10/12/2011 11:04 am ET Updated Dec 12, 2011

On Social Sacrifice

Social sacrifice seems the sentiment of the season.

Writing in The Daily Beast, Andrew Sullivan celebrates having "a political party being honest about what it takes to avoid falling off a fiscal cliff. It means sacrifice."

In a Facebook posting at the time of the Wisconsin Capitol sit in, Sarah Palin declared to the "union brothers and sisters" that "real solidarity means everyone being willing to sacrifice."

Tom Coburn, Republican Congressman from Oklahoma recently insisted that, in addressing the debt facing the country, "everyone has to give." And John Boehner asserted that "Republicans must sacrifice" if default was to be avoided in the debt ceiling debacle.

Similarly, President Obama has made it a mantra that a "balanced approach" to addressing the national debt requires that everyone be willing to sacrifice.

Even the NBA players union has gotten into the action in their contract negotiations with the owners: "The players are prepared to sacrifice and stand for what we believe in," their representatives suggested, by which they implied that if a fair deal meant no basketball this season that's what it would take.

So at a time when they seem to agree on nothing, we have here one thing on which conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, owners and employees see eye to eye. We should all be sacrificing.

And there the agreement ends. It is obvious that each constituency thinks that different folks should be making the sacrifice. Conservatives claim that the working poor and lower middle classes, "union brothers and sisters" -- almost 50 percent of taxable folks -- pay no income tax and ought to bear a greater social burden. They are the ones who should be sacrificing for the greater good. Liberals, by contrast, observe that the wealth of the top 100th of 1 percent has increased by nearly 500 percent in the past 25 years. The wealthiest 400 Americans earn income in total equivalent to the bottom 50 percent (more than 100 million taxable folks). So, they plausibly argue, the very wealthy ought to sacrifice a greater proportion of their wealth for the sake of the social good.

Democrats would have the wealthiest contributing more to pay for the sort of job stimulus package that would give a greater chance to those participating in the "Occupy Wall Street" social movement to find gainful employment. Republicans see the "occupiers" as a "lazy" mob hell-bent on destroying the productive and job-generating class in America.

Sacrifice is often a rallying cry in times of fiscal constraint. But there is a deeper divide at work than mere numbers. What is meant by these different calls to sacrifice, what are different folks being called on to do exactly?

Of the competing notions of sacrifice at play, the first involves giving something of oneself for the sake of the greater good. Impressive examples include giving up one's life to save comrades in war, or contributing a kidney to save a sibling. A Japanese nuclear power employee characterized his volunteering to help stem the radiation leak at the Fukushima plant in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami in this way:

"There's a Japanese expression: 'We eat from the same bowl.' These are friends I shared pain and laughter with. That's why I'm going."

Unmarried and without dependents, he considered it better that he risk contamination than his co-workers with dependents counting on them. His mother added that:

"My son and his colleagues have discussed it at length and they have committed themselves to die if necessary to save the nation."

This is the meaning traditionally assumed in thinking about sacrifice. There is something sacred, awe-inspiring about it -- a giving of oneself, to the point of giving up life, literally a taking from oneself something meaningful for the sake of bettering others and ultimately the larger social good. This is the sense being invoked by those calling on citizens who have more to contribute -- the capacity to fight in war, the wealth to be able to contribute a greater proportion -- for the sake of all.

The other meaning is less compelling in the social sense, running in exactly the other direction. There is a demand of others to give up -- solely for one's own self-interested benefit. Here sacrifice carries a sense of "throwing another under the bus" because it betters one's own standing. The expression "I will sacrifice you to achieve my self-interested goals," suggests this meaning. If the first sense conveys a commitment to social wellbeing taken collectively, the latter is nothing but selfish, egotistical, completely self-minded. Here sacrifice seems linked to power. We will use you for the sake of bettering our own position, precisely because we can.

Sarah Palin more or less matches the figure of the second sense of sacrifice. She is found appealing for some because holding out for others the possibility of self-upliftment, the Horatio Alger narrative, making it through hustle. The American Dream embodied, at a time of national nightmare. She is the (if somewhat less kitsch) contemporary version of Jim and Tammy Bakker: Watch me, listen to me, emulate me, hanker after my lifestyle. I am the stuff of reality TV, after all. And as you hang on my every word, send me your dollars, buy my books, in short, sacrifice (if modestly) for my ongoing uplift: show up to my rallies, ask me to run, repeatedly, cheer me on. Because I am making the case for you to be like me even as I am advancing myself. Sacrifice abounds, all around.

