Fungible Semantics: The Roberts Decision

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Tax: A contribution for the support of a government required of persons, groups, or businesses within the domain of that government.

Penalty: A punitive measure, regulatory in nature, established by law or authority, to deter certain conduct.

A Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of the healthcare mandate based on the government’s taxing authority?

Well, why not? The tax code has been dragooned into service to influence and shape social behavior for over a hundred years, from a dollar-a-pack cigarette tax, to mortgage relief to encourage home ownership. In addition to the collection of revenue to bankroll government it evolved into an instrument for social engineering and stealth workarounds to advance social policy. Which of the following statements is true?

A tax raises revenue, a penalty raises revenue, therefore a penalty is a tax?

A tax influences behavior, a penalty influences behavior, therefore a tax is a penalty?

That’s right — neither is true. These syllogisms illustrate a well-known logical fallacy that can be found in any college textbook on logic. How, then, could a superior jurist like John Roberts persuade himself that a penalty is a tax? Well, the Chief Justice opined that the penalty for noncompliance with the mandate ($695) was too weak to constitute a deterrent, and must therefore be a tax! This left many to wonder if he had intentionally confounded these two concepts, and thus rewritten the mandate so the Affordable Care Act would pass constitutional muster.

The logic was so bizarre and flawed that some, like Charles Krauthammer, suggested that Roberts resorted to this semantic legerdemain to avoid politicizing the Court and weakening its prestige. But this is to forget that the Constitution was born in crisis and the Court has weathered more violent partisan storms than those of the current climate: just read some of the broadsides in newspapers written one hundred to two hundred years ago. To my knowledge, no Congressmen have been caned to within an inch of their lives in the well of the Senate (though, no doubt, some have deserved it), and no cabinet secretaries killed in duels in the past 100 years. A good rule of thumb: follow the law and let the chips fall where they may.

Misconstruing what is obviously a penalty as a tax may seem a harmless bit of hocus pocus, but playing hard and fast with meaning and general disregard for semantic precision has resulted in a Supreme Court decision that could have unfortunate consequences for the American economy. Or as one editorialist (James Delong) put it:

The ACA is a complex and incoherent law drafted in haste and secrecy, written largely by the healthcare industry to promote its own profits by bringing more people into a government-administered system open to capture and looting. It is defended by an administration trapped by the imperative of defending its handiwork. The product is a Rube Goldberg regulatory system that cannot be made rational, workable, or intelligible, and is a delicious (to Republicans) promise of an endless stream of outrages.

It is all very well for the Chief Justice to defer the issue of constitutionality back to elected officials, but as Ronald Reagan once remarked, “The nearest thing to eternal life we will ever see on this earth is a government program,” and it will be difficult to impossible to repeal the healthcare law even if Mitt Romney is elected president, unless there are significant Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. The stakes were high, very high. This could be the worst Supreme Court decision since Kelo v. City of New London, and it is fair to ask if, during his stormy sessions with the brethren, Justice Roberts experienced some sort of mental lapse.

In the last century or so, no Congressmen have been caned to within an inch of their lives in the well of the Senate — though, no doubt, some have deserved it.

The original sin was, of course, using the tax system as a quick-and-dirty tool to improvise policy, to encourage (say) petroleum exploration or to discourage the use of tobacco, thereby exempting government from the strenuous work of writing carefully crafted long-term programs to advance a coherent policy. The Constitution says that

The Congress shall have Power to lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States . . .

The framers did not say that the collection of taxes could or should be used to influence economic behavior or placate special interests, and in this they showed some foresight: broadening the concept of taxation to, for example, provide incentives for certain economic entities, has resulted in a Byzantine tax code so complicated and unwieldy, so corrupted by influence-peddlers and lobbyists, it has become a national embarrassment, and a general disincentive to business and entrepreneurship. Using the sacrosanct tax code as an ad hoc tool to implement policy (rather than enact problem-specific programs) has produced some very bad tax law.

