We think in words. We communicate in words. Laws are written in words. So competence at any of those acts requires clarity about what the words used mean. Consequently, there is always a danger that changes in how words are used, as with “a postmodern culture…prone to redefining key terms,” can introduce confusion, with potentially serious consequences.
Such confusion can play out in many places, such as C.S. Lewis’ “The death of words” discussion of how using words such as gentleman and Christian devolved from factual descriptions into words for good (I approve) or bad (I disapprove). And the effects can be dangerous because “when you have killed a word you have also…blotted from the human mind the thing that the word originally stood for. Men do not long…continue to think what they have forgotten how to say.”
Perhaps the most dangerous area of redefinition is with regard to government, because it is the only institution generally accepted as allowed to use coercion on others. Changes in the direction that those in power prefer can expand that power by increasing how much coercion they can impose on citizens. Further, America’s unique history is replete with insights about government and liberty, which can be morphed into very different meanings.
In other words, there was a good reason George Orwell asserted that “the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes,” in his famous, “Politics and the English Language,” celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. As he put it, “Many political words… democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice, have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another…Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way.”
The consequence is strikingly applicable to 2021. “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible…Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness,” in service of “a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia.” And the solution is to re-focus on clarity, as “a necessary first step toward political regeneration.”
While some apparently have inoculated themselves against recognizing the hypocrisy and mendacious misrepresentations that are such a large part of political language, it only takes a little thoughtfulness to see at least some of the abuses. But such scattershot awareness of one abuse here and another there still far underestimates the adverse consequences, because seldom is there only one motivated distortion involved in promoting a given “more government” argument, and multiple distortions can make it all but impossible to think clearly about those issues.
To see just how extensive the rhetorical abuse has become and how difficult “political language… designed to make lies sound truthful…and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind,” as Orwell put it, can make adequate reasoning, consider just a few of the booby-trapped words.
Following tradition, Joe Biden’s Inaugural Address emphasized unifying America, using unity eight times, if I recall. But given how Democrats have acted toward electoral opponents, leaving no ad hominem attack unmade and no implication of evil unsaid or uninsinuated, one could question whether any unity other than Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” was ever actually considered.
More importantly, unity in the sense of agreement on the specific ends that we want is not just absent, but unattainable. Once we expand our view past vague and aspirational feel-good generalities, Americans disagree on almost everything, and our goals are often diametrically opposed.
We all want food, clothing, shelter, health care, etc., etc. But we want different types and amounts. Further, we do not want them of the same quality, at the same time, in the same place, or for the same persons, not to mention financed by different parties. We also vary widely in the tradeoffs we are willing to make among our desires. Once we focus on the tradeoffs actually faced, scarcity necessitates that our ends conflict. And mutually inconsistent ends cannot be magically unified.
The unity potentially achievable does not, then, typically involve specific ends we all agree on. That is why wartime, when all of our often very different lives and circumstances are at risk, is such an exception in creating national unity, at least in opposing enemies, and why politicians are so eager to declare supposed “wars” on poverty, drugs, homelessness, ad infinitum. What we could possibly reach unity on is how best to reconcile and mutually achieve our different and conflicting ends. But politics fails spectacularly in that task.
When people pursue their ends through what Franz Oppenheimer called “the political means,” success routinely consists in taking others’ resources, in contrast to “the economic means” of voluntary arrangements. Such “unifying” political initiatives are simply ways to coerce those who disagree into bearing burdens against their will. But when I forcibly take your property for purposes you would reject, I violate your rights and reduce the means you have to achieve any of your ends. That is why precious little unity inhabits politicians’ calls for it.
There is one thing we might agree on, however–equal freedom to peacefully pursue our own goals. All individuals gain from “the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates,” as John Locke put it, for our “pursuit of happiness,” in Jefferson’s words. This means defending everyone’s freedom and property rights, along with the rights to trade and contract. As David Hume noted long ago, once property rights are established and uniformly defended, all subsequent arrangements are voluntary. No one can impose their will by violating others’ rights. The traditional definition of justice–“to give each his own”–is met.
But that also means anyone who proposes that government expand further beyond those very limited ways it could actually improve what the Constitution described as our general welfare has clearly rejected seeking any kind of achievable unity. When government overrides people’s choices instead of protecting them, it imposes domination rather than allowing voluntary cooperation and mutual consent. Then the rhetoric of political unity, no matter how seemingly heartfelt the plea or how many times it is repeated, is nothing more than camouflage for imposing injustice on some to help others.
“We” is a useful adjunct to “unity” in increasing misunderstanding about government. Even the mere fact that the word is plural suggests unity exists, whether it does in any way beyond an agreement among some to rob others.
