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The basic premise of most conservative policy arguments is Milton Friedman's The Role of Government in Education (1962), with the issue du jour swapped in for the term education. Energy production, bank regulation, food safety, air quality -- it makes no difference. Just let the market in question figure itself out for the good of all. Given the most pressing issue facing American society today, swap in the terms "defense" or "guns" or "militarization" for the terms "education" or "learning" and the dystopian absurdity of Wayne Lapierre and the NRA's recent proposals are made laughably clear. To wit:

General Defense for Children
A stable and democratic society is impossible without widespread acceptance of some common set of values and without a minimum degree of security on the part of children. Defense provides both. In consequence, the gain from the arming of a child accrues not only to the child or to his parents but also to other members of the society; the militarization of my child contributes to other people's welfare by promoting a stable and democratic society. Yet it is not feasible to identify the particular individuals (or families) who benefit, or the money value of the benefit, and so to charge them for services rendered. There is instead a significant "neighborhood effect."

What kind of governmental action is justified by this particular neighborhood effect? The most obvious is to require that each child receive a minimum amount of military training of a specified kind. Such a requirement could be imposed upon the parents without further government action, just as owners of buildings, and frequently of automobiles, are required to adhere to specific standards to protect the safety of others. There is, however, a difference between the two cases. In the latter, individuals who cannot pay the costs of meeting the required standards can generally divest themselves of the property in question by selling it to others who can, so the requirement can readily be enforced without government subsidy -- though even here, if the cost of making the property safe exceeds its market value, and the owner is without resources, the government may still end up paying for the demolition of a dangerous building or the disposal of an abandoned automobile. The separation of a child from a parent who cannot pay for the minimum required weaponry, however, is clearly inconsistent with our reliance on the family as the basic social unit and our belief in the freedom of the individual.

Even so, if the financial burden imposed by such juvenile armament could readily be met by the great bulk of the families in a community, it might be both feasible and desirable to require the parents to meet the cost directly. . . The advantage of imposing the costs on the parents is that it would tend to equalize the social and private costs of having children, and so promote a better distribution of families by battalion.

Instead, government has assumed the financial costs of defense. In doing so, it has paid not only for the minimum amount of defense required for all but also for additional military training at higher levels available to youngsters but not required of them -- as for example in the service academies, the ROTC, the National Guard and the Coast Guard. Both steps can be justified by the "neighborhood effect" described above: the payment of the costs by the government being the only feasible means of enforcing the required minimum; and the financing of additional defense, on the grounds that other people benefit from the arming of those of greater ability and interest.

This is a way to provide better social and political leadership, and the federal subsidizing of certain aspects of the military can be justified on these grounds. However, it does not justify subsidizing purely vocational defense, which increases the operational force of each child but which does not train him or her for either citizenship or leadership. It is clearly extremely difficult to draw a sharp line between these two types of defense. Most general defense adds to the security of each child -- indeed it is only in modern times and in a few countries that bodyguards have ceased to have a marketable value. And much vocational defense broadens the child's outlook. Yet it is equally clear that the distinction between general and vocational defense is a meaningful one. For example, subsidizing the training of navy seals, munitions experts, and a host of other specialized skills -- as is widely done by the Pentagon -- cannot be justified on the same grounds as subsidizing elementary defense or, at a higher level, Tae Kwon Do lessons. The qualitative argument for the "neighborhood effect" does not determine which kinds of defense should be subsidized, nor to what extent they should be.

The social gain from defense is presumably greatest for the very lowest levels of military training, where there is the nearest approach to unanimity about the tactics, and declines continuously as the level of defense rises. But even this statement cannot be taken completely for granted -- many governments have subsidized highly specialized defense contractors long before they subsidized kindergardens at the local level. What forms of defense have the greatest social advantage and how much of the community's limited resources should be applied to them are questions to be decided by the judgment of the community expressed through its accepted political channels. The role of an economist is not to decide these questions for the community but rather to clarify the issues relevant to the community making an informed choice, in particular, whether the choice is appropriate or necessary to make on a communal rather than an individual basis.

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