Another institutional casualty, perhaps more fatal than the debasement of the tax system, has been the English language. A general contempt for the elegance and precision of English, e.g. twisting of meaning out of all recognition, demonstrates the dangers that George Orwell warned us about over 60 years ago in his essay, Politics and the English Language. The decline of English, he observed, had entered a deadly spiral:

it becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.

It was Orwell’s belief that words and semantic distinctions matter, that mangling language to suit one's purposes eventually leads to a world where black is white and up is down. How prophetic! We need language to map the world as it is, not as we would like it to be, and a breach of semantics can be even more lethal than a breach of law. Using imprecise language to conceal real meaning is a sure path to chaos. Orwell was talking about communist pamphleteers and flannel-mouthed journalists at the time, but it applies equally to any abuse of language, and that includes the recent decision by Chief Justice Roberts to call a penalty a tax.




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The Three R's: Reading, Reading, and Reading

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“People asked, Should directors also be able to write? I said it was more important that they be able to read.” — Billy Wilder

If you know any teachers, you’ve probably had many opportunities to participate in a certain kind of conversation. It’s the conversation that begins with the teacher saying, “What I can’t understand is . . .” This is followed by one example, then another example, then a long list of examples of incomprehensible things that students do, or fully comprehensible things that they cannot seem to comprehend.

Yesterday I heard from a friend of mine, a teacher, and I made the mistake of asking how her class was going. This is what she wrote in reply: “I like my class. I like my students. In fact, I like them even better than the class. They’re smart; they’re unprejudiced; they’re charming and energetic. What I can’t understand is why, since virtually all of them are native speakers of English and have taken college prep courses, they still think that ‘most’ is the same as ‘almost.’ They think that to ‘service’ someone is the same as to ‘serve’ him. The difference between ‘prophecy’ and ‘prophesy’ is invisible to them, as is the difference between 'lose' and 'loose.'

“And I don’t understand why, since many of them are the children of immigrants and have no difficulty ‘relating to’ at least two languages on the level of daily conversation, much of what they read in English strikes them as an embarrassing foreign language. When they read aloud, they stop and wonder about every ‘foreign’ word, most of which aren’t foreign at all. ‘Interrogate’ turns into ‘introcate’; ‘Jonathan’ is ‘Johnnythan’ (except for their own friends named Jonathan, whose names present no difficulty, because they don’t have to be read). And heaven help you if you’re teaching about Herodotus.

“I teach a senior college prep class, and we have readings from the Bible. One of my paper assignments asks them to discuss a topic in Genesis. The assignments say clearly, ‘Do not underline or italicize the word ‘Bible’ or the names of its various books.’ As a result, their papers start in this way: ‘In The Book of Genesis, which is part of The Holy Bible, god says to Abruham . . . .’

“In short, my students are bright young people who are incapable of reading, in the sense of noticing what they read.”

I’ve quoted my friend’s message at length, because I think it identifies a general problem. This isn’t basically a writing problem or a speaking problem; it’s a reading, or should I say a not-reading, problem. By “reading” I don’t mean “reading messages on the internet, or your telephone.” I mean reading something that makes you comfortable with complex linguistic resources, employed in complex rhetorical contexts. And I mean focusing your attention on it, not just looking at it without noticing any more than its general current and tendency.

If you don’t notice what you read, or if you don’t read anything much, you may not notice what you say, either.

Here’s an example. I happen to be reading a book about American religious beliefs and customs. It’s written by two statistically fascinated social scientists, but in this case, statistical fascination doesn’t imply bad writing. They are perfectly competent. They have a good idea of the linguistic resources at their disposal, including the many means that good readers learn to simplify or complicate the sentences they write.

So, at one point in their book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell say the following about the results of their statistical research on marriage and religion: “The propensity for marriage within the faith is much higher among more religious people — not surprisingly. We can’t say for sure whether low religious commitment is a cause or a consequence of intermarriage — or more likely, both cause and consequence — but intermarriage is strongly associated with lower religious observance.”

I’m concerned with that phrase “both cause and consequence.” It’s a shorthand way of saying “each is both a cause and a consequence of the other.” Long ago, writers of English learned from writers of Latin that you don’t need to say all that. As long as you’ve set up a sequence of parallels, “cause . . . consequence,” which are both complements of “is,” you can follow it with another complement, “both cause and consequence,” and that’s it — you’ve cut to the chase.

