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 welfare safety net be so full of self-identified conservatives and libertarians?
That should not be surprising, since the military is still composed of demographics (white — 69%, male — 83%) that tend to be more 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 uniformed colleagues complaining about the evils of socialism, parroting arguments I’ve often heard repeated ad nauseam 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. In addition, 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.
This last complaint sounds the most ironic to me. In terms of respected American institutions, few rank higher than the U.S. Armed Forces. And in terms of benefits offered and entitlements received, nothing comes close, neither in the private nor public sectors.
So is the U.S. military socialist?
In a strict sense, no, but 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 want to argue the U.S. military is an example of what I call a socialist meritocracy. It provides the benefits of a comprehensive welfare system and ample opportunities for individuals to excel and achieve through their efforts.
Sound like a contradiction?
Well, hear me out.
What is “socialist” about the military?
100% health care coverage for you and your family
Government-subsidized housing or housing allowance
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 lifetime retirement packages beginning at 20 years of service
The government funds everything listed above, and in many cases, also runs it. 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. This means a small sliver of the population is paying for a substantial portion of the military’s budget. No, this is not traditional crimson-red socialism in the purest sense, but it remains much further to the left than the rest of American society.
My point here is not to expose the hypocrisy of my conservative colleagues but to demonstrate how fast lived experience can diverge from professed ideology and how unaware people can be of that divergence. Don’t mistake me, 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 become 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 point out the irony, I’m surprised by how perplexed people seem, as if it never crossed their minds to consider this disparity between belief and practice.
One recurring rebuttal I come across is that the military is not socialist but 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 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, and one touching all aspects of life for those in it.
If you have ever visited an Army, Navy, Air Force, or Marine Corps 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 escape 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 policies, all while proudly serving in the Armed Forces, you'll find yourself in an awkward position no amount of patriotic flag-waving can make go away.
But perhaps I’m being a little harsh.
A Socialist Meritocracy for All (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, governed as it is by an accessible system of incentives rewarding performance, ambition, and intelligence. Moreover, we 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 where everything has to be either left or right, collective or individual. That's reductively stupid.
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 often 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, personal belief, ideology, sexuality, and race. Tocqueville wrote long ago about an American penchant for ‘self-interest properly understood.’ This was only another way of saying Americans have (or had?) a gift for identifying enlightened self-interests within broader communal goals.
These then create thriving networks benefiting 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. This may sound like a contradiction in terms, but it’s not. In fact, it reconciles some fundamental truths about human nature. We crave personal achievement and self-realization, and yet this only becomes possible when our basic needs like health care, shelter, and a living wage are met.
The government takes care of those basic needs so we can focus our energies on achieving personal and professional goals which help protect the nation's interests. The idea is this: when individuals prosper, so will the Armed Forces, and with it, the nation. A mutually beneficial social compact forms benefiting 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 we forget 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 is 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 experience that an individual prospers when the group does and suffers when that does not happen. I'm quite comfortable with the government playing a greater role in regulating how we care for each other. In a pluralistic society of 330 million, you need an 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. My conservative friends in the Army 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 safety net that fosters an environment for those personal accomplishments.
While they lament the evils of Big Government welfare programs putting us on the road to socialism, they have no problem 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 have tried to give 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 28-plus years.
I’m not saying 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 to enhance, rather than weaken, the social fabric. We have a living example to draw upon, one with some of socialism’s biggest critiques along for the ride.
It must not be all bad.