Guns versus Butter: Catering the Federal Budget to Contemporary Issues

by Lindsey Felner


Producing a federal budget has proven time and time again to be one of the most grueling and polarizing tasks of public service. Determining how best to allocate funds between defense and non-defense programs is one of the major considerations on which liberals and conservatives are fiercely divided, frequently leading to government shutdowns due to an inability to find a proper solution. The debate on guns and butter asks how the federal government should allocate funds between defense programs and social services, and whether there should be cuts made to one or both of these categories in order to decrease the national budget deficit. Given the current needs of the world, Congress should prioritize spending in social services categories over defense programs. These alterations can be made by shifting general funding away from defense and toward social services, cutting funding on heavy weapons development, and adjusting military strategies to concentrate on diplomacy.


Polarization on this subject stems from fundamental differences in views on how society should function as a whole. While liberal policymakers tend to prioritize spending on social services and the implementation of tax increases, conservatives often push for substantial defense spending and tax cuts. Such vastly differentiated opinions can make reconciliation near impossible, hence the frequency of budget postponements as a result of the debate on guns versus butter.  

The nation is in a period of historically high hyper-partisanship, exacerbating the budget struggle. Legislative stalemates caused by partisanship are a longstanding trend that occurs in cycles throughout history, dependent on the ideological makeup of both houses. Sarah Binder of The Washington Post suggests that “as more lawmakers move away from the political center and the parties diverge ideologically, Congress deadlocks more often.” The blockage can be caused by a number of issues. Under the United States’ legislative process, broad, coalitional support is typically required for major change. Gathering majority support in Congress can be a difficult task when there is disagreement both amongst Congress as well as between the legislative and executive branches, often leading to gridlock.

Government officials are not the only actors with strong opinions on budget formation, however. Civilians often play a large role in determining which programs get additional funding and which do not. Because elite and activist constituents are typically those who exercise the greatest mobilization, those are the concerns that are heard the loudest by representatives. As a result, the more extreme, polarizing opinions are vocalized. Neither party is inclined to compromise their interests, leading to frequent congressional standoffs. The potential for stubborn interactions is especially high with regard to the guns and butter debate, given the stark contrast between Democrat and Republican outlooks. 

Arguments & Analysis

Although hyper-partisanship is deeply rooted in the U.S. political system and hard to combat, there are parallel issues that can and should be addressed. While there are necessary and advantageous programs within both the defense and social services sectors, several factors indicate that priority should be given to social programs. Particularly given the current state of the country amidst a global pandemic, the U.S. health care system would greatly benefit from an increase in funding. Adequate medical services, access to equipment, and consumer relief are crucial components to the nations’ ability to overcome the pandemic. According to a report by The Brookings Institute, “Congress should move quickly to fight the virus and provide economic relief.” Because the world’s leading powers have been “preoccupied […] with cross-border military challenges, [they] failed to address common global non-military ones.” In developing the budget for each fiscal year, current circumstances must be taken into consideration and reflected in the budget allocation.

Similarly, combat style and national security requirements evolve over the years, altering the needs of the military. While substantial spending on conventional weapons and military units was necessary during the World War II era, those same programs are not necessarily expedient for the types of asymmetric warfare present today in regions such as the Middle East. Light units, “leveraging speed, stealth, deception, and surprise,” are less expensive and more appropriate for confronting guerrilla warfare and terrorism, which pose real, current threats to the U.S. and the world. Seeing as there is currently higher concern for asymmetrical warfare than traditional world war-style conflict between superpowers, conventional weaponry and military tactics can be perceived as less crucial in this moment.

As encouraged by a liberalist view of national security, diplomatic strategies should be employed and prioritized over both heavy and light military tactics. To encourage peace over violence, the U.S. could use diplomatic strategies such as peace talks and alliance formation. By shifting the focus away from confrontational “instruments of power,” the U.S. could avoid entering a “self-fulfilling prophecy” of continued violence, that usually results from military solutions. Placing more weight on diplomacy and less on expensive physical defense could alleviate some of the budget deficit. 

In weighing the threats and risks associated with defense cuts, there is certainly potential for negative outcomes, as with any major change to government policy. Risk reduction revolves around the idea of maintaining capabilities in a way that can overcome possible risks. Cutting defense and military funding will inherently cause some reduction in capabilities, possibly increasing the risk faced by the nation. However, given the already “bloated” defense budget and the vast array of strong military programs, minor cuts to these areas of federal spending should not engender such strong negative effects.

Conclusions & Recommendations

After analysis of the consequences of an inflated defense budget and realization of the evident need for further social services funding, we recommend the following: 

  • Transfer funds typically allocated to defense programs over to social services: Allocating at least 5% of current defense spending toward the Department of Health and Human Services and Social Security will partially alleviate the financial and medical burdens produced by the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Prioritize light forces as opposed to heavy forces within the defense budget: Lacking any true threat of escalation into a major global conflict requiring traditional, heavy forces, the U.S. should encourage a focus on light forces. These tactics are less expensive, allowing for a slightly diminished deficit. They also cater more directly toward asymmetric warfare commonly seen in terrorism and other guerilla combat.  
  • Pledge to focus more on diplomatic strategies: By shifting the burden of international conflict from traditional military solutions to diplomatic, peaceful strategies, the U.S. can both encourage the proliferation of peace as well as decrease its use of physical and violent tactics. This solution would bring financial benefits in the form of defense cuts.

The budget gridlock caused by the guns and better debate inevitably finds roots in party polarization and hyper-partisanship. However, the solutions presented here attack areas within the federal budget in ways that achieve the appropriate priorities while somewhat circumventing the political divides. Rather than a broad assault on military spending, these recommendations provide nuanced strategies that allow for the maintenance of crucial military programs while increasing the budget share received by critical social services. 


  1. Donald M. Snow, National Security (New York: Routledge, 2020), 169. 
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  1. William G. Gale and Grace Enda, “Economic relief and stimulus: Good progress but more work to do,” The Brookings Institute, last modified December 16, 2020,
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  1. David E. Long, “Countering Asymmetric Warfare in the 21st Century: A Grand Strategic Vision,” Strategic Insights 7, no. 3 (2008): 1-9, accessed March 21, 2021,
  1. Scott Mobley, “Force Structure,” Zoom lecture, Department of Political Science, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI, March 18, 2021.
  1. Senator Bernie Sanders, “A 10% cut to the US military budget would help support struggling Americans,” The Guardian, last modified June 30, 2020,