIA operators would be more than adequate to do the many assassinations and destabilizations that democracy and freedom require. The rest of the armed forces essentially stand guard over everone else, and that seems like a poor investment of life and treasure – if the host nations cannot be bothered to defend themselves, then nature should take its course.

        1. I doubt assassinations and destabilizations are necessary to preserve freedom. The US truly has no threats.

          1. I was speaking somewhat facetiously. But only somewhat because I speculate – I don’t KNOW – that CIA Special Activities does some things that we would approve of, as well as many things that are reckless and arrogant meddling in the governance of sovereign nations.

          2. OK. I agree they likely do some things I’d approve of. But it’s one of those choices that comes with good and bad either way one goes.

            Politically, I expect few choices lead to pure positive results. So, what I mean to argue here: I expect it’s best to have a firm, no-meddling policy for the US.

          3. Yes, and of course that was Jefferson’s whole point. You make contact with the world diplomatically, you trade with them, you talk, you try to influence them and set a good example. You don’t however invade them into being democratic, kill them into respecting human rights.

    2. And the best training is in actual combat. There are some advantages to warring, not exclusively negatives.

  2. It would seem that the large, federal government’s standing army is, and always has been, the human problem. If the states still had their sovereignty, and were held responsible for their own defense against attacks and/or invasions, there would be no need for a federal set of armies and navies, nor the huge set of national laws as we have today. But in the current environment, I suspect dissolving the central government, Comrade, will be difficult at best.

    I have suggested before that big government is invariably the problem, and that smaller governments are rarely the human problem. Costs Rica, for example, has never militarily attacked one of its neighbors. But wait – they have existed without an army for over 70 years. How can they do that? Answer: they choose to live in peace, not war.

    In the early days of America, there was a difference between the states, and so the people had a choice of which state to live. When, after the Civil War, the country devolved into a single United State, almost all of that choice went away, and the country then became susceptible to economic attacks from the international banksters. And yes, 1913 was a horrible year for the American people – great for the banksters and for the government, but horrible for the American people.

    Many smaller and sovereign governments are difficult to control from a central (e.g. communist) government perspective. Let’s not forget that every county in America has some form of government. What would happen if every single county in the US became designated a sovereign state? What if, like New Hampshire, there were thus simply too many ‘state’ representatives in a ‘national’ congress for central control? Would two-party politics be thus destroyed? Would a central bank be unable to control and destroy 3,141 sovereign states as it can now do with one single United State? I don’t think so.

    Which brings us to wonder if the US Constitution is better than were the Articles of Confederation. Maybe some amount of political chaos is what is needed in a large land mass area like continental United States, rather than a plantation of 50 conforming states. Maybe freedom really can be defined by the absence of legislation, rather than by the millions of controlling legislated laws that now control the country.

    1. BTW, I tried to request permission to re-post this article on my own website, Highlander.com, but the request was erroneously refused by the software. I would still like to re-post this article, and if this is possible, please send permission via e-mail to: info@Highlander.com.

    2. It’s not only a matter of centralization in government but also in the private sector. Big business and big government managers wish to manage the world, centralizing and concentrating all power in their hands.

      An interesting counter to centralization of government power is the universal basic income, which could be abused by a government refusing to pay some citizens. Regardless, if all were paid, it could come to replace the welfare state.

      I doubt returning to the Articles is an option now, but I believe they were better than the Constitution, sure.

      1. Good thoughts. Thanks. I just made a post on Highlander that wishes us all a happy independence day.

        “From 1776 to 2019, July 4th has been celebrated as the birth of American independence, with festivities ranging from fireworks, parades and concerts, to more casual family gatherings and barbecues. But was it really the birth of American independence, and are we still free and
        independent?

        https://highlander.com/lets-celebrate-independence-day-shall-we/2019/07/04/early-morning-thoughts/

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