Apparently Chuck Todd asked President Obama why he isn’t asking people to “sacrifice” more amidst the recession.

The standard progressive answer to this starts by observing that the hundreds of thousands of people who are losing their jobs each week are, presumably, sacrificing. I take it that their spouses and kids are also sacrificing. And though they don’t count in the job loss tallies, I also spare some thoughts for the young people leaving school and coming into the workforce at a time when nobody’s hiring anyone. This all seems like a lot of sacrifice.

But there’s also some more fundamental misconceptions going on here. A lot of people in the press seem obsessed with the idea that it would be noble for politicians to ask people to sacrifice. But in general, the whole idea in public policy is to make things better, not worse, so the logic here is a bit hard to understand. It’s true that Charles Murray seems to think that suffering promotes virtue but this doesn’t really make sense.

Alternatively, underlying this is the idea that if some of us sacrificed that would make things better for other people. This is true in a certain narrow sense. If Vikram Pandit sacrificed some of the money he has and mailed it to some unemployed former manufacturing workers in the rust belt, they’d be in somewhat better shape. But if Americans were to collectively sacrifice — everyone agree to eat only potatoes on Wednesdays or something — that wouldn’t help anyone except the potato farmers. Consumption in a market economically is almost always a positive-sum exchange; economic growth, and therefore prosperity, requires more economic activity, not more sacrifice. If the big national problem were a giant war, things might be different — we could all conserve gasoline and save it to fuel the tanks. But it’s hard to see how sacrifice could solve the problem of rapidly rising unemployment.