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Beto O’Rourke’s “War Tax” Is Classic Democratic Militarism

There's nothing progressive about distilling war's ravages down to a half-baked, Adam Smith–style exercise in taxpayer burden-sharing.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

In the annals of terrible American militarist policy proposals, few are sillier and less punk than self-identified Fugazi fan Beto O’Rourke’s de facto patriotism tax.

Before roasting him, let me first say a few words in praise of the former Texas congressman and Democratic presidential hopeful. As a three-term member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, O’Rourke led on a few issues of real import to the vet community—particularly in securing emergency mental health services for vets with “bad paper,” i.e. those with less-than-honorable discharges often stemming from health issues that were undiagnosed or stigmatized in the service. It’s a good start, in terms of returning what’s due to those who have served in an unprecedented stretch of overseas wars and transitioned to civilian life in a deeply iniquitous, divided society.

But campaign season is now upon us, and the policies are getting punchier. Among his otherwise anodyne presidential proposals for veteran care—including an end to the Afghanistan war, expansions of “innovation” at the Department of Veterans Affairs, and restoration of more benefits to other-than-honorable dischargees—O’Rourke’s campaign on Monday announced a “war tax” on non-military households.

“At the start of any newly authorized war,” O’Rourke’s campaign site promises, “a new trust fund will be established within the General Fund of the Treasury for future veterans of that war.” That kitty will be filled with the proceeds of a new tax, which, he says, “would serve as a reminder of the incredible sacrifice made by those who serve and their families.” To do that, the tax would be “levied on households without current members of the Armed Forces or veterans of the Armed Forces.”

This tax would be imposed according to a tiered schedule, per CNN:

Households making less than $30,000 per year would pay $25; those making less than $40,000 would pay $57; those making less than $50,000 would pay $98; those making less than $75,000 would pay $164; those making less than $100,000 would pay $270; those making less than $200,000 would pay $485; and those making more than $200,000 would pay $1,000.

It is a sick quirk of the English language that this sort of tiering makes a tax “progressive.” Truly progressive ideas that might be preferable to financially penalizing teachers, cabbies, and construction workers for not having gone to boot camp would include making military contractors pay for wars, making billionaires pay for wars (Bernie Sanders has, in fact, proposed exactly this), or making legislators pay when they vote to authorize war.

I would listen to any serious policy proposal that promises to authorize fewer wars, damage fewer service members and overseas civilians, and drive fewer wedges between Americans who have served and Americans who have not. O’Rourke’s war-tax plan will do none of these things; it’s likely to worsen our culture’s gaping rift in civil-military relations. It is, after all, a mandatory literal tribute to “the troops.”

Democrats like O’Rourke regularly respond that more radically pro-peace, anti-militarist proposals (such as taxing military contractors) are not serious. “Seriousness” here apparently requires that we instead approach the decisions to wage war and maintain a massive military as pocketbook issues: “The best way to honor our veterans’ service,” he argues, “is to cancel the blank check for endless war — and reinvest the savings to ensure every American can thrive upon their return home.”

To translate the pablum: Instead of a blank check for war, we’ll have an open account, filled with pennies by working families, and then we can quibble over how big of a check is too big for this war or that. We won’t care for transitioning veterans because we ought to; we’ll do it—again, with working people’s money—because it’s a personal investment for each of us somehow, though the future dividends remain fuzzy.

We need to spend a little more time considering the perverseness of these economic metaphors. “If military action is worth our troops’ blood,” one veteran and war-tax proponent wrote in The New York Times in 2013, “it should be worth our treasure, too — not just in the abstract, but in the form of a specific ante by every American.” This is the sort of ass-backwards ethical reasoning that drove Colonel Kurtz off the deep end. First, every taxpaying American already antes up for war: Roughly 24 cents of every tax dollar goes to defense (with more of that going to military contractors than to troops); another six cents goes to veterans’ benefits. The average taxpayer already pays more toward Lockheed Martin’s military contracts each year than O’Rourke’s war tax would collect in the name of future veteran benefits.

Second, and infinitely more important: If your aim is to increase Americans’ appreciation for war’s costs in life and limbs, and you accomplish this by making non-serving Americans pay money, you make a mockery of Americans’ humanity, reducing their most fundamental human-rights commitments to a transaction. The notion that people will care more about opposing war when they pay more for it is both empirically wrong, given how much Americans already pay in defense dollars, and deeply cynical.

When leftist pundits argue that there is a stark difference between true progressive policies and “neoliberal” band-aids, this war tax proposal is precisely what we mean by the latter. Nothing stands as a greater indictment of our Democratic political establishment than the fact that some of its freshest faces think serious progress is made by distilling expeditionary warfare, its obvious ravages, and its hidden costs down to a half-baked, Adam Smith–style exercise in taxpayer burden-sharing.

You could, instead, simply end wars, break up the financial interests that drive military expansion, invest more in public diplomacy, heavily tax the top 1 percent—veterans or non-veterans alike—and immediately fill the VA’s 48,935 unfilled jobs.