President Obama’s bipartisan debt commission has employed the phrase “shared sacrifice” as part of its recommendation on how to reduce the national debt.
Is shared sacrifice possible? How?
At one level, shared sacrifice might happen through governmental action. I am thinking about the rationing of gasoline during wartime, or the ban on watering lawns during a drought: in both instances, the centralized power of government organizes the shared sacrifice, and is available to compel– through sanction or force– those who do not co-operate. In these situations, the threat is broadly recognized throughout the society (the enemy is clear in wartime; the lack of rain is clear in drought), and so the social cohesion necessary for shared sacrifice is relatively high. While the power of government to coerce is present, it’s (mostly) not needed (except for your neighbor who turns on his sprinkler at 3am).
The problem with the national debt today is, the enemy is not clearly in our consciousness: the threat is not broadly recognized. Pain in our society is either blamed on someone else (scapegoating), or it is numbed (denial). In fact, in an eventually self-defeating feedback loop, the national debt serves to mask present pain, by borrowing from the future. An organism that masks pain is vulnerable to disease and injury, because pain is the signal of imbalance, and the need to adjust.