Continuing To Watch Our Language
by Walter Block
by Walter Block
In past columns on Watching Your Language, here, here, here, here and here, I made the point that it is important for us who espouse the freedom philosophy to be aware of the importance of language. If we get pushed into the linguistic corner our intellectual enemies have prepared for us, it is even more difficult to make the case in favor of laissez faire capitalism. In these previous attempts to wrestle with this challenge, I tried to set the record straight with regard to the following words and phrases: ms., developing countries, rent seeking, social justice, tax subsidies, property rights, filthy rich, privileged, unearned income, freeman, ultra, profiteer, book burning, stakeholder, getting something for nothing, free rider, swamps and prejudice.
It is now time to add a few new terms to this list. They are as follows: opportunism, red states — blue states, liberal and libertarian. Let us consider them in turn.
In ordinary language, "opportunism," or "opportunistic," are pretty neutral words. Even, possibly, slightly positive, in that they indicate that someone is taking initiative, availing himself of opportunities, etc. (In medicine, the word applies to disease carrying agents which take advantage of opportunities to spread. However, this is a bit outside our realm of interest; in any case, no one blames germs, so there is hardly a negative connotation to the word. See on this here.)
In mainstream economics, for example the American Economic Review, on the other hand, "opportunistic" is now being used as a synonym for cheating or shirking. Here, is an example, of this phenomenon:
"Economic models of incentives in employment relationships are based on a specific theory of motivation: employees are ‘rational cheaters,' who anticipate the consequences of their actions and shirk when the marginal benefits exceed costs. We investigate the ‘rational cheater model' by observing how experimentally induced variation in monitoring of telephone call center employees influences opportunism. A significant fraction of employees behave as the "rational cheater model" predicts. A substantial proportion of employees, however, do not respond to manipulations in the monitoring rate. This heterogeneity is related to variation in employee assessments of their general treatment by the employer." (Source: here). Things have even gotten to a pass where such language has seeped in to mainstream popular publications; for example, see The Economist, 4/2/05, p. 15.
What is wrong with this? What is wrong is that as in the case of "rent seeking," a perfectly neutral, or even "good" word is used to carry "bad" baggage. Rent seeking, as used by economists, the Public Choice School is the main culprit here, is an equivalent of downright theft, through the political process. By tying "rent" to "thievery," one tars the former with the brush of the latter. One undermines the ancient and honorable practice of collecting rent. True, it cannot be denied, economists who use language in this way do not have in mind landlords charging rent to tenants. Rather, they are thinking of economic rent, the difference, for example, between what a baseball player's salary as an athlete, and, say, his next best job as a mechanic or bus driver. But that is irrelevant. Why use a perfectly good word like "rent" to depict legal theft?
In like manner, taking advantage of opportunities is the hall-mark of the entrepreneur. But if "opportunism" is widely conflated with cheating, then entrepreneurship, and indeed profit seeking, is thereby impugned. But we need all the help we can get for acts such as these. Thus, we should strive mightily not to equate opportunism with cheating or shirking. Why not use the words for this purpose "cheating" or "shirking?" Why pick on poor old opportunity seeking?
2. Red states — Blue states
As these words are commonly used, blue states refer to those, many of which are located along both coasts of the U.S. (on the east coast, the ones toward the north), whose occupants voted mainly for the Democratic Party. Red states refer those in the center of the nation ("fly over country" in the words of those occupying both coasts) that voted preponderantly for the Republican Party.
But this is confusing. Every time I hear these phrases mentioned in this manner I have to do a bit of internal mental switching. This is because red is color I associate most with Communism, and, I can't help it, I link the Democrats more closely than I do the Republicans with U.S.S.R.-style government ownership of property and control over the economy. Thus, I have to tell myself that even though red applies to the left side of the political spectrum (economically speaking) it still refers to people in states who preferred the Republican Party. Awkward. (Not that the war-monger, tariff and tax raising George Bush can be considered a free enterpriser; it is just that, gulp, had Kerry won there would not even be the veneer of free enterprise to hide the Bush style lurch to the left).
Why have the powers that be decided upon switching colors and political linkages in this way? I don't know for sure. I can only speculate. My thought is that this is an attempt on their part to sever the connections between political philosophy and hue in the eyes of the public. And why, in turn, should they want to this? Again, another conjecture; maybe they think that colors are short hand for views in political economy, and they want to reduce the very limited additional clarity of thought such cues might afford.