This is an almost trivial example of linguistic competence. But I would fall off my chair if I found one of my sophomore college students using this technique. It’s not that they’re dumb; they’re very bright indeed. But “both cause and consequence” is the kind of thing you don’t find when you’re listening to television, or reading messages online; and that, I believe, is most of the reading and “serious” hearing that students do.

As the president is always saying, let me be clear about this. I read online messages myself, sometimes all day and all night. Some of the most interesting, individual, and incisive writing I’ve ever read has appeared in online commentary. Several years ago, I paid enthusiastic tribute to writing done in online communities ("The Truth vs. the Truth," Liberty, Sept.-Oct. 2003). But it appears that online reading (except, of course, when enjoyed on Liberty’s website) doesn’t give people adequate experience of what can be done with the sophisticated written language of the normal serious book. The decline of complex verbal experience began with television, which like the internet ordinarily uses a very restricted variety of words and sentence patterns. The internet accelerated the decline by rewarding simplified communication with simplified but usually agreeable and often immediate response.

When people focus on complex sentences and arguments, they learn to pay close attention to verbal cues — closer attention than they need to pay to words that come naturally in conversation. I know a highly intelligent person who cannot remember, and does not care, whether her best friend’s name is “Katherine” or “Catherine.” Apparently the first name doesn’t appear in the person’s email address, or my friend doesn’t pick up on the cue — and why should she? It makes no difference in either email or direct conversation. I know many intelligent people who have everyday fluency in two languages but haven’t the faintest idea of how to construe a really complicated sentence, in either one.

The problem is, if you don’t notice what you read, or if you don’t read anything much, you may not notice what you say, either. While the civilized world, and even the world of television news, is saying, “I saw it yesterday,” you may keep saying, “I seen it yesterday.” One of the brightest people I know keeps saying, “I coulda swore that program woulda worked.” And while everyone who reads words, notices them, and reflects on them tries to avoid trite statements, inaccurate diction, and unintended implications, the nonreader will keep saying, “I was literally blown away by the judge’s disinterest.”

A long time ago, before the internet was fully in use, by everyone, all the time, I was visiting my friends Muriel Hall and Mary Jane Hodges, who lived in a small town in New England. We were going out to eat, and on the way we discussed the bad things that happen in restaurants. I mentioned the repulsive way in which waiters ask, “You still workin’ on that?” while they’re trying to grab your plate. After all, who wants to think of dinner, especially a dinner you pay for, as some kind of work you have to do?

Muriel and MJ looked at me in horror. “My God!” they said. “That’s what they say in California?”

Oh yes.

“Well, let’s hope it never happens here.”

A year later, when I returned to their little town, I found them sunk in gloomy meditations. “It’s here,” they said. “You still workin’ on that?”

Yes, it was there. And here, there, and everywhere, it has remained. “You still workin’ on that?” is now what nonreaders call an integral part (as if there were another kind of part) of the ritual of dining. It’s chanted everywhere — as difficult to avoid as “How Great Thou Art” in a Methodist church. Every waiter I meet is a college student or a college graduate, so we’re not talking about linguistic behavior that is innocently illiterate. No, this is illiteracy practiced as a faith, a faith that, having resulted from a long process of education and social reinforcement, has become second nature to its devotees.

The standards of political correctness have them in awe. But normal linguistic cues, the kind that come from reading, not social suasion — that’s another matter.

Apparently, authors no longer wait tables while they’re trying for their first big break. Or if they’re still doing that, you won’t want to read anything they eventually get published. Like other Americans, they’ve lost their ability to pick up cues — with one exception. They are sensitive to the subtlest possibilities of offending anyone “politically.” The standards of political correctness have them in awe. But normal linguistic cues, the kind that come from reading, not social suasion — that’s another matter.

One cue that most people used to notice was the red light that comes on in your brain just before you say something that’s just naturally offensive. Used to. When “that really sucks” is taken as acceptable in all social circumstances, you know that the alarms have shorted out. Those who know me understand that I have warm respect for profanity, appropriately applied; but otherwise-useful terms are merely disturbing when they’re employed without anyone’s appearing to care what they suggest.

