28 November 2009

Can We Afford This War?

Glenn Thrush on Politico reports this interesting bit of discourse by Nancy Pelosi:
PAY-FOR WAR. Pelosi was far more fiscally conservative when it came to Afghanistan, expressing sympathy with congressional liberals, including Appropriations Committee Chairman Dave Obey (D-Wis.), who thinks war funding should be subject to Blue Doggish “pay-for” rules.

"I think we have to look at that war with a green eyeshade on," Pelosi (D-Calif.) told the lefty bloggers, according to HuffPo’s Ryan Grim. "There is unrest in our caucus about: Can we afford this war?"

Pelosi qualified her remarks by noting that cost is not the top concern. "I think the American people believe that if it's something that's in our national security interest," she said, the investment is worth it.

But it still has to be paid for, she said. "Everything else has to be paid for. It must be fiscally sound. We have to hold it to the same standard, as well."
"Can we afford this war?" is a seemingly prudent question, but only if one ignores the nature of war--a focused and rapid expenditure of national treasure and human life.  War is a costly and bloody undertaking in the best of circumstances.  For that reason, a prudent man will never choose to wage war, all things being equal; for that reason, war will invariably choose the prudent man.

Yet such a choice is necessary before one can address the question of "can we afford this war?"  Consider for a moment how the typical determination of affordability is made:  If one is buying a house or a car, one determines affordability on the basis of current income--one can (or cannot) absorb the monthly payment of the loan that facilitates the purchase.  If one is selecting a restaurant, one determines affordability on the basis of how much cash one has on hand (or how much room is left on a credit card).  In every instance, the question of affordability is contingent on the question of desirability--we must want the house, or the car, or the meal, or the war, before the question of affordability can have any relevance.  The antecedent to "can we afford this war?" is "do we desire this war?"

Thus it is that warfare, particularly in the modern era, is a distinctly non-economic affair, for what rational person would answer affirmatively the question "do we desire this war"?  Yet that is exactly what Nancy Pelosi has done by implication, merely by speculating on "can we afford this war?" regarding Afghanistan.  For Pelosi to be concerned about whether the war can be "afforded" necessitates Pelosi desiring the war;  Pelosi, it seems, wants a war.

Thus it also is that the question is, invariably, the wrong question.  War is never desirable.  It may at times, be necessary, but no more than that.  The merits of war rest on war's necessity, not on war's "affordability."

The proper question, the question Pelosi ignores in her desire for war, is "do we need this war?"  The question has already been advanced by President Obama himself, when he deemed Afghanistan a "war of necessity."  The true debate over Afghanistan is not a debate over cost, but a debate over how (and if) war in Afghanistan advances America's security and national interests.  The true debate is over how much of a necessity the war in Afghanistan actually is.

Perversely, if Pelosi's Democrats have as their best argument that America can "afford" the war, they have already answered that question of the war's necessity:  not very.


  1. (In every instance, the question of affordability is contingent on the question of desirability--we must want the house, or the car, or the meal, or the war, before the question of affordability can have any relevance. The antecedent to "can we afford this war?" is "do we desire this war?")...from the post

    Interesting excercise in circular logic. So, according to you, by merely asking the question "Can we afford this?" you are apparently expressing your desire to have it. Logic would then dictate that if you were to express the sentiment that "I dont think we can afford this." you are really saying "I don't want that."

    It's all so clear now. That explains why Republicans always complain about the cost of Healthcare Reform. They don't want it.

  2. I disagree that the logic is circular. I merely point out that if one does NOT want something, the issue of whether or not it is affordable is moot; something that is undesirable will be had only if it is in some fashion mandatory.

    Thus, yes, a discussion of affordability is predicated upon an implicit assumption of desirability. With respect to Afghanistan, if the war is undesirable, then any reason for its continuance must be sufficiently compelling to override a desire to not continue the war. To argue that the war is undesirable yet "affordable" would be a ludicrous position to take; who would argue that one should be ill merely because one can "afford" the illness?

    Extending that reasoning to healthcare, if the sole charge against the Republicans is that they complain about the cost of health care "reform", the conclusion must be that Republicans do want to reform healthcare, but they do not see the nation and the public fisc as having the resources to support the reforms proffered by the Democrats. I am of the opinion that this is indeed the case in many respects, although there are a great many arguments also to be made that the healthcare "reforms" proffered by the Democrats are, in a society predicated upon personal liberty such as the United States, in truth undesirable.


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