In any case, the connection between color and political perspective is an interesting one, even if somewhat confusing. The Italian fascists wore black shirts. But Hitler, the person who perhaps most personifies fascism, was actually a greenie, left wing environmentalist, anti-smoking nut (remember, the Nazis were the National Socialist Party). Speaking of the modern greens, the anti-market worshippers of Gaia, they are really watermelons: green on the outside, but red on the inside. These people have a strong but unrequited desire to control the lives of other people and their property. For a while, they "successfully" hitched their wagon to the Communist, or red movement, but this all came unglued in 1989. At which point they switched their allegiance to the greens. Complicating matters is that the favorite color of the Levellers in 17th century England, according to Murray Rothbard the first libertarian political movement, was green. Who, then, are the true greens?
Returning to fascism, the Blueshirts were an Irish Fascist movement during the 1930s, led by General Eoin O'Duffy, and Jose Antonio's Falange were also Blueshirts. So fascism now can claim black and blue, which has a certain appropriateness. On the other hand, there is brown as in brownshirts (we'll not mention UPS in this regard), another fascist group. Further complicating matters is that the combination of red, white and blue has stood for fascism for quite a long time now. See on this Charlotte Twight, America's Emerging Fascist Economy.
(I would like to acknowledge help from several friends of mine on linking colors and political movements. They are Tom DiLorenzo, Stephan Kinsella, David Gordon, Lew Rockwell, Jeff Tucker and Ralph Raico.)
Given that communism is red, and that the coastal states are politically pink, at least closer to red than anything else, and that the states in the center of the country who voted for Bush are closer to fascism, and there is historical precedent for categorizing that belief system as blue, then the way these color names are actually bandied about is an inversion of the truth in such matters.
So, what, then, should we do about the 180-degree confusion of the colors red and blue as applied to the various states? Simple; the same thing as in all these other cases of verbal abuse: refuse to go along. I know, I know, it is confusing if everyone else calls Arkansas, for example, a red state and you call it a blue one. But the same holds true with any of these other words: opportunism, ms., developing countries, rent seeking, social justice, tax subsidies, property rights, filthy rich, privileged, unearned income, freeman, ultra, profiteer, book burning, stakeholder, getting something for nothing, free rider, swamps and prejudice. If we do not make a statement with words, they will soon enough be taken away from us.
3. Liberal and libertarian
Precisely the same thing has long ago occurred with "liberal." At one epoch, long, long ago, a liberal was one who believed in peace, private property rights, limited government and free markets. That perfectly good word was seized by our friends on the left, and now we must resort to "classical liberal," or "liberal, European style," if we wish to distinguish ourselves from the likes of Ted Kennedy, John Kerry or Hillary Clinton. The same thing occurred with "gay," and I take my hat off to Joe Sobran for having attempted to rescue that particular word. We have got to fight, fight, fight to keep hold of verbiage important to us.
Something of the sort now even seems to be occurring with the word "libertarian." When the likes of Milton Friedman can publicly call himself a "small L libertarian," the end might not be near, but it is ominously approaching. This Nobel Prize winning economist is not a libertarian, big or small L it matters not. He favors school vouchers, the continuation of the fed, the negative income tax, the anti-trust law, he was the father of tax withholding (although to be fair to him, he later on apologized for this), road socialism (he opposes the privatization of streets and highways) and fiat currency (he is derisive toward advocates of the gold standard). It is true he is sound as a bell on things like free trade, rent control, minimum wages, etc., but this scarcely supports a claim to libertarianism.
Of course, in the context of the major talking heads, Friedman is a libertarian. At least, he is probably the most libertarian of any person they have ever had contact with. When they say that even Milton Friedman takes thus and such a position, it pretty much defines one end point of the political spectrum. Anyone even more libertarian than he, forsooth, falls right off the end of the realm of respectability.
What are we to do in the face of such challenges? Well, try to hold on to as much verbal turf as we can. At least, let us be aware of these problems. This is a necessary, albeit hardly sufficient condition, for confronting them.
May 28, 2005
Dr. Block [send him mail] is a professor of economics at Loyola University New Orleans.
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