Is There a Foreign Aid Myth?

aidmapIf there’s a single issue on which the average American decidedly wants less government, it’s foreign aid. Polls show that even more Americans want to cut foreign aid than taxpayer funding for “the arts.”

Understandably, then, foreign aid is a not-uncommon libertarian talking point. Defenders of foreign aid, however, have a prepared response: the American public grossly overestimates foreign aid numbers. While the average American supposes that the federal government spends about a quarter of its budget on overseas assistance, the official number is closer to 1%.

Libertarians rebut by pointing out that this 1% adds millions each day to an already plummeting debt, but we don’t need to stop there. Instead, we should go on the offensive by questioning the narrow way that government statistics define foreign aid.

Suppose foreign aid were defined in accordance with common sense: money sent overseas that does nothing to benefit the taxpayers who are required to provide it. On this view, the median American is essentially correct; the U.S. spends more money policing any number of foreign borders than its own. We can reasonably say most of the $729 billion we spent on “defense” in 2012 actually constituted “foreign aid.”

Of the myriad occupations the U.S. maintains around the world, how many can even the staunchest interventionist honestly claim benefit the people who foot the bills for them? Rhetorically, even the invasion of Iraq became a humanitarian intervention after WMDs failed to turn up.

Moreover, Italy and the United Kingdom each host contingents of roughly 10,000 American soldiers. As Germany and Japan become economic giants, we provide for the national defense of both nations by keeping over 45,000 troops in each country.

If there are immanent threats to our national security in any of these places, I haven’t heard of them. If this isn’t foreign aid, I don’t know what is. 

That Americans across the political spectrum increasingly want to axe so-called defense spending suggests that many are becoming aware of this mislabeling. As libertarians discuss this critical issue, then, it’s prudent that we do so on the terms of the American people rather than those of our confirmed opponents.

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