Thursday, July 30, 2009

Against Sacrifice

Jon Cohn has a nice little essay on why calls for sacrifice in the health care debate are useless, but the broader point is more basic: journalists and many pundits love the idea of sacrifice for no good reason.

What we need is a better metaphor: we need 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.

What we get instead is perhaps a baseball model, involving players who are reluctant to bunt, hit the ball to the right side to advance the runner from second, etc. Now, applied to baseball the baseball model of sacrifice is usually wrong, but applied to politics it's a real mess. When it comes to public policy, we want options that are good for the nation collectively in some sense. If some people are going to be worse off as a result, we need to recognize that (which still leaves a lot of possible actions). If there are trade-offs in the sense that individuals are going to be better off overall but still bear costs, we can recognize that, too. The language of sacrifice doesn't help.

I'd love to hear explanations about the appeal of sacrifice talk to journalists, though.
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