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Sacred Cow

A “sacred cow” is any program, policy, or person that is regarded as being beyond attack or untouchable.

The term references the status held by cows in Hindu culture, where the cow is regarded as a sacred animal.

Sacred cows can take various forms.

They may include long-standing policies or programs that have become deeply ingrained in the political landscape and are rarely questioned, regardless of their effectiveness or relevance in the current context.

Sacred cows can also manifest as influential individuals or interest groups that possess significant power, influence, or cultural standing, thereby avoiding thorough scrutiny or accountability.

The term “sacred cow” implies an unspoken agreement or consensus among political actors that certain topics, practices, or individuals are off-limits to criticism or reform.

This unwritten rule can stem from a variety of factors, such as historical significance, emotional attachment, fear of backlash, or political expediency.

As a result, sacred cows often remain entrenched in political discourse, hindering progress, innovation, and the pursuit of more effective policies.

One common example of a political sacred cow is the defense budget.

Due to its association with national security and patriotism, defense spending is often shielded from rigorous scrutiny or substantial reductions, even when evidence suggests the need for reallocation of resources or a reassessment of military strategies. The defense budget, in this case, becomes a sacred cow that remains protected from substantial debate or reform.

Similarly, entitlement programs such as Social Security or Medicare in the United States are often considered sacred cows.

Despite concerns about their long-term sustainability or potential need for adjustment to address changing demographics or fiscal challenges, political discourse surrounding these programs tends to be characterized by caution and resistance to significant reforms. The cultural and historical significance attached to these programs contributes to their sacred cow status.

The presence of sacred cows in politics can have several implications.

Firstly, it can perpetuate a status quo that resists change or innovation, hindering societal progress.

Secondly, sacred cows can distort policy debates by preventing a thorough examination of their effectiveness or unintended consequences.

Thirdly, they can contribute to a perception of political favoritism or inequality, as certain entities or ideas receive preferential treatment.

“Sacred Cow” was also the nickname of the first military aircraft used to transport a United States president. 

According to the National Museum of the Air Force, President Franklin D. Roosevelt flew in the Sacred Cow to meet Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and General Secretary Joseph Stalin in the USSR for the Yalta Conference in February 1945.

Use of “Sacred Cow” in a sentence

  • The healthcare industry has long been considered a sacred cow in American politics, with policymakers hesitant to propose significant reforms or challenge the influence of powerful pharmaceutical companies and insurance providers.
  • Despite mounting evidence of inefficiency and corruption, the government officials continued to treat the state-owned oil company as a sacred cow, avoiding investigations or efforts to increase transparency and accountability.
  • The notion of tax cuts for the wealthy has become a sacred cow for some politicians, who vehemently oppose any discussions of raising taxes on the highest income earners, regardless of the potential benefits for income equality or funding essential public services.