As I write, a man is wandering down the street outside, discussing in a loud voice (why not?) his intimate problems with his girlfriend. There are two possibilities. (1) He is using a hands-free cellphone. (2) He is insane. The salient fact is that these days, you can’t tell the difference. In the ranter’s head, no warning bells can ever ring. He might avoid the path of a passing car, but language presents no risks. Not in his perception, and not in reality, either. How often will anyone accost him and explain how unfavorably he affects the neighborhood? And if anyone did, he probably wouldn’t pay any attention. He wouldn’t pick up the cue. He’d think that the other person was crazy. Or he’d just ignore the whole thing.

That’s what happens when you make some instructive response to “You still workin’ on that?” I used to try, “Yes, I’m still eating.” Then I tried, “Yes, I’m still eating.” Then, “Do you mean, am I still eating?” On and on. The answer was always, “Right — I see you’re still workin’.” You see what I mean about missing cues.

So far, I’ve been picking on waiters, nameless persons in the street, commonplace users of the internet, normal victims of high-school education, and so on. Now I’m going to pick on the president.

We can’t blame President Obama’s linguistic failures on the internet, although we might go after his high school, or the doting folks who brought him up to think that whatever he said or did would establish some new standard of excellence. But whatever the cause, his verbal warning system never got turned on. I suspect that he would be ten points higher in the polls if he’d had the sense not to say that his nomination for the presidency would stop the oceans from rising, or that people who weren’t inclined to vote for him were clinging pathetically to their guns and their religion, or that his grandmother made racist comments, or any of a hundred other offensive things he’s said, which he simply had no clue were offensive.

There was a new one, just the other day. It was the president’s statement — no doubt carefully planned, but certainly not well meditated — about the killing of Trayvon Martin, a young man who happened, like the president, to be of African descent. Obama expressed his sympathy by saying, “You know, if I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon.” In other words, all black men look alike to President Obama — because the only thing that made Trayvon Martin look like him was his race and gender. This is patently offensive, but the president didn’t have a clue that it was.

Only a person who doesn’t read many words — real words, written by real writers, not reports from campaign agents or White House officials — or think about the meanings and implications of words, could possibly have made such an offensive and silly statement.

Why did he make it? Because “someone who looks like me” is a cliché used to elicit votes from people who share your ethnicity. Its cheapness and foolishness never dawned on President Obama.

Oh, but the president is an author himself! He must know language, and be thinking deep thoughts about it! Of course, it doesn’t take much reading to write a book, as any casual perusal of an airport “bookstore” will inform you. But let’s consider the possibility. Maybe playing golf and watching basketball aren’t really the president’s favorite pursuits. Maybe that’s just a lie, put out to cover his real though unmanly interest in reading good books. Maybe, during his speeches, what he’s really thinking is, “I wish I could get back to Tolstoy.” Maybe in his private restroom there’s a copy of Montaigne sitting on the toilet. Maybe he goes to bed early so he can curl up reading Shakespeare in the original Klingon.

Whatever the cause, President Obama’s verbal warning system never got turned on.

Barack Obama wrote two books about himself and his opinions. But tell me, how many authors does he quote or mention in his speeches (which are long and frequent) or his interviews and known conversations? To which good authors does he allude? Madison? Voltaire? Thucydides? Elbert Hubbard? Mother Goose? Tell me, that I may be instructed.

None? Can’t think of any? The president’s intellectual context is television talk, stray bits of college texts, the oracles of dead “progressives” . . . even his legal education (witness his recent comments about the Supreme Court) didn’t seem to command his full attention. But context is all. If the context of your intellectual life wasn’t formed by reading books — serious, complex books — your signal system just isn’t going to work. Sorry. And the only thing you can do to fix it is (horrifying thought) to read a book.

p




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Words of Auld Lang Syne

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I don’t enjoy the start of a new year. With the exception of one occasion, when I was 12 years old and discovered that if I borrowed my brother’s shortwave set I could listen to January 1 arrive at one place after another around the globe, until it got all the way to Michigan, I have greeted the great event with surly cheer. The appearance of a new year simply makes me aware of all the things that went wrong during the last year, and that still aren’t going right.

