Monday, September 12, 2011

America: A Nation of Sacrifice?

The New Jersey Star-Ledger’s editorial page memorial to 9/11 included a recount of some of America’s achievements:

Since the nation’s inception, we have scribbled big ideas on a blackboard and then executed them. We founded a democracy and nursed it through a bloody civil war. We overcame the Great Depression, beat the Nazis and built the middle class. We passed civil rights legislation, paved interstates and survived a corrupt presidency. We’ve been to the moon and back.

How did “we” do all of that, and all of the rest? Leaving aside the fact that this nation was not founded as a "democracy" or that "we" cannot do anything – only individuals acting independently, whether alone or in cooperation with others, are the source of human achievement – how does the Star-Ledger explain America’s past success? I’ve left the following comments:

Posted on September 11, 2011 at 9:45AM

"[W]e’ve missed the one common thread that runs through all of those historic accomplishments: personal sacrifice."

This nation was not built on “personal sacrifice”. Sacrifice is the rallying cry of the Islamic enemy that attacked this nation. They sacrifice their personal freedoms, the lives and property of others, and even their own lives, for the sake of a power higher than the individual human life – Allah, whose earthly representatives are to sit atop a worldwide theocracy. Sacrifice is the basic ingredient of every enemy of American ideals, from kings to feudal lords to tribal chiefs to Nazis to fascists to communists and – yes, it must be said - to welfare states.

America was built upon personal achievement, made possible by the celebration of the individual as the highest value. America was built by free people pursuing their own goals, purposes, values, welfare, and happiness within the framework of the protection of the individual liberties enshrined in our Founding documents. It is a nation built by individuals dedicated to doing the jobs they have freely chosen, to the best of their ability, even when that dedication means risking one’s life for others - like the first responders who died as a result of the 9/11 attacks. It is a nation defended by a courageous military whose individual members fight not for “the country” but for the ideals this country stands for, and by a citizenry that willingly supports it with its hard-earned dollars and patriotism.

The incessant demands for personal or “shared” sacrifice is killing America.

We must recognize that America was built and can only be restored by personal flourishing, not personal sacrifice. Logically, it can be no other way.

What, exactly, is a “sacrifice”? In today’s usage, it means giving up something desirable for another purpose. This vague understanding leaves out certain crucial contexts. For whose purpose? For a better purpose, or a lesser one? The vagueness leaves sacrifice to so broad a definition as to be almost meaningless. For example, a parent who forgoes spending on current luxuries in order to save for her child’s college education, or the young man who forgoes a social life to devote his time to a new business venture, or the soldier who puts his private life on hold to join the military, are commonly considered sacrifices, even though in each instance the individual is striving to make his life better by advancing a more important value or purpose that improves his life – an educated successful child, a future profit, or fight for the ideals that will later enable him to pursue his life in freedom.

These instances do not measure up to a clear, objective definition of sacrifice, such as the Objectivist definition:

“Sacrifice” is the surrender of a greater value for the sake of a lesser one or of a nonvalue.

If you exchange a penny for a dollar, it is not a sacrifice; if you exchange a dollar for a penny, it is. If you achieve the career you wanted, after years of struggle, it is not a sacrifice; if you then renounce it for the sake of a rival, it is. If you own a bottle of milk and give it to your starving child, it is not a sacrifice; if you give it to your neighbor’s child and let your own die, it is.

The second paragraph gives concrete instances of the difference between a gain and a loss, or sacrifice. The key is the relative worth one assigns to his values. As long as what is given up, no matter how valuable, is directed toward the achievement of a greater value to that individual, we are not talking sacrifice. The problem with today’s usage is that it conflates the two. This allows politicians or the Ledger to pass off and call for sacrifice as an unmitigated good, despite the fact that it could very well be evil. A true sacrifice is an act that makes one’s life worse – “the surrender of a greater value for the sake of a lesser one or of a nonvalue”. Who would advocate such a disastrous course of action on another human being, and how can anyone get away with it? Anyone attemping to advance their own agenda at someone else's expense, cashing in on the confusion surrounding the term “sacrifice”, and then switching the beneficiary of the sacrifice to the collective or some “higher” cause (In this connection, see “altruism”, the moral justification for sacrifice).

For example, the editors have been beating the drum for discriminatory tax increases on “the rich”. Will confiscating their money make them better off, as individuals”? The editors don’t care. “The country”, or “we”, will be better off. The loss is the individual’s, the gain is the collective’s, i.e., other people. Therefor, the rich must sacrifice, and be forced to do so, in order to, as the editors put it, “propel America to a new level of greatness”. “We” have a net gain. Politicians of all stripes cash in on the positive connotations of “sacrifice” in order to convince some electoral group or even the public at large to make their personal, individual lives worse; the argument being, essentially – “it’s for the better”, rather than “It’s for your betterment”, except in some vague undefinable way such as “the good of the country”.

We must come to understand the true meaning of the term “sacrifice”. It pertains only to individuals, and it means fundamentally only one thing – an individual making his own life worse. When a call is made to sacrifice, do not think of the parent, young man, or soldier I cited above. They, like most of us in the millions of choices we make individually in our private lives, are seeking to make their own lives better. When we are told that sacrifices must be made for the sake of some collective good like national greatness, a “stronger nation”, the common good, or some purpose “higher” than the individual, we are being told that America can prosper only if enough individuals’ lives can be made worse.

But a nation is made up only of individuals and it logically follows that a nation of sacrificial individuals can only lead to national disintegration. That is the process that is crippling our economy today. Sacrifice – true, objective sacrifice – is always an unmitigated evil. Always beware those peddling sacrifice – It’s your life they are after.

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