Before I even came across the term “weasel word” in Friedrich Hayek’s The Fatal Conceit (though he credited it to unnamed Americans), I was interested in words that can be used to mislead and misdirect people’s understanding with regard to public policy.
For example, Hayek cited 160 words whose meanings can be altered by simply adding “social” as a modifier. And I have long been struck by one of his examples in particular–the term “social justice,” because it is in direct conflict with the traditional meaning of “justice” (“to give each his own”), so that “social justice” means “injustice” in a very important way.
Examples of weasel words include phrases, such as “quid pro quo.” The term suggests an exchange of equal values, but that is misleading about market exchanges, because all parties to voluntary exchanges expect that their benefits will exceed their costs. Viewing something with mutual gains as something producing no gains dramatically misstates reality. It blinds people to the wealth destroyed when government interferes with voluntary exchanges, as with taxes, tariffs, regulations, and the like, (which economists call welfare costs or excess burdens).
Single words beyond just “social” also make our public discussions more like a tower of Babel than reasoned communication. An example economists often object to is “need.” Need, used in discussing public policy, assumes away the fact that scarcity makes tradeoffs unavoidable, including tradeoffs involving choices among various “needs.” Thus calling something a need diverts attention from the actual choices faced. Further, the word often translates as “I want, but I do not want to pay for,” which then sees government’s taking someone else’s resources involuntarily to provide what is desired.
Even something as seemingly innocuous as the word “we” can function as a weasel word in public policy. Consider Social Security beneficiary’s claims that “we Americans paid our Social Security taxes; we Americans earned our benefits” for example. Rhetorically lumping citizens into a single “we” hides the multi-trillion dollar wealth redistribution to earlier generations and away from current and future generations, meaning that different members of “us” have been treated very differently.
Of late, however, I have been thinking about how even the word “my” can be a weasel word. “My” can denote something I am associated with or connected to, as with “those are my friends,” “that is my community” or “that is my country.” However, “my” can also be used as a possessive pronoun to denote ownership, as with “that is my property” or “it is my life to live.” And the difference between those two meanings opens the door to the fallacy of equivocation, described by Peter Kreeft as “the simplest and most common of all the material fallacies,” in which “the same term is used in two or more different senses in the course of an argument.”
The possessive sense of “my” implies ownership. And ownership consists of a bundle of property rights, such as the ability to use something as the owner chooses (subject to not violating others’ rights in the process). Further, it gives openers’ veto power over others’ proposed uses of their property, since an owner’s agreement is required for such uses. In contrast, the associative sense of “my” does not imply ownership or any of its characteristics. But sometimes what is initially used as an associative “my” is morphed into an ownership “my” in an argument to claim some power not implied or created by association.
One of the most important illustrations of this equivocation involves assertions about jobs, such as “that is my job,” or “he stole my job.” That you currently have a job means that you are now associated with an employer under terms that both of you have agreed to. If those terms are violated by, or no longer acceptable to, either party, that association can be terminated. But the fact that your employer has the power to terminate its labor market association with you means you do not own the job. You do not have the power to require continued association with someone who doesn’t want to employ you, unless it would violate your prior agreement. You do not have the power to deny others the ability to do the job you once did.
Yet unions assert that their association with an employer, which no employee entered with any power of ownership over his job, becomes effective ownership because a group of them voted to join a union. And in the process, they infringe on the employer’s right to decide who it will voluntarily associate with, even though its employers clearly had that right when they entered the relationship. In other words, unions assert that they magically transmute workers’ initial voluntary associations with an employer into effective ownership of “their” jobs, which takes away the employer’s power to associate with whom it wishes in the labor market under the banner of freedom of association. And virtually all of the abuses that follow have their roots in that equivocation.
The current push to replace shareholders with self-defined stakeholders also relies on the same equivocation. All sorts of people and institutions are associated with or connected to any given corporation–workers, suppliers, their families and communities, charities, friends, and so on. But unlike shareholders, that does not give them ownership claims over corporate decisions that were not agreed to by the corporation (assertions of which are ultimately backed by the threat that they could use political power to coercively override the rights of corporate shareholders). If such claims are empowered, however, it will undermine many of the social gains well-defined property rights have made possible.
Clear property rights are essential to social cooperation and advance, not to mention justice. As John Adams put it, “The moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence. If ‘Thou shalt not covet,’ and ‘Thou shalt not steal,’ were not commandments of Heaven, they must be made inviolable precepts in every society, before it can be civilized or made free.” That is why the equivocation connected to the word “my” may be even more important than many other weasel words—such distortions threaten the very basis of a peaceful and prosperous society. And that is also why we should rethink the deference we give what may be the shortest, but not the least damaging weasel word in common usage today.