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IT IS A COMMONLY noted paradox that war, perhaps the basest of human activities, seems to bring out the best and noblest human qualities: self-lessness, heroism, sacrifice and comradeship. In time of war, soldiers throw themselves on grenades to save their buddies. Civilians willingly endure hardships that they would never accept in peacetime. Even anti-war author Erich Maria Remarque, in All Quiet on the Western Front, praised the "great brotherhood...arising out of the midst of danger, out of the tension and forlorness of death."
Although Remarque referred specifically to the esprit de corps of soldiers themselves, philosopher William James observed a similar solidarity in the rest of society. James lamented that his fellow citizens had lost the sense of shared sacrifice that he detected in America during the Civil War. "So far, war has been the only force that can discipline a whole community," James wrote, "and until and equivalent discipline is organized, I believe war must have its way."
In wartime, normally egocentric individuals can be induced to suspend their self-interest and submit to privation, shortages and rationing. Wouldn't it be nice, James mused, if we could create the same sense of public selflessness without the horror and bloodshed of war? Wouldn't it be nice if we could somehow find a "moral equivalent of war"?
Today, James would pose a different question: Why isn't the Gulf War the moral equivalent of war?
IN THE CENTURY since James's lament, the U.S. has compiled a decidedly mixed record when it comes to sacrificing for the common good. Not surprisingly, the First and Second World Wars were accompanied by large-scale national mobilizations for the war effort. Millions fought, while those on the homefront sold Victory Bonds and gathered scrap iron. But the Life magazine appeals to conserve soap and forego new stockings quickly disappeared after the war ended, casualties of a flourishing consumer society.
Still, the early years of the Cold War, for all the foolishness and hysteria they engendered, provided a sense of shared goals and common interests. The truest expression of common sacrifice is public investment, which requires that we give up some enjoyment now in order to provide for prosperity for posterity. And the single most important public investment of the postwar era--the Interstate highway system--was conceived and sold to the public as a national security measure.
But with the decline of the postwar foreign policy consensus and the fading memory of war and depression, the ability of American society to mobilize its resources to do Great Things has diminished correspondingly.
More than ever, America needs a "moral equivalent of war." The two most profound crises in American politics are both attributable to the absence of national purpose. The first crisis can be generally described as the Special Interest Problem. Without some overriding sense of national purpose, the diffuse "national interest" is no match for dogged, particularistic special interests.
For example, an industry that wants special protection or a federal subsidy has a lot to gain by mobilizing its members to lobby Congress. The millions of citizens who will be worse off for this market distortion have relatively little incentive to oppose the proposal, as their individual losses will be relatively small.
When all of the special interest wrangling is taken together, though, the result is a serious loss of welfare for everyone. As economist Mancur Olson wrote in The Rise and Decline of Nations, "The familiar image of the slicing of the social pie does not really capture the essence of the situation; it is perhaps better to think of wrestlers struggling over the contents of a china shop."
America's second basic problem is what Michael E. Kinsley '72 calls "compulsive now-nowism," our national inability to delay gratification--to sacrifice anything today so that we might enjoy more tomorrow.
While economists of all persuasions warn that there is no such thing as a free lunch, our culture entries us with the promise that "Yes, you can have it all." Boosting stagnant productivity growth, restoring our decaying infrastructure, erasing our chronic fiscal hemhorrage--all of these problems absolutely require that we restrict our consumption and increase savings and investment. In a nation that can't accept that losing weight requires eating less and exercising more, this is a tough sell indeed.
But the imperative of sacrifice remains. Lester C. Thurow's notion of a "zero-sum society" is instructive here. America faces long-term structural problems that cannot be solved without making people worse off in the short run. Unfortunately, the political climate of the last 25 years has encouraged us to resist this conclusion. Ever since Lyndon Johnson told us that we could have both guns and butter, voters have placed a high political premium on hiding the bad news, and politicians have invented ingenious methods of concealing it.
Even the Republicans, who preached an "eat-your-spinach" brand of balanced-budget economics from Herbert Hoover to Barry Goldwater, have joined the game. The party that once accused Keynesian Democrats of trying to make one plus one into three has adopted supply-side economics, which holds that two minus one is three.
DURING THE OIL SHOCK of the late 1970s, then-Secretary of Energy James Schlesinger suggested that Jimmy Carter cite William James in an appeal to the American people. In a famous speech penned by former Crimson president James M. Fallows '70, Carter asked for a "moral equivalent of war" in response to the energy crisis. The idea was sound, but, unfortunately, no one could figure out what Carter was talking about.
Unless you count Walter F. Mondale's "I will raise your taxes" speech at the 1984 Democratic convention, that was the last genuine attempt to impose discipline on a nation of spoiled brats. Absent a major war, there seemed no way to get people to see past their narrow self interests...
Well now we're in a major war, and lo and behold, we still can't get people to see past their narrow self-interest. Even war itself is no longer the moral equivalent of war.
If ever there were a time for President Bush to appear on national television and give the public the unvarnished, unpleasant facts, it was last week. I really expected, if somewhat natively, that Bush's State of the Union address would include a Churchillesque call for blood, sweat and tears.
Instead, we got assurances that our allies would pay for the war and that any interruption of our cozy prosperity would be minimal and brief. A few days later, Bush's proposed 1992 budget confirmed my worst suspicions--that war in the Gulf means business as usual on the homefront.
Why didn't Bush use the opportunity to renege honorably on his irresponsible "no new taxes" pledge? Why didn't he use the sense of national emergency to impress upon the public that we are faced with a number of national emergencies? Why didn't he urge special interests to to put aside their parochial agendas and pursue the national interest? Why didn't he urge Americans to tighten their belts and start investing in the future?
Bush has irretrievably lost his last, best hope to transform the face of American domestic politics. According to a Newsweek poll, a quarter of Americans believed that anti-war protestors should be silenced. A Crimson poll found that 24 percent of Harvard students thought that suspending civil liberties in time of war was justified. If so many people are ready to trash the Bill of Rights on account of the Gulf War, surely a majority would be willing to stomach a tax hike and some cuts in entitlements.
In his 1968 presidential campaign, Robert F. Kennedy '48 spoke to an audience of medical students of "intolerable conditions...attributable to the neglect and indifference of men." One of the students challenged him: "Where are you going to get the money for these federally subsidized programs you're talking about?"
"From you!" Kennedy replied.
That we cannot imagine George Bush (or any member of Congress) saying that today, even with the nation at war, is our country's greatest shame.
If America is at war, why are Americans still acting like a bunch of spoiled brats?
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