Saving Language

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by Walter Block by Walter Block

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This is another chapter in my long-running series on language in politics and economics. For previous entries, see here, here, here, here and here.

Today, I am concerned to examine, and reject the practice of all too many libertarians who have "cut and run" on the language issue. These fair weather "patriots" are giving aid and comfort to the enemy. I hope to convince them to "stay the course" on this issue.

I refer to the practice of ceding linguistic territory to our intellectual and (im)moral enemies. Typically, they seize a perfectly good word our side has long employed, make it their own, and almost but not quite with our cooperation, use it as a stick with which to beat us. We have been banished from the field of intellectual battle on more than one occasion in this regard.

Perhaps the hoariest example in this tradition is the word "liberal." At one time, that was us. Then, the pinkos took it over. We fought a rear guard action, for a while, content with the fall-back position of "classical liberal." But this is not good enough. It is time, it is long past time, to seize back this appellation, without any help from the crutch of "classical." (Woods, 2005, p. 8, is a marvelous case in point.) To the extent we do so, we will leave our friends on the other side of the aisle with no choice but to embrace a more fitting characterization of themselves: socialist.

No, wait; cancel that. Let us borrow a leaf from these people and attempt to return, with interest, the actions with which they have for so long complimented us: let us wrest words from them. We, too, are, now, socialists, or at least we can be, if we really want to do so. Of course, we do not embrace public ownership of all the means of production. However, we oppose anti-trust legislation, and favor labor market competition. If Rothbard’s "One Big Firm" one day takes over the entire economy, and obtains private ownership of the totality of "society’s" factors of production (think of a vast merger of Microsoft, Toyota, McDonalds, Wal-Mart and a few other such economic behemoths) would we oppose this by law? Of course not. So, our claims to be "socialists" are at least as good as those of our colleagues on the other side of the barricades who have seized "liberal." For under this scenario, all the means of production would be owned by one entity. True, it wouldn’t be a public one, but work with me here.

Of course, as Man, Economy and State so eloquently and amply demonstrates, there are good and sufficient reasons for thinking that no such One Big Firm could ever form in the first place under free enterprise, and if it somehow did so, could certainly not long endure. But that is entirely another (positive) matter, and we are here discussing normative issues. Some people will criticize the foregoing on the ground that the One Big Firm, if it ever took place, would use resources for its own selfish ends, while when government takes over the commanding heights of the economy, it does so in the interests of the general public, that is, all of us. Anyone who believes this ought to take a trip to Cuba or North Korea, or a time machine back to the good old U.S.S.R. or Red China.

Socialism is often interpreted to mean "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs." We libertarians can embrace this, too, on a voluntary basis of course. What else do you suppose takes place within the nunnery, or the convent, or the monastery, or the kibbutz (abstracting from government subsidies) or the hippie commune. The same goes for the typical American family. Does the five-year-old girl eat in accordance with her ability to earn income, or on the basis of her needs? So, rally around the hammer-and-sickle banner, fellow comrade libertarians. You have only to lose your (linguistic) chains.

Would this modest proposal of mine if followed sow confusion in political discourse? Of course it will. But don’t be a nattering nabob of negativism. It was those guys who started up this language imperialism. They are responsible for linguistic obfuscation. Okay, okay, if they will give "liberal" back to us, I’ll let them have "socialism." I am nothing if not generous. Look, fellow libertarians, if we do not do something about this dire situation, we will lose, even, our precious word u201Clibertarian,u201D and, with it, u201Cliberty.u201D Why, people such as Milton Friedman, William F. Buckley, Bob Barr, Dennis Miller, John Malkovich, Bill Maher, Richard Posner, Henry Simmons, and Brink Lindsey are already characterizing themselves, or being characterized by others (Rudy Giuliani) as u201Clibertarians,u201D forsooth. According to some, there are more famous libertarians than you can shake a stick at. If we don’t hold on to at least some of these descriptions, we will not be able to engage in any product differentiation. We will have lost to battle to civilize society because we will no longer have the terminology with which to make our case.

What other words are fast disappearing, under our very noses?

"Justice" is another endangered concept. The barbarians have long ago concocted the phrase "social justice." Why, my own school, Loyola University New Orleans, among many, many others, has termed itself "Social Justice University."

There are two possible responses to this verbal imperialism. One, articulated by Hayek (The Mirage of Social Justice, vol. 2 of Law, Legislation, and Liberty Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976, pp. 24—27) is to denounce social justice on the ground that is mere camouflage, an attempt to sugar coat or place a veneer over socialism. A thousand pardons. I meant Communism. (We are all socialists now. I’m secure in my own socialism. See above. But, I draw the line at Communism. I still have some few vestigial principles.)

An entirely different stance is to attempt to claim social justice for our own. (Look, it has a nice ring to it; who could be against social justice? Okay, okay, maybe I’ve been working for the Jesuits for too long now.) No, on a serious note, if I may be permitted a serious note, in this interpretation "social justice" means, merely, justice applied to the social realm, whatever that is, such as egalitarianism. We, too, favor egalitarianism, provided, only, it is achieved on a voluntary basis, such as through charity. Why should we cede such a splendid sounding phrase to the forces of evil?