This is particularly evident in the case of words. Every year is pregnant with a host of locutions that no intelligent person could ever have engendered, unless disgustingly drunk. But the ugly brats are born, and many of them grow up into big, ugly, popular clichés, monsters that continue stalking the landscape even as the next twelvemonth begins.

One way of hastening their end is to adopt the tactic of the aboriginal tribesman, who recites the names of his gods in order to get rid of them. Another tactic, similar to the first, is that of the modern corporation, which celebrates someone as Manager of the Year in hopes that he will retire.

Inspired by such examples, I now present my list of the Ten Most Gruesome Expressions of 2011, the ten phrases that have most clearly outlived their usefulness, if any. All these terms have lately displayed their full nastiness, though none of them actually originated in 2011 — a year oddly barren of brand-new tripe. Several of them, indeed, are already well stricken with dementia. But let’s not be clinical. Let’s just try to imagine what the world would be like without them, and pray God that they will soon be taken from us.

I’ve ranked our gruesome friends from 1 to 10, according to the danger I think they pose to the republic’s mental health — in other words, according to their tendency to make me sick. To preserve suspense, I’ll save the most sickening expression for last. Don’t peek. The worst is coming.

So here goes, starting with Number . . .

10. “Sweet” — as in the following conversation.

“Hello, Mrs. Smith. This is Dr. Jones. Your tests are back, and they show that your cancer may not be terminal.”

“Sweet!”

Preposterous. But hardly impossible. The Saccharine Salute now appears in conversations everywhere. It started with 16-year-old thrashers and druggies, but it has spread inexorably to older, more sensible types. Remember that I said “er” and “more,” and that we’re dealing with baby boomers here. As you know, we boomers were never as bright as Newsweek thought we were, and our mental age has not advanced as rapidly as our physical age.

9. “Epic.” Another thrasher term, as in “Dude! That is a seriously, seriously epic board,” as in “skateboard.” Since few publicly educated people know what an epic is, the word has easily passed from boarders to radio hosts to TV hosts to half the other people in the known universe. What next? Will “sonnet” become the universal contrastive term? “Dude! I got this gross little sonnet thing stuck on my sneaks, dude!” Ask yourself, what would Milton say?

8. “Due diligence.” This is a legalism, with an actual meaning. Please look it up, the next time you’re tempted to tell your son that you hope he’ll do his due diligence in school today. Until recently, the phrase was confined to legal circles. Then it got into politics, as Republicans and Democrats tried to blame each other for the depression (sorry! I mean the “downturn”) of 2008 and following. The other party had caused the mess by its failure to exercise due diligence. Well, to use the Valley Girl lingo of 30 years ago, “Duh! Yeah! Maybe some people, like all of you, might’ve screwed up. Yuh think?” Notwithstanding this obvious reflection, “due diligence” proved useful for scoring points in the great game of “which political party is better at running the country” (another nasty expression, toward which I will exercise due diligence in another Word Watch). The ultimate winner of this game is the person who can show that nobody in his party ever smokes weed, watches porn, or texts during office hours. “Due diligence” is an intensely conservative phrase, but its conservatism isn’t a philosophy, or anything that makes sense; it’s just a high-church way of covering your ass.

7. “Got your back.” I don’t know where this started, or who kicked it into popularity. It means, of course, that while you run out and try to shoot the enemy, I’ll stay here and discourage people from shooting you in the ass. I wonder: Which of us has the tougher job? The real purpose of “got your back” is to glorify the speaker, not to improve life for the listener. It’s a militant upgrade of the useless “I’m here for you.” I suppose the next upgrade will be “If you go down, believe me, buddy, I’ll give you the coup de grace.”