A third sense of sacrifice concerns giving up something meaningful over which one exercises control for the purposes of proving oneself to those one is concerned to impress, or who has authority in relation to one. This looks like the first sense, but with a twist. The end is different, not so much contributing to social wellbeing at large so much as exhibiting unconditional obedience or love. Here the "ultimate sacrifice" is not your own life (though it could be) but the next dearest thing, or perhaps even the more important thing, the life of one so dear to you that you cannot but bear the burden through the rest of life. Sacrifice to prove a point. Abraham moves to sacrifice Isaac to exhibit unconditional obedience to God, no matter the extremity of the command. Or the real life consequences.

This third sense seems least at play in the political theatre today, at least if we ignore the general calls by politicians -- not done so explicitly -- that for the most part other parents sacrifice their sons and daughters in military campaigns for the sake of national security. Leading, by getting others to set the example.

For sacrifice to be made, you must have something meaningful and relatively impactful to give up. Sacrifice is more than a gift; there is an element of social obligation, self-imposed, if that's not a contradiction in terms. If the contribution leaves one untouched, leaves one no differently positioned than before, it hardly counts. It's not sacrifice so much as a charitable contribution. And that's exactly what conservatives want to make of contributions to the national treasury by the wealthy. In response to Warren Buffett's, Bill Gates's, and now others' calls for the rich to pay a higher income tax rate, Republicans have responded by saying they can just voluntarily send a check to the IRS. But it should not be a requirement. Charity, to be clear, may be commendable, but it doesn't inspire awe. It fails the burden test. And try as we might to make the equation, charity is not a social obligation; by definition we must be free to give, or not.

Conservatives who think it only fair that the rich should pay no higher a tax rate than the working poor suffer a category mistake. They assume it is both "natural" that the tax rate be equal for rich and poor alike and that the rate be as low as possible to spur economic growth. But both points -- the fairness and factual claims -- are misconceived. Factually, the period of greatest American economic expansion in the past century took place in the 25 years after World War II, when the tax rate for top earners reached 90 percent! On the fairness claim, consider the following: A 20 percent tax on $1 million has the wealthy paying $200,000 in annual contribution. This leaves the taxpayer with $800,000 to do with what she will. By contrast, 20 percent of $80,000 in income is $16,000. This leaves the taxpayer with $64,000 at hand.

Surely, the latter taxpayer is worse off than the former, not simply relative to each other but in terms of the significantly different impact of the same tax rate on their life possibilities. In general terms, the value of an additional dollar to the latter taxpayer is 50 times greater than it is to the first. That's the reason a progressive rate of taxation is more compelling than a flat tax rate. A flat tax rate negatively impacts the less well off person to a far greater degree than the better off.

This suggests that the stress on sacrifice in the tax debate is misleading. Taxes are an obligation. Here, the appropriate conception is not so much sacrifice as the responsibility to pay a fair share. And a fair share is relative to what one can bear in terms of what one has, what one can do, what can be expected of one. And that is a matter of one's economic and social standing. That's not a matter of sacrifice, it's one of social responsibility, of national belonging, of citizenship. Curiously, in these terms, the illegal immigrant paying his fair share in taxes on the money he has earned may be more committed to the national wellbeing -- may be better fulfilling the commitments of citizenship, more "patriotic," exactly -- than a rich guy looking to keep as much as he can for himself.

One final point: In asking the rich to pay more the Wall Street Occupiers are not asking that the contribution should employ any one of them. They are just asking that it improve the chances of everyone to be employed. Social contribution is not a hand out; it is not even a helping hand, as good as that would be. It is more akin to sealing the hull of a badly leaking lifeboat. That would prevent everyone sinking into the terrors of an antisocial sea.

In opting for the selfish second sense of sacrifice over a more extensive embrace of social responsibility, then, the wealthy and the conservative -- not always the same folks -- ignore these concerns at their own future peril.