Is the U.S. Military Socialist? Reflections on the Social vs. Individual
I’ve been in the Army for over two decades and have seen a lot of strange things. Yet one thing continues to perplex me. How can America's most robust social welfare safety net be so full of self-identified conservatives and libertarians? Accurate statistics are difficult to find on the political leanings of service members, but the conventional wisdom holds that they skew to the right politically.
That should not be surprising since the military is still composed of demographics (white — 70%, male — 83%) that are more traditionally conservative. Anecdotally, my experience confirms this. I’ve often wondered how this can be given the reality of how we actually live.
Over the years, I listened to some of my military colleagues complaining about the evils of socialism, echoing arguments I’d often heard repeated on Fox News and conservative talk radio. The criticisms vary but go something like this: socialism saps a society of its creative vitality, stifles personal freedoms, and kills economic growth. Not only that, but many on the right see a fundamental (un-American?) unfairness in taking someone’s hard-earned wealth and then giving it to someone deemed less deserving.
That last complaint seems the most blindly ironic to me.
In terms of respected American institutions, none rank higher, especially among conservatives, than the U.S. military. And in terms of benefits offered and entitlements received, nothing even comes close, neither in the private nor public sectors.
So is the U.S. military socialist?
It is by far the most progressive and left-leaning institution in America. Why does it work so well for all demographics and political backgrounds, including those who claim to hate socialism? I'm going to argue that the U.S. military is an example of what I call a socialist meritocracy. It provides the benefits of a comprehensive social welfare system combined with ample opportunities for individuals to excel and achieve.
Sound like a contradiction?
Well, hear me out.
What exactly is “socialist” about the military?
100% health care coverage for you and your family
Free education and vocational training
Student loan debt repayment assistance
Government-subsidized low prices at on-base grocery stores (commissaries)
Free on-base fitness facilities and recreational facilities
Many, many tax exemptions
Generous retirement package beginning at 20 years of service and continuing until death
Everything listed above is funded by the government, and in many cases, is also run by the government. And consider this: in our progressive tax system, the top 50% of the U.S. population pays about 97% of income taxes while the top 1% pay 38.5% of individual income taxes. What this means in practice is that a small sliver of the population is paying for a large portion of the military’s budget. No, this is not traditional crimson-red socialism in the purest sense, but it certainly remains much further to the left than the rest of American society.
My point here is not to expose the hypocrisy of my conservative military friends but to demonstrate how quickly lived experience can diverge from professed ideology and how blind people can be to that divergence. Don’t get me wrong, we all do it sometimes. In the real world — as opposed to the warped media “realities” we increasingly spend our waking hours inhabiting — the lines between doer and taker can get uncomfortably blurry.
Here, you find those who complain about the evils of socialism living a government-funded lifestyle. All too often, when I have these conversations, and I gently point out that irony, I’m surprised by how genuinely perplexed people are to hear this, as if it never crossed their minds to consider this disparity between belief and practice.
One recurring rebuttal I hear is that the military is not socialist but merely a public service provided at taxpayer expense, like the Post Office or public sanitation. While there is some truth to this, the comparison doesn’t really hold up. It ignores just how all-encompassing our military’s welfare system is, going well beyond the core service provided— national defense—and extending to many other areas only tangentially related to protecting the nation.
Moreover, unlike public utilities and services, the military represents a sub-culture within our larger culture that touches all aspects of life for those in it. If you have ever visited a military base, you understand what I am talking about. They are comfortable gated communities, where it is possible to work, play, exercise, worship, and shop, all without ever leaving the safe confines of the base.
In the end, therefore, it is hard to get around the fact that everything listed above is provided through the redistribution of steeply progressive taxation. Call it what you will. If you are ideologically opposed to the soul-sucking, egalitarian hell of left-leaning social policies, all while proudly serving in the military, you'll find yourself in an awkward position that no amount of patriotic flag-waving can make go away.
