Beto Needs to Revive Talk about His ‘War Tax’ Proposal

This article appeared on The Hill (Online) on September 18, 2019.
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War is too easy for America. The U.S. military wanders the globe visiting death and destruction upon other nations and peoples, with a minimal impact on the American homeland.

U.S. military personnel, of course, die in their country’s conflicts. But civilians rarely. The Civil War is the last conflict that occurred in America, though in World War II the Japanese occupied two Aleutian Islands and launched balloon bombs against the mainland.

Then came 9/11. Thankfully, there have been no similarly destructive terrorist incidents in the U.S. since. Even the few terrorist killings have been conducted by Americans.

In contrast, other nations provide the battlefield in Washington’s wars. Foreign peoples always die, sometimes in prodigious numbers. For instance, a reasonable estimate of the number of Iraqi civilians killed after America’s invasion is 400,000, and some estimates go much higher. Tens of thousands of Yemeni civilians have died, the vast bulk at the hands of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, backed by the U.S.

Moreover, brutal terrorist attacks are common in America’s overseas battlefields—Iraq especially, and Afghanistan. Washington’s allies typically were targeted more than U.S. personnel. Suicide bombings became a common occurrence as the “global war on terrorism” expanded.

Even though the American people have tired of endless wars unrelated to fundamental U.S. interests, the “Blob,” the foreign policy establishment, and the politicians who share its views, still back more wars. Despite the series of catastrophic military failures, most recently Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Yemen, administration figures, legislators, and commentators propose new military campaigns against Venezuela and Iran. Some seem ready for war against North Korea and even China and Russia, if necessary.

Unfortunately, American policymakers pay little price for acting as ivory tower warriors. At the same time, the public, while skeptical of permanent war, pays little attention to foreign affairs. Military issues barely rate in public polls on the coming election.

People don’t perceive they are paying the cost of conflict. Casualties are relatively low, compared to past big wars, and the financial expense is camouflaged by deficit spending. Indeed, after 9/11 President George W. Bush told the American people to be good consumers and spend moneyThis year the federal deficit already has hit a $1 trillion, under a Republican president who advanced tax cuts. “Make war and party!” appears to be the GOP’s slogan.

What to do? Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, a former congressman, proposed a war tax. He hasn’t talked about it of late; unfortunately, foreign policy hasn’t been much of an issue among the Democrats. But misuse of the military should be central to their campaigns next year. The president ran, and won, attacking endless alliances, interventions, and wars. True, he was no peacenik, as is evident from his belligerence toward Iran and Venezuela. But he picked up votes in areas where battlefield casualties were felt most heavily. Yet America remains involved in the conflicts he most vigorously criticized, Afghanistan and Syria.

O’Rourke proposed a special progressive levy rising to $1,000 with the proceeds to be placed in a trust fund toward veterans’ health case. Members of the armed forces and their families would be exempt. He argued: “the best way to honor our veterans’ service is to cancel the blank check for endless war.” His proposal triggered other ideas. For instance, the New Republic’s Alex Pareene suggested raising “the top marginal rate 10 points for each new war.” A decade ago Democratic Reps. David Obey (Wis.) and John Murtha (Pa.) proposed a surtax to fund every war’s cost.

Not everyone on the left liked O’Rourke’s idea. Adam Weinstein of the New Republic called the proposal “classic democratic militarism.” He complained that war opponents would end up paying it and doubted that people would oppose war more because they paid more for it.

But peaceniks and warmongers alike already are paying for the wars. Many just aren’t conscious of that fact. A special war tax would replace borrowing and therefore would not increase the burden on those campaigning for peace.

Would people change their position on the ongoing wars if they had to pay for them? Maybe, though it is impossible to know how much. Today many people don’t feel war’s cost. Seeing the price clearly might cause some taxpayers to look more critically at conflicts that offer little benefit to America.

The amount of the tax is less important than its existence. A war tax, listed on every pay statement, would remind everyone of the ongoing conflicts. Contended O’Rourke: “The time has come to cancel the blank check for endless war and to ensure that any future engagements are the result of a national conversation about our security interests and duly authorized by Congress.”

How effective would it be in achieving this end? In “The Wealth of Nations,” Adam Smithcontended that “every new tax is immediately felt more or less by the people. It occasions always some murmur, and meets with some opposition.” Cornell’s Sarah Kreps argued that there “is actually empirical evidence to support the intuition. Survey experiments conducted both in the United States and the United Kingdom have shown that support for the war, conditional on it being financed by taxes rather than debt, declines between about 8-12 percent.”

If successful, argued Noah Berlatsky of NBC, the idea has “radical potential to change the political calculus around foreign intervention.” Still, that potential might go unrealized. But who has a better idea? Other than Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Democratic presidential candidates have largely ignored the ongoing conflicts. How else to get Americans to care about their government’s promiscuous war-making?

O’Rourke should revive his plan, repositioning it from a means to fund veterans’ health to a step to restore popular and congressional control of war-making. That could encourage other Democrats to respond. And Democratic activists to challenge a party establishment unwilling to seriously address foreign policy.

Of course, it would be best to simply stop endless wars. But Afghanistan is hitting its 18th year. The U.S. is back in Iraq and apparently in Syria for the long-term. Washington has been indirectly involved in Yemen for more than four years. So far nothing else has worked.

Why not try a war tax? Observed Kreps, “Even having the debate about how to pay for wars, how, and what consequence is at least a start.” War should truly be a last resort.

Doug Bandow

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author of several books, including "Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire."