What’s the Value of Defense-Funded Technological Research?
By Taylor Marvin
Matt Yglesias worries that America’s massive defense industry crowds out more socially useful civilian technological innovations by attracting the best engineers to military development projects:
“The guys who are building these cool military exoskeletons, for example, are obviously very talented. And the supply of talented engineers isn’t all that elastic. When they supply their talents to defense-related projects, the civilian economy is starved of talent… Sometimes this makes sense. The Manhattan Project involved a huge proportion of the world’s finest scientific minds and rightly so. But undertaking that kind of civilian to military brain drain all the time can be very harmful.”
Yglesias has a point- it is true that every engineer working in the defense industry is an engineer not working to develop green technology or a better car or a more efficient toaster, all things that are ultimately much more beneficial to America’s welfare than a more advanced cruise missile. However, Yglesias misses the obvious point. While most extra military spending has a very low marginal benefit to American society, especially in an age where the US faces no real major threats deterred by the might of our armed forces, most technological advancements of the last half century or more have been driven by military R&D spending. The technological basis of information technology, air travel, long-range shipping, satellites, and even velcro were all either invented or initially adopted with government funds, either in military or space research programs. Of course, many areas of military research, say railguns or ballistic missile defense, aren’t likely to ever have any civilian applications. But it’s impossible to deny that government R&D funding, mostly driven by defense concerns, along with strong economic incentives for private research are the roots of America’s innovation and technological success. This isn’t a reason to give the military an essentially blank check- if we decide the main social benefit of high defense spending is the products of military research it would be both cheaper and more effective to just take the money and give it to university and industrial research labs- but it’s foolish to claim that the fact that much of American technological development is originally funded by the military rather than civilians is very harmful to the welfare of the United States.