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If one needs to find an issue where there is a clear dividing line between classical liberal thought and modern “conservative” thought, there are few better places to look than the military and warfare. Those on the left that listen to soundbites from Keith Olberman or get a thrice forwarded e-mail of a Paul Krugman article as their intellectual diet often paint folks like me as “Republicans” or “Conservatives” (and you should see the way they say it to me too!). Problem is that the modern Republican-Conservative movement is just a right-er version of the progressive corporatist state that the U.S. has become. While the left-er version seeks to involve the the state in environmental planning, industrial development and assorted regulatory policies, the right-er version prefers a vast military-industrial complex to siphon hard-produced private wealth into greedy, connected, privileged hands. I do not distinguish one much from the other. Classical liberals do not celebrate the military-industrial complex, nor do they advocate pre-emptive strikes, foreign intervention, global governance and military alliances, etc. because the classical liberal tenet of primal importance is that no man (or group of men) may aggress against the person or property of another. As a result of this simple yet powerful axiom, classical liberals regard the draft no different than they do slavery, and any war that is waged on a non-defensive basis (or even a defensive one with collateral damage) as completely and utterly horrific.

Now to the point of the post: I am not a very big fan of Memorial Day. And yes I like barbequeing and I love the fact that Indy winners chug milk to celebrate, and I have nothing against the brave men and women that risked their lives in the course of military service (particulalry those who were unfortunate enough to have been compelled to serve). I got choked up reading Tom Brokaw’s book about the Greatest Generation. I was moved by Saving Private Ryan. My brother is a veteran as are/were several other extended family members. And I rarely turn off war documentaries when they are on – although many fine intellectuals would scorn the next comment, I actually liked Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary too.  No, I am not a big fan of Memorial Day for two reasons:

  1. Leaving aside the folks that were forced into military service because of a draft, why are people who voluntarily chose to enter a profession to provide a service, albeit a dangerous one, “deserving” of special recognition? And just how much recognition do folks in the military require? We also have Veterans Day (to honor all who served, not only those who died), May is also National Military Appreciation Month, we have Armed Forces Day, VE-Day, VJ Day, POW/MIA Recognition Day, National Military Family Month (November), and a few others I am sure I am overlooking. Again, this is not to diminish the incredible bravery of many of the men and women who fought – I am not sure I have it in me at age 34 to do it, even if I was pretty sure I did when I was 18. But what makes volunteer servicemen so praiseworthy? Is it the risk of the job? That surely has something to do with it. Roughly 2,000 U.S. servicemen were killed in the line of duty in 2006 (out of roughly 1.7 million active duty soldiers, this represents an extremely high fatality rate of 118 per 100,000).

    But consider several points. This 118 rate is coming during a time when the U.S. is fighting two wars, and enlistees understand that they will likely participate in one or both of them. Before the wars started in 2003, the military mortality rate was “only” 5.2 per 100,000 (compared to an overall civilian worker fatality rate of around 4 per 100,000). And although the 2,000 servicemen killed in the line of duty in 2006 is a large number, over five-thousand individuals were killed in “the line of duty” as private citizens in 2007. Where is their “Memorial Day”? And don’t go telling me it is Labor Day – the American version of May Day.  And even during wartime, the mortality rates for servicemen is not much higher than it is for several of the most dangerous occupations in the US. For example, loggers and aircraft pilots suffered rates above 92 per 100,000 in 2005, while fishing workers suffered over 86 deaths per 100,000 workers.

  2. Beyond thinking about people dying in the service of others, when do “we” ever stop to think about, reflect upon, and celebrate the extraordinary contributions of the hundreds of millions of people around the world who peacefully, if not selfishly, go about their unglamorous lives, trying to make good for themselves and their families, and who by doing so provide a cornucopia of goods and services to each and every one of us? Imagine celebrating “Voluntary Exchange Day,” “Free Trade Day,” or “Entrepreneur’s Day,” etc. We are prodded by veterans and non-veterans alike to “never forget” and to always express gratitude for our men and women who are in the service. But have we ever forgotten? Will we forget? I doubt it. But how many of us truly are aware of the miracle of the unplanned cooperation of millions of people each and every second of every day of every year that combine to provide us with virtually every comfort that we enjoy? Hurrah for the people who invented the PC, and who worked to assemble and ship the one I am using right now! Hurrah for the people who invented the electric motor, and developed advanced polymers and the thousands of workers involved in delivering a simple floor fan to me in my office right now. Hurrah for craftsman who installed the wood floors in my office, to the corporation that planted the trees and turned them into lumber so that  they could become my floors. Hurrah to the truck drivers all over the United States who deliver us all of the goodies we enjoy on a daily basis! Have you ever stopped to think about any of it? Is it not a wee bit strange that there is no such celebration of these sorts of peaceful miracles?

And don’t spam me with e-mails arguing that my “precious little market” would not be here without the dedication of the servicemen and women around the world. I am not attacking that, nor am I saying that they are dispensable. The point, which I hoped would be obvious, is that they are but one cog in an amazing and wonderful machinery that makes the world go ’round. And I despair that the military is so highly worshiped when it is perhaps the most destructive force on the planet (even if nominally it exists to advance peaceful ends), and the peaceful, option expanding activities, big and small alike, are utterly ignored and taken for granted. I choose to use some other national holidays as such an occasion, even when it is clear that they are not intended as such.

And for those of you who understand equilibrium conditions in economics, a retort to most objections to the above would include the words, “compensating differentials.”

5 Responses to “This Will Get Me Excommunicated from Polite Society”

  1. wintercow20 says:

    Guess is more patriotic and worthy of remembrance to give your life for your country fighting a war here or abroad than for the truck driver dying in an accident on an icy road delivering the groceries to the supermarket!!!!

  2. wintercow20 says:

    You are missing the point: the logger and the soldier are both volunteers. The logger knows the hazards of the job, get killed by a tree or a wayward chain saw so he chooses to work for a company that gives better safety to the loggers and pays the biggest bucks. On the other hand the soldier also knows the dangers when sent to the front to fight the enemy either be right here or on some foreing land, to kill or be killed by another human. The ultimate sacrifice not for money but defending freedom, the right to choose where to work and how much to get paid.

  3. Harry says:

    Wintercow, you ask many mouthfuls of questions. Damn, I wish I were your student, which means I would be maybe 19. OK, at 19 I’d be a wiseass. I share all of your sentiments in your essay, but it is too complicated to discuss every sentence, let alone each paragraph.

    You have a good heart, my friend.

    So does your correspondent Speedmaster. And the other guy, whoever the hell he or she is, and I do not want to waste the time to look them up.


    Abolish the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Energy! These are two topics to be explored in Econ 101, 304, and 403 next year, or in 2010 at the U of R.

  4. Calder says:

    Glory is part of the compensation package for enlisting. The more days of glory we create, the lower equilibrium wage necessary to entice ppl to enter the business of standing a post with a rifle; yielding lower taxes for everyone.

  5. jb says:

    There you go again, getting me thinking….If we have a Labor Day…and a “Land Day” (Earth Day)….., how come we don’t have a Capital day?…

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