THE FEELING in America today, the inarticulate upwelling of the nation's collective consciousness, is that the country is "in trouble." Fear fills the minds of Americans, from the people who can't feed their families, to the elderly who wonder what will heat their homes next window, to the young men and women who expect to fight in whatever war looms ahead, to the minorities and the poor with no future except more of the same. So far, this fear has no object, but hovers ominously in the streets like a waiting thundercloud.
Why this national angst? The commonplace explanations--that at home Americans have given up on their government's ability to make life better for them, and abroad they see their nation humiliated in a world they can no longer control--just aren't enough. Political cynicism in America goes back at least as far as Ben Franklin, and American international omnipotence was always more the offspring of wishful thinking than of cold reality.
The fear in America today springs rather from a sense that the American lifestyle may have to change, a sense clumsily fostered by our national leaders. Despite the stubborn persistence of poverty in some groups and areas and new troubles caused by exorbitant inflation, life in the United States today is comfortable and gratifying for most of its citizens. When President Carter or his economic-policy underlings tell them they will have to give up some of their comforts, the first response is a reflexive "no!" that echoes out of the history of rugged American individualism. Only thereafter does the all-important "why?" appear in people's minds and on their lips.
The national leadership had better answer this "why?" before it repeats its request for people to reduce their standard of living. Sacrifice is an emotional thing--people won't do it unless their hearts are in it and they can see everyone is sharing the burden. Drivers won't want to pay huge gas taxes when they read about the obscene end-of-year oil company profit figures that helped double the price of gas in the first place. The poor will hardly understand the need for them to sacrifice the programs that keep them above the poverty line when they see their government spend $60 billion on a giant shell-game for its missiles. Families will miss the logic of why they have to earn less and borrow nothing as the only cure for aching inflation, when they realize this policy aims to placate only the business community, lately the biggest beneficiary of the federal government. The unemployed will miss the point of an economic policy that deliberately deprives them of jobs for the sake of the few tenths of a percentage point their misery might lower the inflation rate. Young people will not make the biggest sacrifice of all if the war they're asked to fight in protects something as sacrificeable as oil profits and not the national interest at all.
THERE ARE sacrifices Americans should make, and probably would if the government stopped relying on the fiction of the free market and took decisive action. The 12-mile-a-gallon Cadillac ought to go the way of the grass-eating brontosaurus, and government regulation should drive it to extinction if natural selection doesn't. Immediate price controls and rationing of gasoline would instantly force a reduction in oil consumption and dependence on imports--and this is a sacrifice Americans have long been willing to make, but this administration has timidly avoided. There are sacrifices aplenty to be made everywhere in society--by the profiteers in the weapons industry, by the bankers charging never-before-contemplated interest rates, by the energy companies growing rich off the price-rises of the oil cartel and then editorializing about the evils of regulation, asking for the freedom to make even more. The government should ask them to sacrifice at least as much as the average American; they can afford much, much more.
Unless government takes the steps today to channel the fears of Americans towards the right sacrifices--and insures that all segments of society chip in--we will end up making the wrong ones for decades to come. We will fight wars to defend a national interest determined in a few corporate boardrooms. We will continue to polarize our society economically so that a handful maintain their standard of consumption while many sink into an abyss of hopeless misery. Worst of all, as we struggle to save the least desirable qualities of the American way of life, we will lose hold of its most valuable freedoms.