In the aftermath of Obama’s Afghanistan “surge,” we see a number of lawmakers and commentators proposing a “war tax” — as a way to either fund, or end, the war. After all, if we don’t want to pay for the war, why are we willing to let people die for it?
Indeed, a war tax would be a quick way to end the Afghanistan war, or any war. The first serious study of democracies at war — titled, ahem, “Democracies at War” — found that democracies enter a war with an advantage, either because of a selection effect (democracies only start winnable wars), or because of softer morale factors. But, except in a few cases, that advantage quickly evaporates. Popular support erodes, and legislators pull funding or otherwise starve the effort. A tax or a draft would quickly trigger that effect and end the war, for better or worse.
If we can trust that a war tax would end the war, however, that doesn’t prove that it should. To make that conclusion, we’d have to assume that the public’s desire is always right — and that’s a hell of an assumption. Much of our government, and much of democratic theory, is built on mediating the public will: it’s why we’re a representative democracy, not a direct democracy, and it’s the reason our Founders precommited us to certain bedrock values. In a representative government, true leaders shouldn’t blindly follow the public’s will — they should guide it to responsible outcomes, and cancel irresponsible decisions based more on wishes rather than facts. Tax and foreign policy both directly test those principles: the public will always want tax cuts, but they’re not always responsible; and the public will (almost) always want to end a war, but it’s not always the right thing to do. Whether it is in this case is a question that can’t be resolved by a simple appeal to the populace.