Why do journalists love “sacrifice”?

Why do journalists love the idea of “sacrifice” for its own sake? Five speculations.

This post by Jonathan Bernstein earlier today led me to Jonathan’s earlier takedown, a few years ago, of the idea that “sacrifice” for its own sake (as in a willingness to forego a benefit or accept a lower standard of living) is a good thing. Jonathan called instead for a “chess model of sacrifice”:

Everyone understands that a sacrifice in chess is self-interested. There is no moral or character component to sacrificing a piece; it’s a good idea if it helps the player win, and a bad idea otherwise. No one analyzes a chess game by saying that the player lost, but at least she was willing to sacrifice her rook, or that he didn’t deserve to win because he was unwilling to sacrifice anything. That a player didn’t perceive a nice line of play involving a sacrifice is a totally different type of discussion.

This has to be right. People—for example, contemporary German conservative people—who impose sacrifices on themselves or (even more satisfying) others at the cost of making their own and others’ economic situation worse rather than better are subjectively virtuous but objectively foolish. We would all be better off if they felt subjectively foolish as well.

Jonathan goes on to solicit explanations of “the appeal of sacrifice talk to journalists.” Given that Jonathan thinks his meme hasn’t been taken up much since he proposed it, I’ll risk some speculations a few years late:

1. Journalists, like most of us, think politics is more like personal life than it is. On the individual level, those who save money have more later (and more security against reverses); those who exercise, up to a point, grow healthier. The idea that governments should not save during a depression—that deficit spending, in the short term, represents wisdom, not moral laxity—is economic orthodoxy but flouts all personal experience. Not for nothing did Keynes call his warning against austerity in a downturn the “paradox of thrift.”

2. Journalists love the civic-virtue frame. They persistently write as if the cause of partisan and ideological disagreement were a self-indulgent love of bickering for its own sake, the solution being for Wise Men (always men) to put aside politics and reach an agreement, no matter which, for the common good. (Smart political scientists, on the contrary, realize that disagreement is permanent and natural, the price of freedom, and that good civic education would stress its permanence.)

3. Journalists are lazy regarding policy details (like me on this score). The economics of deficit spending involves investigating, and striking, a balance between short-term stimulus and long-term deficit reduction. But that’s difficult. The frame of sacrifice seems—though it isn’t—a useful information shortcut. We can’t tell who is following the most accurate economic indicators or the latest debates in the American Economic Review. (And journalists wouldn’t want to listen to sources who did that anyway: such might be wonkish, no fun—even, to use a journalist’s worst insult, introverts.) But we can tell who is willing to make lots of people angry that they’re losing a benefit or seeing their taxes increase. Journalists track a spurious virtue of character because the real virtues of intellect are, for laypeople, very hard to judge.

4. American journalists are, well, Americans, steeped in a Protestant Ethic that we Americans simultaneously venerate and flout (and feel vicious for flouting, though virtuous to the extent that we castigate the floutation). Even if Keynesianism works well, it seems to reward sin. Keynes embraced the iconoclasm: he’d grown up with Bloomsbury and wanted to place intrinsically pleasant things like art and love above what he saw as religious claptrap. But that limits his broad appeal in a a country that was founded by Puritans and that continues to thrill to the trapping of Puritan claps.

5. As blog readers won’t find surprising, journalists are Broderists: they believe that both parties are Equally At Fault. A debate on the merits of competing economic plans might show one of them to be better founded (even with respect to relatively nonpartisan criteria: more honest with the numbers, more favored by a large range of economists, more likely to actually achieve the ends it names—unlike, say, the Ryan budget which Ryan’s own numbers show would take decades to shrink the deficit). Calling for something that no politician is likely to do, i.e. betray his or her most fervent constituents for no particular reason and to no particular end, is a way to guarantee the desired psychic result: that both parties will fail and the journalist will be able to scold them equally.

Feel free to contest this list, or add to it, in comments..

Author: Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl, a political theorist, is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics and Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England, both from Princeton University Press. His research interests include political ethics, liberal and democratic theory, toleration, the work of David Hume, and the realist school of contemporary political thought. He is currently finishing a book for Harvard University Press titled The Uses of Hypocrisy: An Essay on Toleration. He divides his time between Toronto and Brooklyn.

19 thoughts on “Why do journalists love “sacrifice”?”

  1. floutation? Is that the thingee under the airplane seat they tell you to inflate if the plane ditches in the water? : )

    1. Thanks for highlighting that word. I had skimmed over it. It sounds like what Americans do with their vacation time. I think I will have a floutation today myself, just for fun.

    2. Precisely. Every so often I make up a word, and that one was worth making up. The fact that I was on a plane when I posted this (with in-flight Wi-Fi) had nothing to do with it.

  2. Seriously though Andy, this is just not true: “journalists are Broderists: they believe that both parties are Equally At Fault”. It isn’t about what they believe, but how they think they should do their jobs and just as importantly how they can avoid being accused of being partisan, which American journalists consider painful criticism (Brits, not so much).

