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Civilian Control, Unicorns, and Other Bedtime Stories: The Military Does What It Wants

The fundamental problem with purchasing protection from the boogeyman is that it’s impossible to assess the quality of your purchase: If the boogeyman doesn’t attack, it appears your protection succeeded. If he does, it appears you needed to purchase even more. And that, dear readers, is why the military cannot be controlled by civilians or anyone else, for that matter. In the most basic sense, people without guns cannot control people with them; everything else is merely a self-deception.

Take, for example, the recent covid crisis. Imagine you are a time traveler and you have replaced Donald Trump as president, so you have the benefit of knowing everything that has happened in the last few years. Could you do anything differently? Would you? That is, imagine your military advisors tell you that covid is an artificial bioweapon that’s been released to probe our defenses as part of a larger attack.

(To be clear, I’m not saying that’s what happened; rather, I’m asking you to assume that’s what happened.) Well, what are you going to do? Can you call their bluff, thereby risking World War III? (No matter what you believe caused the covid crisis, you can’t be certain you’re right. You really can’t be certain enough to bet the lives of every man, woman, and child on your hypothesis.)

Indeed, so what if you are correct? How do you weather the ensuing crisis? Do you think the military’s just going to go along with you, or do you think they’re going to destroy you? That is, even if you’re willing to bet everyone else’s life on your beliefs, are you willing to bet your own? Your career? Had you defied the military on such an issue, would you have retained your office? Hint: probably not.

Long and short, you probably must do whatever the military tells you to do, even if you KNOW they’re wrong. And how can you know they’re wrong? You can’t discuss these issues with outsiders because you’d be revealing military secrets and starting a panic.

And if the Chinese government thinks you’re about to lose power or that you’re about to attack China, then it may attack you preemptively. And if the charges are false, the Chinese government may assume that you made false charges because you intend to attack China.

Long and short, the only rational and prudent thing to do is whatever the military tells you to do because you can’t ignore their advice, particularly where—as here—you can’t check their claims and, thus, you can’t develop any grounds to ignore their advice.

Every president, therefore, faces the same stark choice: obey the military or ignore them without any factual basis to support that decision. And, frankly, nobody can do that. Nobody can risk everything on a hunch.

Which means—as a practical matter—the military can do whatever it wants, constrained only by its own integrity or cowardice.

Ideally, the military’s internal squabbles should act as a safeguard. (Since the military is a self-regulating entity, the last thing anybody should want is more internal cohesion.)

Did the military save the world from a dire threat? Who knows? Who can? All we can do is speculate about what might have happened but for the military, and that’s precisely why the military can’t be controlled, prospectively or retrospectively.

Even in theory, the only way to check the military’s power is to give consumers the right to choose between military or no military, but that choice isn’t available, which means we all live—and always will live—in a military dictatorship of varying degrees and disguises. Even the best-intentioned military can’t be regulated without choice as they may believe what they say—they may even be right—but there’s no way for us consumers to know.

Having discussed the theory, let’s discuss the practical: Do sellers whose customers must buy whatever they’re selling offer good products at good prices? Sadly, we all know the answer: they’ll maximize profit like anyone else or they’ll be replaced by those who do. The market will always drive producers toward lower-quality, higher-priced products UNLESS those producers can be constrained through competition (at best) or regulation (at worst). When they can’t be constrained at all, disaster ensues as surely as night follows day.

If you want freedom, you must reduce the military’s size and scope. There’s simply no alternative.

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