The U.S. military budget devours more than $700 billion annually. To many on the left, this figure is symbolic of what’s wrong with America. Each dollar spent by the military is a dollar that could have gone to combat America’s failing infrastructure, the student debt problem, the health care debacle, chronic homelessness… In other words, we have our priorities all wrong.
While Republicans glibly embrace endless military expansion, the Democratic Party is generally against increased military spending of any sort. Tulsi Gabbard, for example, structured her entire 2020 presidential campaign around getting the U.S. out of regime change wars. Many other prominent Democrats running for president have long track records of working to cut defense spending.
The most radical proposal for curbing the military budget, however, comes from outside the Democratic Party. In 2016, libertarian* and Transhumanist candidate Zoltan Istvan championed a novel proposal to transform the military-industrial complex into a science-industrial complex. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this policy proposal never attracted much attention. It’s an unbelievably ambitious proposal from a fringe candidate. But the spirit of Istvan’s proposal is becoming increasingly mainstream. Bernie Sanders, in particular, has gotten close to articulating Istvan’s basic idea. For example, Bernie recently tweeted:
“What if — just maybe — we led the world not in weapons of war, but in fighting humanity’s common enemy: climate change?”
Bernie isn’t saying it outright, but he is hinting at the need to use some of our bloated military budget to tackle climate change. Practically speaking, that would entail transferring billions of dollars from the military and using it for science, which is exactly what Istvan proposes.
Istvan, however, wouldn’t stop with climate change. And he doesn’t just envision a transfer of cash, but a transformation of infrastructure. In a world where approximately 7,000 Americans die every day from heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and other health issues, we don’t need protection to come from soldiers, but from scientists, technologists, and medical professionals. Rather than fighting in foreign wars with questionable outcomes, why not focus on the threats that are killing us slowly and surely? As Istvan writes in an article for Vice about his vision for the science-industrial complex, “Let America’s new wars be fought against cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and aging itself.”
Although this pitch may sound radical, Istvan is confident that it’s actually inevitable. He sees the military requiring fewer and fewer actual people, as wars are increasingly fought by automated drones, artificial intelligence, and through cyberwarfare. To the extent that we continue to entangle ourselves in international conflicts, the personnel required will skew heavily toward engineers, programmers, and technicians.
Needless to say, Bernie’s vision of the military isn’t quite there yet. However, policy by policy, the pieces are starting to align. In terms of science and technology, Bernie supports vigorously fighting climate change and he’s generally positive about pursing space exploration. He has always voted for increased stem cell research, which indicates his embrace of new technology to assist with medical progress. And everyone knows how passionately he feels about improving the health care system in America.
In terms of the military budget, Bernie is adamantly against current levels of rampant spending. On March 2, 2019, he kicked off his presidential campaign with a promise to seriously cut U.S. defense spending. With that money, he says, “We’re going to invest in affordable housing, we’re going to invest in public education, we’re going to invest in rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure — not more nuclear weapons and never-ending wars.”
If his tweet above is any indication, he also will use it to fight climate change (which, incidentally, is a serious national security threat). And if his record on science is any indication, it’s not a crazy assumption that a Bernie budget would include increased spending for science and health care. Further, to the extent that Bernie does in fact believe in using the military budget to combat common enemies facing humanity, then in principle he should be in favor of using the military budget to combat the same list of common enemies Istvan focuses on, including cancer and aging.
At a very basic level, Bernie is against exorbitant military spending and he has dedicated his political career to improving the daily lives of working people, especially when it comes to their health and general well-being. Today, the idea of the science-industrial complex has entirely fallen by the wayside. Istvan is no longer seeking a political office*, so his vision for transforming the military no longer has a champion. But if there is anyone on the political stage who might take up such a vision — at least in part — that person very likely is Bernie Sanders.
*Edit, 12/5/19: Zoltan Istvan is now running for president in 2020 as a Republican.