On this day in 1951, the Marshall Plan ended. It had distributed over $13 billion to rebuild Europe after World War II. That represents over $130 billion in today’s money. And you have to think about it relative to government spending at the time. Federal spending at that time was roughly $45 billion. The Marshall Plan lasted for four years. So that’s something more than 7% of our federal budget. This is probably why people today think we spend so much money on foreign aid.
In fact, we only spend upwards of 1% on foreign aid. What’s more, most of it is military aid, which is hard to claim is us giving out of the goodness of our hearts. Furthermore, by far the biggest recipients of our aid are Afghanistan and Israel. Those are countries that most people think we ought to be giving money to — at least by the people most concerned that we are too nice to the other countries of the world. The UK gives over half as much in foreign aid than we do, even though our economy is six times the size. The entire European Union has the same size economy as we do, but gives almost three times as much in foreign aid. Think what you want to about the US, but we are a stingy country.
In a poll earlier this year, the average American thought that 26% of the federal budget went to foreign aid. No wonder Americans think we are exceptional! We are exceptional: in our minds. Americans have been convinced that all the money they pay in taxes goes to help unworthy others. They think this even while they get their Medicare and live in houses they own thanks to the mortgage interest deduction. They are totally unaware of just what a hellscape America would be without the government.
The thing about the Marshall Plan is that the money we spent didn’t just help Europe. It helped the whole world and arguably the United States most of all. But somewhere along the line, Americans got the idea that we were just too nice. And as a result, we’ve suffered for it. Now we are very clearly an empire in decline. Since I was a little boy, I’ve watched as our policies have shifted more and more away from forward looking innovation and toward backward looking efforts to hang onto the power that we once had.
The Marshall Plan was one of the shining achievements of this country. And it is one that we would never be able to accomplish now. That’s because we are weak minded people who only think of ourselves and only on the shortest of timescales.