    1. So what you’re saying here is that journalists (in the USA) are not bound by the “same facts” creed, but rather by the “no show of favoritism” pledge.

  3. 6. Because suffering makes a better story than happiness.

    FWIW, Rudolf Spielmann’s “The Art of Sacrifice in Chess” is my 2nd favorite chess book (behind Hans Kmoch’s “Pawn Power in Chess”).

    1. Excellent book! And fewer strange words than in Kmoch. But it’s still the case that Spielmann’s chess would hardly have been praiseworthy if he had been known for *unsound* sacrifices.

  4. I am not even sure why saving for your own retirement could be called a sacrifice in the first place. It is just delayed gratification … for yourself. I would have thought that a sacrifice was something you did for someone else.

    I agree that the US has a giant Puritan streak, but I mostly don’t think of it as a good thing. I agree with the practice of general prudence and reasonableness, but it would be nice if we could get out of the habit of just assuming that people with no money must be guilty of something. Sometimes, sh*t just happens. Like, you know, medical bill bankruptcy and so forth.

    1. Everyone needs some little piece of ground that enables them to look down on at least 1 other person, and the more the better. Puritanism provides this in spades, as does the presence of people with no money. These are typical solutions to the problem in the anglosphere. I would be surprised if you could demonstrate that the French, not widely considered overly or even sufficiently Puritan, don’t have other grounds for their sense of superiority. It’s a very human trait, so much so that, cadging from Shakespeare, I think it fair to say, “Vanity, thy name is humans”.

      1. Generally, I agree with you. But we could come up with a better standard for our vanity, like maybe generosity. Or creativity. Or dispute resolution. Or moderation. There are so many.

    2. But saving for retirement meets Sabl’s criterion exactly. It is self-interested, involving giving something up now to get something later…

  5. Andrew, I believe that your answers 1-5 are simply wrong (they’re true, but wrong).

    ‘Sacrifice’ means that the elites might, miiiiight get some minor cuts here and there (although I’ve never seen anything on the Ryan plan, for one example, where the elites actually take a hit). Those minor hits will probably be immediately repaired by a few phrases inserted into bills by lobbyists.

    The rest of us get massive whacks to benefits, with perhaps an extremely token tax cut, good for a tank of gas over the course of the year. And even that will be taken away by ‘service fees’ or ‘user fees’.

    And then, when it fails, as it always does, we’ll be told that the problem is that the masses didn’t suffer enough.

    The canonical example is the Greenspan/Feldstein Social Security fraud, where we took lifetime hits to contributions, which were for the most part spent on reducing tax rates for the elites (note – not that these lead to any noticeable boost in economic growth rates).

    Now, we’re told that we need to be good little lambs and sheep and lay down on the altar yet again.

    In many ways, I’m reminded of a supposed saying of the Japanese samurai class ‘the peasant must not be allowed to live; neither must he be allowed to die’. Anything that we have is to be given up for the sake of the elites.

  6. Surely, in a culture starved for spiritual experience, the theological echoes of the word sacrifice – lit. “make holy” – must play some role here. While saving for the future seems like bloodless calculation when there are banks, burying the grain that would feed your children now in hopes of a later harvest is more like an act of faith. Neolithic ethics – which we all have deep in our bones – is built around the idea that “those that sow in tears will reap in joy.”

    Barry, of course, is right: the same folks who like the idea of someone else dying for their sins also like the idea of making their economic sacrifices vicariously rather than personally.

  7. — Neolithic ethics – which we all have deep in our bones – is built around the idea that “those that sow in tears will reap in joy.” —

    Mark, if you’re going to give a just-so story like this, I think you need to clarify and justify it.
    Is the claim that this is some sort of genetic predisposition, equivalent to (apparently) the willingness to suffer in order to punish others, or the instinct of empathy? I’d need to see both some cross-cultural evidence that it’s fairly useful, and a convincing EEA story to believe this. I don’t think it’s a common enough claim that you can simply assert it and expect everyone to be familiar with the arguments.

    Personally my guess would be that this is very much a culturally specific construct, maybe protestant specific, maybe western christianity specific; but hardly universal. I mean, to give just one obvious example, the ritual of potlatches hardly fits in with this claim.

    1. I meant in our cultural bones. The author of the Psalms was not a Protestant, or even a Christian. You don’t need anything like empathy, just the fact that peasants who ate their seed corn starved.

  8. “3. Journalists are lazy regarding policy details (like me on this score). The economics of deficit spending involves investigating, and striking, a balance between short-term stimulus and long-term deficit reduction. But that’s difficult.”

    Difficult? Perhaps back in the day. But now we have a recent example of a President who understood it, who mastered BOTH the details AND the big picture, who implemented it, who succeeded beyond our wildest expectations, who was skilled at explaining it … and just in case we forgot, who explained it again just a few days ago.

  9. Let’s not forget the Stern Father/Nurturing Mother dichotomy. We don’t want to be wimps, we want to be strong and play through the pain. And if there isn’t enough of it, we’ll make some.

Comments are closed.