Since the September 11 attacks, real (inflation-adjusted) spending on defense has increased 23 percent, even when the whopping $250 billion bill for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is not included in the count. Even without those supplemental expenditures, the U.S. budget for national defense is an eye-popping $421 billion for fiscal year 2005, according to Chris Hellman of the Center for Arms Control and Non-proliferation. Many taxpayers assume that the ballooning budgets mean greater security, but the facts tell a different story.

Most conservatives often wrongly assume that the military and other security agencies spend money more effectively than governmental departments that administer social services. Unfortunately, the same incentives operate when the government manufactures guns as they do when it provides butter. For instance, although food stamp and public housing programs are ostensibly designed to benefit the poor, the biggest recipients of their welfare are probably the respective large agricultural corporations and housing contractors that profit from them. Similarly, most of the recent defense budget increases have little to do with fighting terrorists and more to do with providing welfare for politically connected defense contractors. These weapons makers, with the help of their congressional representatives, have cashed in on the post-9/11 climate of fear that has gripped the nation.

Companies who are essentially wards of the state—whether they are involved in defense, agriculture, housing, etc.—gain great benefits from the piles of taxpayer dollars shoveled their way. They spend much time and effort lobbying Congress and the president for more disguised welfare spending. In contrast, the cost of such government programs is spread out among hundreds of millions of taxpayers, who individually don’t have the time, energy or incentive to launch a counter-lobbying campaign.

There’s no doubt as to who’s going to win this battle. Congressional representatives know that highly organized (and often geographically concentrated) recipients of government largesse will vote and contribute to political campaigns more than the dispersed, unorganized payers of the bill. So government programs-whatever their nature—essentially transfer wealth from the less governmentally connected to the more politically powerful.

Many conservatives agree with such “public choice” analyses on domestic programs but naively believe that all government spending on defense is for legitimate purposes of national security. This is hardly the case. The defense budget is rife with weapon systems that are unneeded, perform poorly, or were designed to fight the now defunct Soviet Union. A few examples follow. After the dramatic decline of the only potent adversarial submarine threat, the U.S. Navy has designed and is producing a new generation of Virginia-class attack submarines. The Marines have sunk billions into developing the accident-prone V-22 tiltrotor transport aircraft, which is designed to take off and land like a helicopter but fly like a plane. Despite all of the billions slathered on the program, the aircraft’s design may be fatally flawed. The Air Force’s stealth F-22 fighter, originally designed to counter advanced Soviet fighters that were never built, has only a few remaining enemies to fight-a limited number of porkbusting congressional representatives. Finally, for all of the post-9/11 talk about the need for channeling more funds into human spying to thwart terrorists, those porkbusters recently have blown the whistle on a costly and redundant ultra secret spy satellite program.

The average taxpayer-whether a hawk, a dove, or somewhere in between-should ask how these white elephants are contributing to countering the main threat—al Qaeda. They don’t. They merely provide welfare for constituent industries and unions that are far from poor. In fact, buying these unneeded systems takes money away from less glamorous, but more urgent, security needs-for example, armor for personnel and vehicles.

The only program that could make a half plausible case for use against rag tag terrorists and guerrillas is the V-22, which can transport Marines to fight in places without developed airfields. But the V-22 is costly, may not work at all, and has a mission that could be done with existing capable helicopters.

Merely throwing wads of cash at the politicized security bureaucracies does not ensure that the troops or the nation is protected.