Militarizing America: The Nick Kristof Plan

So often, the problem with the New York Times op-ed page is not just the left-leaning politics, but the poor quality of the contributors, despite the fact that they occupy some of the highest-paid and most-visible perches in the punditocracy. And the hallmark of poor quality punditry is the failure to think through the implications of one’s arguments. So it is with today’s column from Times columnist Nick Kristof.

Kristof’s thesis is that the US military is actually a “socialist” institution that should be a model for our society:

[I]f we seek another model, one that emphasizes universal health care and educational opportunity, one that seeks to curb income inequality, we don’t have to turn to Sweden. Rather, look to the United States military.

Now, it’s reasonable as far as it goes to point out that the military, being wholly-owned and operated by the government, does not behave like a private for-profit enterprise. But does Kristof really think the military isn’t too bureaucratic and inefficient to be a model for the private sector? Hint: it is, because it’s a government bureaucracy, but we tolerate that because it performs an essential and irreplaceable function. Even leaving that aside, however, let’s look at the essential characteristics of the military as a workplace, few of which Kristof seems to have thought through and many of which, I’d guess, he would find objectionable as applied to the private sector:

1. The workforce is not free. You join the military, unless you are discharged, you must serve out your enlisted term of years. Most American workers are free to change jobs, and even if you have a contract for a stated period, the Thirteenth Amendment protects you in most cases from being compelled to do more than pay money damages for quitting. Not so with soldiers, who can be imprisoned for desertion. Also, enlisted soldiers often must live in housing provided by their employer (depending on their rank and other conditions), and ordinarily have few rights of privacy against inspection of their living quarters. They can be shipped hither and yon without their consent.

2. The workforce is not unionized. The military’s complete control over working conditions is in no way obstructed by collective bargaining or work rules. Nor are wages protected by statutory schemes such as the Davis-Bacon Act.

3. The employer is largely immune from suit. Americans with Disabilities Act? Sexual harrassment litigation? Medical malpractice? Age Discrimination in Employment Act? Never heard of them. Most of the workforce is under 40, disproportionately male, physically fit, and until very recently did not permit open homosexuals to serve. Military culture is distinctive, and feminists in particular have long complained of the persistence of a ‘macho’ culture. The upper ranks of the military are naturally dominated by men, because women are barred from the jobs (i.e., combat) that provide the most important opportunities for advancement.

4. The entire workforce is armed and wears uniforms. I’m guessing this is not the case in the New York Times newsroom.

As it happens, the things that make the military so cohesive, and so willing to accept wages and working conditions that would be objectionable in the private sector, are inseparable from its dangerous and violent mission, focus on combat and, yes, its irreducibly masculine culture. As Jonah Goldberg traced in his excellent book Liberal Fascism, Kristof is following an impulse here that recurs with great regularity in the liberal imagination: the desire to replicate the “socialist” nature of the military – or of civilian life in times of total war – without its military-ness. Goldberg draws extensively on the history, from post-World War I progressives (including FDR) seeking to recreate the conditions of the wartime Wilson Administration, to LBJ’s War on Poverty, to Jimmy Carter’s “moral equivalent of war” on energy consumption – he might have added Kristof’s colleague Paul Krugman, who is constantly harping on the economic conditions of the World War II era as a model. But they always fail; men who will run uphill into a machine gun nest for their comrades simply will not do the same thing to sell dishwashers, and no amount of re-imagining of fundamental human nature will make them do so. Militarized societies inevitably founder on this basic reality; they face constant pressure to become wholly militarized and regimented, yet sooner or later they still fail to sustain conditions in which ordinary citizens act like soldiers. As my colleague Repair Man Jack commented, “they tried that in Germany and Italy once. The results weren’t what anyone could have hoped for.”

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