Sunday, August 09, 2009

The interminable argument

No matter how many times people try to break through these orwellian terms, these bundled irrational ideological labels, other people seem to have a hard time listening.
It's one thing if someone actually pops out and tries to argue for a particular bundling as it is commonly understood, but this isn't what one encounters very often. Instead, what you see is that people's listening/processing function in their brain just shuts down and starts spilling out reflexive objection, once certain "trigger words" appear.
I'm talking about the "isms" (and their related terms) of course. Let me poke your brain for a minute:
Liberal, Communist, Fascist, Conservative, Capitalism, Socialism, Democracy, Anarchism, Left-wing, Right-wing, Collectivism, Individualism.
Ok, go ahead and freak out for a bit. Now let your brain settle down again before reading further.
Very few of these terms seem to be used the same way by any two different people. So maybe we should stop using them?
Some others that seem to constantly elicit confusion:
Private, Public, Free Market, State, Voluntary
At least these terms have the potential for clarity, and don't immediately turn people's consiousness off, as much the ones on the first list seem to do.

Unfortunately by abandoning all these labels, we have to do a bit more work to explain ourselves. These linguistic shortcuts come in handy... when you're dealing with people who mean the same thing by them as you do. Otherwise, it is as if they are designed to create a "tower of babel" effect where everyone is talking past each other.
When I have managed to get my point across to someone who doesn't agree with me, but is willing and able to listen and process what I'm talking about, our disagreements are usually relatively civil and our discourse remains reasonable.
But whenever I fall into the trap of lazily falling back on political trigger words, people get emotional and defensive. I'm going to try to avoid using these "zaxlebax"* phrases and I suggest other people do as well, rather than "reclaiming" these terms or trying to push them in other people's faces to trigger emotions, so you can feel like the rational person sitting above it all.

In closing, I'd like to end with a quote by Bastiat that I really like:
From the point of view of the producer, competition doubtless often clashes with our immediate self-interest; but, if one considers the general aim of all labor, i.e., universal well-being—in a word, if one adopts the point of view of the consumer—one will find that competition plays the same role in the moral world as equilibrium does in the physical world. It is the basis of true communism, of true socialism, and of that equality of wealth and position so much desired in our day; and if so many sincere publicists and well-intentioned reformers demand arbitrary controls, it is because they do not understand free exchange. (italics mine)

* this is a reference to Roderick Long's brilliant speech "Rothbard's 'Left and Right': 40 Years Later" which I highly recommend that anyone and everyone read. He addresses this problem of language and inspired me to examine it more in my own writing.


Mike Gogulski said...

"free market" is rather polluted, too, in big parts of the world.

We need a new language. A language of liberty.

Anonymous said...

Ultimate necro-commenting here, but I hit this page after a google search looking for , and it seems like you're making a similar argument to that post, just .. seven years earlier :)

Also looks like you've beaten this post to the punch, but yours made me think of it: (when there's a word with too many loaded meanings, "taboo" it and replace it with what your really mean)

Anyway, not sure if this is all familiar to you, or if this blog is even maintained anymore, but thought I'd leave a note of appreciation for a post that put out some of the ideas I hold dear long before I heard about them!