Guns for Hire

Picture by Hilary Stone Ginsberg

It may or may not be legal for Republican South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem to accept private funding to send the state’s National Guard to the Texas-Mexico border, but it is a bad idea and a terrible precedent. Noem announced recently that 50 soldiers were being sent to Texas thanks to the “generosity” of Willis Johnson, a wealthy Republican donor from Tennessee. Noem, who harbors presidential ambitions, subsequently announced that 125 additional National Guard troops would join about 3,000 other members of the Guard from other states in response to Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott’s request. 

Some of the states sending the Guard to the border — Iowa and Arkansas, in addition to South Dakota — do not even border Mexico. Arkansas Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson said he hoped sending troops from his state would “reduce the adverse impact of illegal immigration on Arkansas.” It is difficult to understand how adversely Arkansas is affected by unauthorized immigration. A more likely explanation is that Republican governors — like all elected Republican officials — need to lock down the Republican base, most of which remains loyal to former president Donald Trump, who made restricting immigration a top priority of his presidency.  

Even Hutchinson, who was not reluctant to engage in the shenanigans at the border, thought Noem set a “bad precedent.” Others, like Representative Adam Smith, a Democrat from Washington State, decried using the Guard as a “private militia.” A fellow South Dakota Republican lawmaker asked whether the Guard now “hired mercenaries.”

Noem’s spokesperson said the governor “welcomes any such donations to help alleviate the cost of South Dakota taxpayers” and that accepting donations is in the “best interests” of South Dakota. Of course, there would be no cost to South Dakota taxpayers if Noem kept the state’s Guard at home. For his part, Johnson, the donor, said the whole country is affected by immigration. “We are all one people, and we should protect our country,” Johnson said. At one point, Johnson mused, “I didn’t know it would build into a bonfire.” 

A spokesperson for the National Guard noted that the Guard noted that the federal government has no control over funding for local units. “It depends upon the state laws and fiscal policy of the state,” the spokesperson said. South Dakota law says the state “may accept” offers of financial aid from private donors. Steve Vladeck, a constitutional law expert at the University of Texas, said the practice of accepting private donations appears technically legal, but, he added, it “shouldn’t be.”

Mandy Smithberger, a defense accountability expert, told The Washington Post, “You certainly don’t want our national security priorities up to the highest bidder.” The use of private donations for military or security purposes is at the core of the issue. Both the federal government and South Dakota accept private donations, and any individual who believes he or she does not pay enough in taxes can send money to the IRS. But, the Antideficiency Act prohibits the federal government from spending funds in excess of what Congress appropriates. This law is on the books to insure that the act of donating money to the federal government is not linked to how the funds are used. South Dakota apparently does not have a similar statute. 

Legality aside, the use of private donations sets a dangerous precedent. As The Washington Post pointed out, imagine a scenario in which wealthy Malibu residents donate to pay for the California National Guard to fight wildfires around their city while the rest of the state burns. What if, for example, a privately funded Guard unit is sent by a governor of a state to a protest against the governor’s policies. Or, what if the Guard were used to protect a governor’s supporters? Just because an act is legal does not mean it should be undertaken. The privatization of the National Guard — because that is what Noem is doing — falls into that category: A legal action that should be avoided. (Or, better yet, made illegal by state law.) 

Viewed from another angle, Noem’s use of private money to fund the Guard appeals to Republicans who favor the privatization of public functions. Republicans favor smaller government — at least they used to before Trump — so they shrink it, decrease its revenue through tax cuts, and then farm out many of its functions. Republicans often claim private entities can do a better job for less money than public agencies, but that claim rarely is borne out. After all,  a private company is interested in its bottom line, not necessarily the public good.

Erik Prince’s private security firm, Blackwater, was deployed in Iraq, where it caused a slew of ethical and legal problems. Betsy DeVos, Trump’s education secretary and Prince’s sister, used her term in office to push privatizing education to the detriment of public schooling. Many states have privatized prisons, employing for-profit companies. In the past, Republicans have talked about privatizing the Postal Service, Social Security, and Medicare.

The last years of the Roman Republic offer an example of the dangers of privatizing the state’s military power. Wealthy Romans recruited private armies more loyal to them than to Rome. Some of these oligarchs recruited landless poor citizens by offering them bounties and land. Two private armies clashed in the early years of the first century BCE, ushering in the first Civil War. Eventually, other generals used their private armies, or legions they privately funded, to undermine the state, contributing to the end of the Republic. 

American democracy is at a fragile point, stressed by four years of Trump’s presidency and by his refusal to accept the results of a legitimate election. Republicans are further eroding democratic norms by restricting, or trying to restrict, voting rights. In these unprecedented times, American democracy does not need to be further endangered by the privatization of military and security forces. Everyone, Republican as well as Democrat, should push back against Governor Noem’s risky and dangerous use of private donations to fund military forces.

Posted July 20, 2021

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