Down with sacrifice!

Russell Baker

October 07, 1992|By Russell Baker

I HAVE reconsidered my position on sacrifice. Last week I was all for it. My policy was: plenty of sacrifice for all hands. That was what the nation needed, I thought. How wrong I was.

My new policy is toleration. Let those who want to sacrifice go to it. Let's be tolerant. Let's not deny the individual right to sacrifice. Just leave me out of it, please, and you, too, if you like.

My original passion for sacrifice was the result of thinking in slogans instead of in dollars and cents. One of the catchier slogans now in circulation is: "What this country needs is a good bout of sacrifice."

Doesn't that sound wonderful? Heroic? Romantic? Kennedyesque? ("Ask not what your country . . .") Patriotic? Makes you want to take to your rocking chair, wrap up in your shawl and tell the young 'uns how it was in World War II, having your gasoline ration held to three gallons a week. Or was it a month? Old heroes forget.

Ross Perot's first campaign exploited this patriotic yen for pain. Its economic program called for wringing money out of one and all, including the struggling classes. Whether Mr. Perot remains devoted to Draconian economics in Campaign II is still unclear, but his big show in Dallas the other day didn't dispel my suspicion that he is still foursquare for heroism.

Mr. Perot was a big reason for my change of policy. The poet Virgil said, "Beware the Greeks bearing gifts," which has no bearing here except to introduce my Uncle Charlie, who said, "Beware the millionaire calling for sacrifice."

Uncle Charlie flourished back in the Depression before the billionaire was invented, but his wisdom remains just as applicable to Ross Perot as it once was to Rockefellers.

Uncle Charlie was no cynical left-winger either. He was a Republican free enterpriser who detested Franklin Roosevelt and admired the natural rapacity that enables a luckily endowed few to corner the bulk of life's money. He had none of their talent, alas. He was a philosopher. The philosophical mind enabled him to enjoy life without bitterness despite a decade of Depression unemployment, which he survived by hunkering down like the rest of us with the only family member who had a job.

He earned his keep by preaching the good old Republican wisdom to a foolishly New Deal household. He believed that fools brought misfortune on themselves and so deserved it. Anyone heeding a millionaire's call for sacrifice was such a high-test fool that he deserved to have his wallet rifled by the ruthless.

In addition to the wisdom of Uncle Charlie, a couple of economists lent academic authority to support my policy reversal. They assured me that a policy of sacrifice during hard times is bad economic policy since it will probably deepen a recession by further reducing consumption.

Not only that, it may also be a cunning device for redistributing the wealth from the pinched classes to the bloated. I suspected these economists of harboring Keynesian economic views loathsome to Republican true believers. They may even be outright Democrats, but the heart of their message -- beware the rich preaching sacrifice -- was too close to Uncle Charlie's sound Republican wisdom to be ignored.

Moreover I needed some scholarly justification for abandoning a policy as noble as sacrifice, and having some economists with me was comforting.

Whenever you're opposing something that sounds morally unassailable, arm yourself with a respectable academic argument to lean on. As triumphant Republican conservatives have repeatedly illustrated these past 12 years, an arsenal of academic mumbo-jumbo equips you to dismiss any inconvenient moralizers as intellectually shallow sentimentalists, if not downright boobs.

Everything I hear from the recession front suggests there is already a great deal of sacrifice going on: bankrupts being taken in by relatives, grown children coming back to live with parents, sometimes bringing families with them. In short, the ghost of Uncle Charlie is abroad.

Families, friends and lovers are already doing the sacrificing, as is proper. The sensible thing is for government to encourage them, not scourge them with a Federal Sacrifice Act. Politicians preaching sacrifice right now are just grandstanding, as I was. It's generosity we need, not posturing.

Russell Baker is a New York Times columnist.

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