It also enables the logical error of equivocation–changing the meaning of something in the middle of a statement. For instance, it has frequently been asserted that we as Americans pay for Social Security and we get the benefits. But the “we” who have been net beneficiaries, primarily those in the startup generations whose benefits were massively greater than their costs, is quite different from the younger “we” now left owing the tab. Multitrillion dollar redistribution is hidden by simply aggregating those treated very differently into a single “we” (as when, say, minimum wages are advocated to help “the poor” as a group, even though the poor who lose jobs, hours and opportunities as a result are harmed).
The connection between “we” and “you” makes the latter term slippery as well, in part because Americans have moved on from thou (singular) and ye (plural) to “you” that can be either singular or plural. Someone could say “this will protect you (singular),” and it could mean “it will protect the individual I am referring to, and harm others,” or it could mean “this will protect the individual I am referring to, without harming others.” You need not refer to everyone affected. And even if someone said “this will protect you (plural),” it could mean “it will protect the group I am referring to, and harm others,” or it can mean “it will protect the group I am referring to, without harming others.” Again, you need not refer to everyone affected. Unity requires that no one’s rights are infringed, but the word is routinely used to describe something very different.
Both “unity” and “we” have a further connection to abuses of the word “right,” because its typical use fails to make an absolutely crucial distinction between “negative rights,” or liberty from coercion, and “positive rights” for others to be required to give you things.
“Positive” rights to housing, education, health care, etc., provided or mandated by government, require that someone else must be forced to pay for them. But that inherent obligation necessarily violates others’ rights by taking their income and property without their consent, i.e., violating their negative rights not to be robbed by government. That stands in direct contrast to our Constitution, with its strictly limited enumerated powers, and the Bill of Rights, not to mention the Declaration of Independence’s assertion of unalienable rights, which focused on protecting our negative rights.
The only rights that can be unalienable for all must be consistent with the equal rights of others. Every citizen can enjoy negative rights against government abuse without infringing on anyone else’s equal rights because they impose on others only the obligation to not interfere. But when the government creates new positive rights, extracting the resources to pay for them necessarily takes away others’ inalienable rights and liberty.
Consequently, if a politician promises to create or defend Americans’ rights, for that to refer to the rights all of us have as individuals, he or she must be speaking of negative rights. But that is almost never the case today. Now, when a politician promises “new and improved” rights for some, they are promising to violate the negative rights our country was created to defend.
The distortions introduced when promoting positive rights while ignoring the negative rights that must then be violated also appear when people speak in terms of freedom or liberty. Freedom is freedom from having our negative rights violated by anyone, with government typically tasked as the enforcement agent. Liberty is freedom from having government itself violate our negative rights. However, the fact that the government cannot be trusted to keep itself in check is why we have a Constitution to limit its abusive power, but that citizens must be the ultimate check on government, which is why our Founders put such a strong emphasis on watchfulness in defending our liberty.
Perhaps the most famous example can be seen in FDR’s “Four Freedoms” speech. Two of the four —“freedom of speech and expression” and “freedom of every person to worship God in his own way”—are negative rights found in the First Amendment. They can be enjoyed universally, because the freedom of one does not detract from the same freedoms for others. The only role they create for government is disallowing others’ intrusions on those rights. They defend liberty for all against coercion.
FDR’s third freedom—“freedom from want”—cannot be similarly universal. It commits government to provide some more goods and services than their voluntary interactions with others would provide, which infringes on others’ equal freedom to acquire goods and services voluntarily using their own resources.
Similarly, FDR’s fourth freedom–“freedom from fear…that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor” correctly asserts that citizens are to be protected against other governments’ depredations. Unfortunately, it says nothing about a nation’s aggressions against its own citizens. And with his third freedom requiring government aggression to get the resources required for its “benevolence,” it omits what is often the greatest threat to citizens’ liberty.
The upshot is that, since the “Four Freedoms” speech, politicians and those who seek to advance their interests at others’ expense have been able to use the language of freedom to significantly contract our liberty.
Rhetorical subterfuge with respect to rights or freedom is echoed in fairness or justice claims, probably because in most cases, fairness translates as “more for me or for those I want someone else to assist” (if you were willing to provide the resources, you would simply do so, not call for it to be done by someone named “not you”). In other words, it amounts to little more than an assertion that the intended beneficiaries have positive rights to some things, while ignoring the violation of others’ negative rights inherent in providing them. And those latter rights are the basis of our self-ownership and the voluntary arrangements they enable, which comprise the only means of meeting the traditional definition of justice, which is “to give each his own.”
Other legitimate unfairness claims also arise from the creation of additional positive rights. Ending or cutting back on some positive right created by government policy, once people have come to anticipate its continuance, is unfair, even if such policies were unjustified, ineffective or wasteful. In other words, it is often unfair to undo things that should not be done in the first place.
