“Guns before butter” refers to the debate over how governments should use their revenue: should resources be used to build up the military, or should they be spent on domestic programs?
The concept of “guns before butter” was probably first laid out by William Jennings Bryan, the Progressive politician who ran unsuccessfully for the presidency time and again. Bryan served as Secretary of State in the cabinet of Woodrow Wilson but resigned in protest after Wilson decided to emphasize the production of weapons instead of the production of dairy. (Wilson was responding to the sinking of the Lusitania and the build-up to World War I.)
Decades later, the Nazi party had its own twist on the question of guns and butter. “Guns will make us powerful; butter will only make us fat,” declared Hermann Goring, Hitler’s economics minister. Goring was Hitler’s second economics minister; Hitler had installed him after firing Hjalmar Schacht. Schacht had implemented large-scale public works and had overseen a dramatic improvement in Germany’s economy, but he had run afoul of Hitler because he was critical of the country’s ever-increasing military spending.
The phrase was further popularized by the economist Paul Samuelson, the first American to win the Nobel Prize in economics. Samuelson was the author of a widely-used textbook in which he explained, among other things, that resources are finite and that budgets are a series of decisions about priorities. What you spend on guns, you won’t be able to spend on butter, in other words.
Over the years, “guns before butter” has become a shorthand to express the federal government’s dilemma over how to allocate funds. In 2014, Reuters ran a blog titled “Obama learns LBJ’s tough lesson: You can have guns or butter, not both.” The piece argued that Obama had run into the same problem as President Johnson had, decades earlier: his ambitious social programs had come into conflict with military reality. A few years later, Slate complained that the Trump administration’s budget was “all guns, no butter.” Slate grumbled that the spending far exceeded the actual needs of the military, and that the money would be better spent funding the State Department so that aims could be achieved through diplomacy, rather than through war.
Of course, similar conflicts exist throughout the economy. In 2018, the Economist pointed out that California’s wine growers were being hurt by the legalization of marijuana; as a result, local governments were moving to restrict cannabis production. The magazine wrote,
“Booze and drugs usually belong together like Fred and Ginger. But not, it seems, in California’s wine region. Wine-makers are fretting that recreational marijuana use, which became legal in the state in January, could challenge their dominance of what is delightfully known as people’s “intoxication budgets”. They also complain that they can no longer afford seasonal labour to harvest their grapes because workers have better-paid, year-round jobs on cannabis farms. Sonoma County, one of the state’s main wine-producing regions, recently imposed restrictions on who may grow weed, and where.”