Vir Cantium

I'm right, you know …

There is an Alternative to Defence Cuts – It’s Called Free Trade

It saddens me that I should write blog posts that criticise a Conservative government. Fortunately we have a Lib Dem-led coalition government, so my loyalties are left conveniently intact, to a point.

Today sees the P45s being prepared for 2,000 service personnel getting the chop as part of the cuts. Not that I’m against cuts in the defence budget per se; there is an army sitting in Whitehall that could do with probably a many more Orders of the Boot but, putting it bluntly, there is a case for special pleading for defence.

Defence is an issue that is set apart from most of the other ‘cuts’ when it comes to views within the conservative movement. From a classical liberal perspective, for example, defence is one of the few core duties of government that only the state can practically provide. It is one of the few cuts that the left-wing marchers and breast-beaters remain strangely silent about, when they are otherwise so vocal about schools’n’ospitals.

Toby shows concern for his brother.

The West Wing's Toby Zielger: "free trade stops wars"

Sure, Labour have piped up and opposed the cuts, and as usual have offered no alternative. In most cases conservatives would affirm that there is no alternative to the cuts, if you want to avoid credit downgrading or the short-termist solution of even more taxes. However, unlike so many other areas defence is one where many conservatives can offer up an alternative which the Left would not wish to contemplate – overseas aid.

The fact is that everyone is not all in it together, and one department spared from the cuts is DFiD – the Department for International Development – headed up by Andrew Mitchell who, from this week until an unspecified date in the future, shall carry the prefix “hapless” following his documentation transportation error in front of Downing Street’s permanent press encampment.

International development – or ‘overseas aid’ in the more popular parlance – has been protected from the austerity programme; indeed a commitment to increase it was in the Conservative manifesto. Such an apparently arbitrary pledge may make sense to David Cameron and the readers of the Guardian and Independent, but it demonstrates an odd set of priorities. It isn’t a case of selfishness; one would not expect someone to sacrifice the repair of a broken roof in order to donate to a flood-stricken part of the developing world, or the price of a loved one’s vital prescription for a donation to the Red Cross, however worthy such charity would be.

Even Cameron’s own message on this has been confused. He has stated in the past that

I think that the British people want this to be something that the whole of the country is signed up to. If you look to the response to Live Aid, if you look at the response to Comic Relief, even in recession, even in difficult times, they are raising record sums of money.

Well, the British people don’t want it, and if they did, they can easily donate voluntarily – and there is another example of how Cameron doesn’t seem to get Conservatism. Live Aid and Comic Relief are shining examples of voluntary donation, but they cannot then be used to justify donation by coercion. Live Aid and its successors, if anything, only go to undermine the case for government aid. If people are willing to do it voluntarily, why do they need forcing? (Indeed, if they weren’t giving by choice, would there really be such a strong moral case for making them do so?) What happened to the Big Society, Prime Minister, or does it stop at Dover?

More recently, as economic times have changed, he says that the world’s poor mustn’t be made to pay for the world’s economic problems, or for handouts to the well-off here at home, which are highly disingenuous arguments, if not downright insulting. Why should our troops be made to pay instead, then?

Thirdly, we get the argument that:

When you look at some of the major threats to our security today — from terrorism to climate change to war — you know they will only get worse unless we help fight poverty and boost the development of struggling nations…

Don’t get me started on climate change, but terrorism? Put aside the obvious comparisons to Danegeld; you can make an argument that more philanthropy can make for a better society and reduce crime, but that can be no alternative to having locks on the doors and an effective alarm system. In any case  just as sustainable economic betterment, even for our domestic ‘deprived’ communities, comes from reducing the disincentives unintentionally provided by the state, so the best thing for the developing world is often more free trade and less socialism.

Indeed free trade and democracy are very effective tools in promoting world peace – after all, if your economy is tied to your neighbours then you’re less likely to want to bomb him and, if you and they are both genuine democracies, it’s less likely that you will even be politically able to. In the words of the sadly fictional Toby Ziegler in The West Wing: “Free trade stops wars”.

Practicality, this would include dismantling the protectionist trading bloc that is the EU. After all, aren’t we supposed to be at the heart of Europe of something? *cough* *splutter*

Oh, and in the interests of fairness, let us not forget that Labour too were hardly generous when it came to defence spending … after all it was former soldiers, disgruntled at the under-equipping and deprivations of their service comrades, who leaked wholesale the MP’s expenses claims and shook the whole edifice of British politics.

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