Gordon Tulluck illustrated this with taxi “medallions” or permits. If after only a limited number of medallions were issued, demand for taxi services rose, taxi earnings would rise. Competition for the medallions would bid up their prices to capitalize on the higher expected future earnings. If Bob sells his taxi medallion to Jim at such a price. Jim would only expect to earn a normal rate of return on his investment. But once this has happened, the government cannot unwind the program fairly, because doing so will punish Jim, who never gained from the program, while Bob keeps the gains the program produced for him. That is clearly unfair to Jim. And a similar analysis applies to many government supports for industries, as well as the unsustainable funding promises of Social Security and Medicare.
Friedrich Hayek commented in The Fatal Conceit that the adjective “social” “has probably become the most confusing expression in our entire moral and political vocabulary.” The best illustration is “social justice.” Since the time of Cicero, justice has meant “to give each his own.” But social justice requires that justice as understood for millennia is violated. That is, social justice means necessary injustice. As Hayek put it, “Much the worst use of ‘social’, one that wholly destroys the meaning of any word it qualifies, is in the almost universally used phrase ‘social justice’.” As a result, “people have come…to call ‘social’ what is the main obstacle to the very maintenance of
‘society’. ‘Social’ should really be called ‘anti-social’.”
Other warped words
The half-dozen examples above are a far from exhaustive list of words warped to grow government. There are many others. For instance, when people describe what is really crony capitalism as capitalism, even though it violates its principles, they equate “not capitalism” with capitalism, which is then falsely blamed for nearly everything under the sun. Similarly, the common deification of democracy ignores the relevant constraints that constrain it from being “two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner,” which is very different from the democratic election of those empowered to do (only) their constitutionally limited jobs, which can reduce the risk of bloodshed during transitions of political power. That is, what makes democracy good is that it can potentially defend freedom, which is always undermined when violence is resorted to, not that democracy is always inherently good. Every “dog-eat-dog, survival of the fittest jungle” mischaracterization of voluntary market arrangements plays Twister with meaning, as well.
Smaller words also play supporting roles in warping meanings toward more government power.
For example, voluntary market arrangements are often condemned as “using” people, followed by some form of “therefore we should restrict them.” In such arrangements, however, “use” means “utilize” or “employ,” with no implication of harm to others. In fact, others gain. But most seem to use the word to imply “abuse” or “harm,” even though the force or fraud that allows that to happen are inconsistent with voluntary arrangements. And there is a large difference between trying to sell exploitation theory’s “You use others in markets, harming them,” and “You utilized others’ willingly supplied services, therefore you harmed them.”
Similarly, “need” is used as a way to imply that someone (other than the one using the word) must be forced to provide for it (here, “must” or “we have no choice” language is often erroneously employed as a backup), but that incantation does not legitimately override people’s rights. Then anyone who objects to the imposition is tarred as greedy or selfish, even though the self-interest we all have in common is very different from selfishness.
The demeaning of those unwilling to accept such impositions extends to phrases such as “they only do it for the money,” which distorts the meaning of both “only” and “for.” Those making that accusation use “only” to mean “sole,” when in most market arrangements it actually means “but for the fact that”—without some compensation for the efforts in question, they would not have been forthcoming. “For” is misused because people don’t do things for money. Money is not an end. It is a means, complementary to freedom, which enables people to more effectively advance whatever their ultimate goals are.
Combining warped words
Each of the examples I have used can have serious deleterious effects on people’s understanding. They can cause confusion that must be fought through before clarity is even possible. And some of them even completely reverse the meaning of words, making common usage the opposite of original meanings, actually ruling out the possibility of logical accuracy.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the fact is that multiple misrepresentations are often part of “more government” arguments, which can make understanding still far more difficult. This can be seen in an analogy to taxes.
There is a widely known result in public finance that for straight line supply and demand curves (in which each equal increase in effective tax rates would reduce trades by the same amount), the welfare cost or excess burden (costs to society of the reduced production and exchange created, over and above the revenue raised) is proportional to the square of the marginal tax rate. Doubling the marginal tax rate quadruples the welfare cost. Tripling it generates nine times the welfare cost.
And the relevant tax rate determining incentives is the sum of all the different taxes imposed, plus the distorting effects of regulation (which act like taxes). That, in turn, also seems to be of the extent to which words are warped. Adding more tax or regulatory burdens on already heavily burdened markets increases the costs to society dramatically, and multiple language distortions in the direction of ever more government also increases people’s misunderstanding dramatically, with potentially even faster rising costs to citizens.
To illustrate, you might, without stretching reality much at all, imagine someone who favors a particular expansion of statism saying something like, “We must all unify to maintain all of our rights as the only way to achieve justice and defend our democracy and our freedom.” Such a sentence is so full of ambiguity and self-contradiction that it is hard to imagine a conversation that could be productive of clarity and agreement.
As Orwell noted, the malleability of language has allowed new iterations of statism to masquerade as means to the good society, because linguistic misdirection has made foolish thoughts about social organization more viable. At the same time, it has made it harder to communicate the benefits that are only achievable through liberty. That is a daunting impediment to recovering the liberty we have been misled away from, but improving understanding—ours first, then others–seems to be the only peaceful way to do so.