When we talk about federal overreach, most people think about domestic issues. They focus on federal actions related to education, healthcare, social policy, guns, religion and so-on. But federal overreach in the realm foreign policy is just as dangerous to American liberty – perhaps more so.

In his Political Observations dated 20 April 1795, James Madison warned us about the danger to liberty when a government embroils itself in foreign interventions and war. It’s no different than domestic policy. When the federal government engages in unconstitutional actions abroad, the consequences are a loss of liberty and a larger, more powerful central government at home.

The U.S. has been constantly at war since 9/11. And for all practical purposes, America has been fighting foreign wars for more than a century. The monetary cost alone is extraordinary.

The Numbers

According to some very good studies, 25 percent of federal spending goes to foreign and defense policy.

In 2013:

  • The DoD base budget which included mandatory and discretionary spending was $531.7 billion.
  • A sneaky budget gimmick called Overseas Contingency Operation (or Global War on Terror spending) added another $88.5 billion in defense spending.
  • The Department of Energy’s nuclear program added $19.4 billion
  • Veterans Affairs spending came in at $137.7 billion, including spending for veterans of past and current wars.
  • There was $46.3 billion in spending by the Department of Homeland Security and all other federal agencies that spent money on “homeland security.”

When you add up these numbers, along with the interest on the debt, the United States spends about a trillion dollars a year on defense.

Are we safer after of all this spending?

Clearly not.

Even the war hawks admit the threats to the United States are more numerous today than they were in 2001. So, if we are not safer what have we gotten for our trillions spent?

In fact, we have more wars that have nothing to do with the original missions in Afghanistan. Executive power has increased dramatically. Costs are soaring. Debt is increasing. People are dying. The wars are failing.

This was all avoidable, of course. Anyone familiar with the nature of government could have foreseen this financial, military, and constitutional disaster. Any government, at any time or place, will use war to increase its power and influence over its citizens or subjects. Those who demand that the government avoid more unnecessary wars take their cues from the great American statesman, James Madison.

Madison knew that the arch of a government’s power only increases – and doesn’t return to the status quo ante – during wars.

By examining one of Madison’s famous passage about war in Political Observations, you can understand why his advice on war is so important:

War Begets War

Madison: Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other.

For example, studying the history of World War I and its aftermath reveals the terrible consequences that led to World War II. The international order after World War II led to the Cold War. The Cold War then led to dozens of smaller wars around the world. American involvement in the Middle East during the Cold War gave Osama bin Laden a pretext to attack the United States in 2001. The war the U.S. initiated in Afghanistan after 9/11 led to a series of wars in Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen and about a dozen other countries in the Middle East and Africa.

All of these wars are connected. When you open the door to one foreign intervention, it will likely lead to others.  This is one of the primary reasons the founding generation didn’t want a single individual making decisions about war.

Taxed to Death

Madison: War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.

We’ve already seen the cost of all these wars. But the second part of Madison’s statement is just as important.

In order to fund these wars politicians must make sweetheart deals with one another – the left agrees to fund the wars, but the right must agree to fund more domestic programs. There is no real disagreement between elected representatives. They work together to hand out more political favors. This weaves a bipartisan network of special interest groups that ensure the money and favors never stop flowing. All of these people are dependent on their patrons in Washington. The result is more power centralized at the top in Washington D.C.

Power to the Politicians

Madison: In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people.

Is there any question that the power of the president has increased since America went to war in Afghanistan in October 2001? The president is asked to do more during war. Government agents and agents of the government argue that he needs more power to make unilateral decisions.

During times of war and national crisis, the president is allowed to create new offices. For example, the position of National Security Adviser was created by President Eisenhower during the Cold War. The person who holds this position has incredible power to influence the president and sell the president’s agenda to the public, but it is totally outside the scope of the Senate’s advice and consent powers in Article II of the Constitution.

Culture of War

Madison: The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manners and of morals, engendered by both.

There is a lot to unpack in this statement, but for our purposes here, we can focus on one.

American culture has changed as a result of the wars of the 20th and 21st centuries. Specifically, the “Global War on Terror” has changed our views of all things military. One popularized military phrase is to “put warheads on foreheads.” This phrase was part of an advertisement for a veteran-owned coffee company. Another much sadder example came from a friend in the military who emailed me, while on deployment one Christmas morning to say that he just got done doing some “Christmas killing.” These two examples showcase the degeneracy and the distasteful comfort with war that infects our culture.

When we do anything for an extended period of time it becomes “normal.” The same is true of a nation’s character during war.

Liberty is the Price of War

Madison: No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.

Madison’s warning is not about threats from other nations. He is warning us about threats to our lives and liberties as a result of continuous war that is put upon the nation by a minority of politicians, elites, and state apologists.

Not only should we resist all attempts to further engorge the warfare-welfare state, but we should remember that Washington is using our own money to further goals that will ultimately destroy us and our culture.


Concordia res parvae crescunt


Small things grow great by concord...

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