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Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: “Base closings”

In this May 18th, 2005, column for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, I wrote about the political economy of closing military bases in the United States. You can read the column beneath the fold.

Base closings

WARNING: If you’re an elected government official or if you’re attached to idealistic notions about such officials, do not read this commentary. It will offend you.

Ideally, government in a democratic republic reflects the will of the people, or at least that of the majority. Citizens vote for candidates whom they believe will best promote the general welfare. Victorious candidates, after pledging to uphold the Constitution, go to state capitals or to Washington, D.C., to do The People’s business — to undertake all the good and worthy activities that citizens in their private capacities cannot perform.

Sure, every now and then crooks and demagogues win office, but these are not the norm. Our system of regular, aboveboard democratic elections ensures that officials who do not effectively carry out The People’s business are thrown from office and replaced by more reliable public servants.

Rose-colored glasses

Trouble is, it’s not true. It’s a sham. Despite being called “the Honorable,” the typical politician is certainly no more honorable than the typical dentist, auto mechanic, Wal-Mart regional manager or any other private citizen.

Despite being referred to as “public servants,” politicians serve, first and foremost, their own personal political ambitions and they do so by pandering to narrow special interest groups.

Although it’s considered impolite to speak or write so bluntly in public, evidence of the base nature of politics surrounds us. Take, for example, the current flap over the Pentagon’s proposal to close some military facilities in an effort to use national-defense resources more effectively.

As soon as the Pentagon released the recommendations of its Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) to close 33 major bases and dozens of minor ones, the predictable happened: Elected officials from areas with bases slated for closure hit the airwaves with protests about how the Pentagon is making a big mistake to close this or that particular base. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, called the proposal to shut down the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard (in New Hampshire, just across the border from Maine) “outrageous.” Freshman Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., is demanding that South Dakota’s Ellsworth Air Force Base (the state’s second-largest employer) be removed from the list. High-priced lobbyists, such as former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, have been hired to petition their friends in Congress to interfere with the Pentagon’s plans.

Of course, each protesting politician insists that he or she is motivated by concern for the national defense. “The base in my district is too vital to the security of this country,” each politician says in his or her own way.

But you don’t have to listen long to the news reports of this matter to encounter the real reason for all the political huffing and puffing: pork. Because each military facility is generously funded by Washington, many employees and suppliers of these facilities will indeed lose if and when the spigot pouring in money from D.C. is closed.

And while it’s understandable that no one wants to lose a job that depends upon Defense Department spending, the rationale for military installations and the jobs that go along with them is national defense — and national defense only. The Pentagon does not exist to keep local communities buoyant with bountiful spending. It exists, presumably, only to keep Americans safe from foreigners wishing to do violence to us.

Obnoxious behavior

If the military leaders appointed by the president and approved by Congress decide that closing some bases will better promote military goals, then such decisions should enjoy a strong presumption of legitimacy. To interfere with these military decisions because they will harm local economies is obnoxious and contrary to the public interest.

But behaving obnoxiously and contrary to the public interest is par for the course whenever such behavior helps to further a politician’s career goals.

Frankly, I’m mystified as to why such a statement is considered impolite, for it says only that politicians are as human as the rest of us. Politicians care more about themselves, their families and their friends than they care about strangers. If they can promote their own immediate well-being by taking steps that happen also to promote the public good, they take these steps — just as butchers, brewers and bakers promote their own well-being and that of society at large by providing consumers with meat, beer and bread.

But just as no one expects butchers, brewers and bakers to sacrifice their own well-being exclusively for the sake of strangers, why do we expect politicians to do so? Why do we resist seeing that politicians are no more to be trusted than are any of the rest of us to pursue the public good if doing so harms them personally?


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