Then, there is the entire issue of "environmentalism." It cannot be denied that 99% of the people marching under this banner are watermelons (green on the outside, red on the inside). "Red" is another word I am entirely, and somewhat inconsistently (a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds) ready to leave to the bad guys. (With what dismay, then, do I learn that the states voting for the Democrats are not the "Red states"? Talk about confusion of nomenclature! But they are the ones perpetrating this inversion.) So, should we blithely give up on the characterization "environmentalist," content to allow them to run rampant with it? No, say I. Let us, instead, embrace free market environmentalism. Not, of course, that of the wishy washy weasely Chicago style, but, rather, as outlined by own chief free market environmentalist, Murray Rothbard. (This, in my view, is the single best short treatment of environmentalism ever written; if you read only one essay on this topic, let it be this one.)

And what of "environmental justice," another left wing shibboleth? (By the way, as a libertarian I am neither of the right nor the left; not a Communist nor a Nazi; nor a conservative nor a socialist; I am something unique in the political economic firmament.) We, too, in my view, favor environmental justice. And of what does that consist, pray tell? Why, it is predicated on private property rights based on homesteading, as explained by Locke, Hoppe and Rothbard, coupled with the libertarian axiom of non-aggression, and applied to environmental issues. Air pollution? It consists of trespassing smoke particles and can best be dealt with by upholding property rights. Species extinction? Privatize the elephants and rhinos. Loss of fish stocks? Privatize the oceans. That is environmental justice in my book, no matter what the other guys say.

Are we feminists? You bet your boots we are (or at least can be if we want to be). Not, of course, of the Gloria Steinem, Andrea Dworkin, Susan Brownmiller, Catharine MacKinnon, Barbara Ehrenreich, Betty Friedan ilk. Not a bit of it. But there are female libertarians like Wendy McElroy, Karen Selick, Joan Kennedy Taylor, Jane Shaw, Ellen Paul, Karen DeCoster. Their views are good enough for me under this rubric.

Are we gay? Yesiree. We’re all gay here, if I can be allowed to speak in behalf of anyone other than myself. Are we not cheery? Are we not happy, being involved in the libertarian attempt to promote justice, liberty and (voluntary) socialism. Why, one of the great drawbacks of hanging around with Murray Rothbard, as any of his confidants can attest, was stomach cramps: from continual hour after hour of almost hysterical laughter. Even Bill Buckley once characterized Murray and his merry men as the joyous libertarians. What could be gayer than that? (In this matter I am a follower of the insights of Joe Sobran.)

Do we libertarians favor protecting the rights of homosexuals? Of course we do. These, to be precise, are identical to the rights of all other people: the right not to be aggressed against; the right to own property through homesteading, purchase or trade; the right to take part in the free enterprise system. That is it, of course. They certainly have no additional rights, such as, for example, the right not to be discriminated against. None of us have any such "right."

Speaking of rights, what should our position be on the grotesquerie of "positive rights?" Again, we are at the fork in the road. Down one direction, we can expose this concept for the vicious fraud that it is: an attempt to ride on the coat tails of plain old ordinary rights, which most people respect, at least in principle. In this path, we can make the case that "positive rights" have a not so secret agenda: to steal property from those who have more than the speaker thinks they should have, and to turn them over to those he thinks have too little wealth (while usually taking a hefty cut of the boodle for himself). But there is another option. It is to embrace positive rights. Since all they really depict is wealth, and we certainly favor getting rich, we can embrace this monstrosity on those grounds. Here, we redefine them from coercive egalitarianism to wealth creation. Look, the lefties are always doing weird and perverse things like this, and depriving us of a useful language in the process. We would certainly be justified in borrowing a leaf from their playbook once in a while.

Another clarion call of the barbarians is for diversity. We, too, can favor this initiative. The easy way toward this end is to embrace diversity of ideas, especially on college campuses, where they are all but non-existent. But we can embrace diversity in other ways as well. For example, we can encourage people when dining out to sample of the cuisine of many nations. One of the benefits of Manhattan, for example, is that it features, within a small geographical area, restaurants with very different types of menus. There are not too many other places where you can get a kosher burrito, for example.

Let us conclude. A lot of this is tongue in cheek. Some of it I am really unsure about. "We’re all socialists, now" doesn’t trip lightly off the libertarian tongue. But there is a serious point here, too. We are in the words business. Therefore, it behooves us to use verbiage with caution. I don’t think I am being the Chicken Little who is complaining that the sky is falling down in this regard. Our political economic opponents have long been whittling away at what constitutes acceptable language, and at the very least we ought to be aware of this danger. Maybe, even, do something about it.

I wish to acknowledge the help of the following people in the preparation of this column. None of them, of course, are responsible for the errors still remaining in it, after their best efforts to dissuade me from making them. They are: Wilton Alston, Michael Barnett, Pete Canning, Max Chiz, Karen DeCoster, Jason Ditz, Mark Fulwiller, Anthony Gregory, David Heinrich, J. H. Huebert, Stephan Kinsella, Manuel Lora and Patrick Tinsley.

Dr. Block [send him mail] is a professor of economics at Loyola University New Orleans. He is the author of Defending the Undefendable.

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