But maybe I’m being a little harsh.
A Socialist Meritocracy for Everyone (even those who hate socialism)
Let me offer a sympathetic explanation for this apparent conservative/libertarian blind spot. If the military is the most socially and economically progressive organization in America, as I am arguing, it is also one steeped in a meritocratic ethos emphasizing personal responsibility and individual accomplishment.
These are traits that conservatives value. Each person joins with the opportunity to go as far as his or her ability will allow. One also finds a refreshingly transparent equality of opportunity in the military that is governed by an equally accessible system of incentives that reward performance, ambition, and intelligence.
Moreover, we in the military are taught to take care of ourselves so we can take care of our teammates. This is drilled into us from the first day of basic training. I can think of no better example in America today of how seamlessly collectivist and individualist cultures weave together to form a cohesive, functioning whole, annihilating today's tired dichotomy that everything has to be either left or right, collective or individual. In reality, the individual thrives when part of a community. I know I succeed when my team succeeds, and I fail when they fail. This virtuous dialectic between me and we serves as a contrast to the bipolar talking points of today’s tedious left vs. right cultural wars. Either you’re on my side or not. Either you're a giver or a taker. Either one or the other, but never both together, it seems. Nuance drowns in this kind of rhetoric, even though most people's lives are usually far more complicated and contradictory than the dumbed-down ideologies they profess to live by.
The U.S. military is the envy of the world because it forges such strong reciprocal relationships between service members regardless of sex, belief, ideology, sexuality, and race. Tocqueville wrote long ago about an American penchant for ‘self-interest properly understood.’ This was just another way of saying that Americans have (or had?) a gift for identifying enlightened individual self-interests within broader communal goals, creating mutually reinforcing exchanges that benefit individuals and communities alike.
Tocqueville’s insight is the secret to our military’s success, making it in many ways a model of what I like to call socialist meritocracy. That may sound like a contradiction in terms, but it’s not. In fact, it reconciles some fundamental truths about human nature. We crave individual achievement and self-realization, and yet this only becomes fully possible when our basic needs like health care, shelter, and a living wage are met.
The government takes care of those basic needs and then some so we can focus our energies on achieving personal and professional goals that in turn help protect the nation's interests. The idea is this: when individuals prosper, so will our military, and with it, the nation. A mutually beneficial social compact is formed that benefits everyone involved.
You give, I get.
I give, you get.
We all win.
Yet, this simple truth is lost on many people. We’ve come to worship the individual so much that we forget just how communal we are by nature. We need each other. That doesn’t make us communists, but it does emphasize the power of the collective more than many are comfortable acknowledging these days. This, in any case, seems a better society to strive for, and much better than one where we are alienated little atoms struggling to survive on a winner-take-all capitalist battlefield.
So, yes, I’ve learned through long service that the individual prospers when the group does and suffers when that does not happen. In that context, I'm quite comfortable with the government playing a greater role in regulating how we take care of each other. In a pluralistic society of 330 million, you need an equally expansive referee to step in when the market fails. The government, love it or hate it, and within reasonable limits, is the only sensible option.
I’d add that my conservative military friends tacitly agree with me in practice, even if they are loath to admit it. Everything they achieve as individuals is real enough and commendable, but just as real is the comprehensive social safety net the military provides that fosters an environment for those individual accomplishments. While they continue complaining about the evils of Big Government, they have no problems leading comfortable middle-class lives paid for by Uncle Sam.
In my case, the Army has given me so much and made me a productive member of society. I, in turn, have hopefully given something back in return, not only to the Army but to the men and women I have had the honor of serving with over the last 26-plus years.
I’m not saying that the meritocratic socialism of today’s armed forces can be cut and pasted onto the rest of society, only that there are opportunities to expand the current welfare state in ways that enhance, rather than weaken, the social fabric. We have a living example to draw upon and one that has some of socialism’s biggest critiques along for the ride.
It must not be all bad.