Saturday, July 04, 2009

Why Sacrifice?

Tibor R. Machan

I just don't know what exactly President Obama means when he says "We must all expect to sacrifice during these times" or something equivalent. Never mind why we must do this--does he want to enact laws that force us all to sacrifice? Is that his job? But, as I said, never mind such tiny details. What exactly does the president consider a sacrifice? Does reducing our standard of living amount to a sacrifice? Even if it brings one peace of mind or eventual greater prosperity? Or does a sacrifice mean suffering net losses, no gains at all? So we must expect to get worse and worse off from now on, as time passes? Why? Even if in the recent past the various pubic policies and some private imprudence have produced the need to cut back on most Americans' standard of living, does this cut back amount to some good in itself so we must all seek it and make it permanent? Why?

In most eras of human history the vast majority of people were dirt poor, died early, lived rather unhappy lives, carried forth mainly because of a promises that they'd get into heaven after their bum ride. It is doubtful that without this belief they would have accepted their lot and many, indeed, did not and tried to rebel against those they blamed for keeping them poor and unhappy.

In time in various places ways of organizing wealth and work were identified that promised to improve matters for nearly everyone, for some by huge margins, for others by moderate ones. Still, for the last few centuries the welfare of the large majority of human beings on earth has experienced significant improvement. That was one result of taking to heart the teachings of someone like Adam Smith whose most famous book, The Wealth of Nations--published, ironically, in 1776 when some other pearls of wisdom came our way--showed that reducing the hand of government in the economy is the best bet for improving the wealth in a country, any country! In consequence of this and similar teachings, the world took off on a vigorous pursuit of prosperity, health, education, entertainment, and a host of other good things that made life no longer merely a prelude to happiness after it.

There have always been detractors of this journey, of course. Many religions proudly advocate embracing poverty as one's way of life. Some very recent secular faiths proclaim it to be a great virtue to be self-denying, even to renounce happiness and instead pursue melancholia! In the arts misanthropy has always been a tempting theme, although with significant exceptions (especially in music and literature).

Nevertheless among the poor of the world very, very few have proclaimed poverty a preferred circumstance. Most yearn to achieve at least moderate prosperity and some are quite pleased to do even better, or at least leave their children with the prospect of flourishing economically and otherwise. But now we have a president here in the most successful economy in human history who meets the challenge of some widespread mismanagement, primarily brought about by politicians and bureaucrats, by insisting that we must expect to sacrifice. Which I take to mean to give up on our aspirations for continued prosperity.

I think this is nuts. If anything the opposite would serve the purpose of recovery much better. Most of us probably should renew our commitment to serious wealth-creating work and not lower our expectations and desist in our efforts to improve our lives on all fronts.

Politicians are generally able only to ruin a country's economy, hardly ever to improve on it--that requires the citizenry itself, not some mesmerizing leader. But politicians could perhaps serve in one useful capacity since they have the eyes and ears of the media turned on them all the time: they could teach us something about where prosperity comes from, for example. It seems like President Obama will not even take up this modest challenge. Instead he is embracing defeatism, preparing us all for a return to the bad times of centuries ago when sacrifice was in massive demand in the name of a fabulous afterlife.

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