James Leroy Wilson's blog

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Incompatible Meanings

I recently read Roderick Long's lecture Rothbard's "Left and Right": Forty Years Later and keep thinking of this point:
Libertarians sometimes debate whether the "real" or "authentic" meaning of a term like "capitalism" is (a) the free market, or (b) government favoritism toward business, or (c) the separation between labor and ownership, an arrangement neutral between the other two; Austrians tend to use the term in the first sense; individualist anarchists in the Tuckerite tradition tend to use it in the second or third.[12] But in ordinary usage, I fear, it actually stands for an amalgamation of incompatible meanings.

Suppose I were to invent a new word, "zaxlebax," and define it as "a metallic sphere, like the Washington Monument." That's the definition — "a metallic sphere, like the Washington Monument. " In short, I build my ill-chosen example into the definition. Now some linguistic subgroup might start using the term "zaxlebax" as though it just meant "metallic sphere," or as though it just meant "something of the same kind as the Washington Monument." And that's fine. But my definition incorporates both, and thus conceals the false assumption that the Washington Monument is a metallic sphere; any attempt to use the term "zaxlebax," meaning what I mean by it, involves the user in this false assumption. That's what Rand means by a package-deal term.

Now I think the word "capitalism," if used with the meaning most people give it, is a package-deal term. By "capitalism" most people mean neither the free market simpliciter nor the prevailing neomercantilist system simpliciter. Rather, what most people mean by "capitalism" is this free-market system that currently prevails in the western world. In short, the term "capitalism" as generally used conceals an assumption that the prevailing system is a free market. And since the prevailing system is in fact one of government favoritism toward business, the ordinary use of the term carries with it the assumption that the free market is government favoritism toward business.

And similar considerations apply to the term "socialism." Most people don't mean by "socialism" anything so precise as state ownership of the means of production; instead they really mean something more like "the opposite of capitalism." Then if "capitalism" is a package-deal term, so is "socialism" — it conveys opposition to the free market, and opposition to neomercantilism, as though these were one and the same.

This device of defining something with an incompatible example seems to be commonplace:

Democracy: Rule by the people, such as in the United States. This conceals many frauds, chief among them the idea that having one vote among hundreds of thousands or millions to elect an officeholder is somehow democratic. Actually, in such a system it is the elected officeholders and bureaucrats who rule, not the people.

Freedom: Individual rights and limited government, such in the United States. The illusion here is that freedom of speech and a wide array of choices in the marketplace constitutes freedom. But in virtually no other sense is this a free country. The right to self-defense is limited. The right to privacy is disappearing. Freedom of association is gone. Freedom of contract is burdened by licenses and regulations. The right to take drugs of one's choice - even for medical purposes - is severely limited. Even activities that are clearly - clearly - nobody else's business, such as to permit smoking in one's own place of business, or carrying around large amounts of cash, are increasingly prohibited.

Yet, for many people, to criticize the United States is the same as attacking democracy and freedom. Just as they think that criticizing our fundamentally unjust economic system is the same as criticizing the free market. But that just ain't so.

I admit that for most of my life I was suspicious myself. It was clear to me that any criticism of the system from "the Left" was further evidence that they just wanted bigger government. And that critics of our "free trade agreements" were rabid and stupid protectionists. I didn't realize that often these people were just defining things in different ways.

Imagine, then, how much harder it is to come to a generally agreed-to and accurate definitions of liberalism, conservatism, the "left" and the "right." Let alone philosophical concepts like the loaded word "postmodernism."

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