6. “Icon.” OK, I’ll admit it. In 2009 I published a book, The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison, which is part of a line of books offered by Yale University Press (and available for sale on amazon.com), and this line of books is called the Icons of America Series. So now I’ve advertised my book, and also prevented you from using the “icon” thing against me, since I already brought it up. But what “icon” means, in the context of that series of books, is “something that everyone can picture, and everyone thinks he understands, except that he doesn’t.” That’s a useful concept. There’s another meaning, which is even more useful: “a literal or literary picture that represents concepts of fundamental importance to the people who make and view it.” Thus, the lilies that adorn a picture of Mary and the Christ child illustrate her purity; the baby’s trusting look reveals his innocence; the cruciform gesture with which he stretches forth his arms foretells his redemptive death. There’s a scene in Homer’s Odyssey in which Odysseus arrives at Ithaca and is greeted by his patroness Athena. They sit under the sacred olive tree and plot the ruin of the suitors. This scene is also an icon. It presents a vision of the ideal god and hero — similar in character, equal in virtue, and equally disposed to plotting and enjoying their plots. But notice: none of this adds up to “Kate Voted 2011’s Top Beauty Icon,” “Patti Smith at 65: From Rebel to Icon,” or “Hotel an Icon in Red Hook for 164 Years.” If “icon” means “celebrity,” call Kate a celebrity. If to be “an icon” means to be famous, say that Red Hook has a famous hotel. I don’t know what you do with the Patti Smith headline. Find some other meaningless word, I guess.

5. “Double down.” This phrase first became popular in an innocent way. It conveyed the stubborn fecklessness of President Obama, a bad gambler who somehow considers himself a good one. Then it became a synonym for “continuing one’s course” or simply “being consistent.” And that is wrong, very wrong. Obama is not doubling down every time he repeats the same campaign speech he’s been using for the past three years. He’s not a risky, heroic figure. He’s not Bret Maverick. Let’s ban this particular chip from the casino.

4. “Dead on arrival.” Here is the Democrats’ new favorite, and they would die without it. Of course, they still have trademark rights to “our children,” “the folks on disability,” “American workers that are out of jobs,” “people that are most in need,” and the all-purpose suffix “in this country” (as in “we need to do better for our children, the folks on disability, workers that are out of jobs, and people that are most in need, in this country”). All these terms have been useful in maintaining the Democratic base in its chronic condition of insanity. But what the Democratic politicians needed was a phrase that would gratify the base while menacing the opposition. Ideally it would be a phrase that expressed both their habitual arrogance and their frustrated spite about their massive losses in November 2010. So they picked up “dead on arrival.” Harry Reid is its biggest fan. When he finds the Republicans in their usual state of legislative dithering, he taunts them by asking where is their bill? When he finds that they may actually have a bill, he announces that the bill will be “dead on arrival.” It doesn’t occur to him that a man who looks like an undertaker shouldn’t be pushing images of dead bodies. It doesn’t occur to the mainstream media either. That’s why this repulsive expression is now appearing everywhere there.

3. “Kitchen table.” Here’s a homey phrase that is useful whenever a “news correspondent” accidentally asks a politician to comment on an important issue. Thus: “Do you think it’s a problem that in a time when other people have less and less money, the salaries and benefits of government employees keep going up?” That’s a real question, for a change. The real answer is simple: “Yes.” The phony answer takes more work. “Well, Marcie, I just think that when the American people sit down at the kitchen table to work out their family budgets, I just don’t think when they’re sitting there at the table, they’re really wondering what other people take home in their paychecks, or what benefits their public servants may have earned. I think what the American people are thinking about when they sit down there at the kitchen table to really think things out, they’re thinking about the really important issues. Will we have economic justice in this country? Will our public workers be getting a living wage? Will we take care of our seniors on Social Security and our young people in our public schools? Is there life on other planets?” “Kitchen table” is this year’s substitute for the first half of the favorite cliché of 2008, “Main Street versus Wall Street.” It’s a slimy attempt to convince you that Pennsylvania Avenue is not the problem. It’s an attempt to fool you into thinking that when you sit there at the kitchen table and stack up your pathetic statements of profit and loss (mostly loss) and try to figure out how you’re going to pay your ridiculous federal income tax, you are feeling exactly what some politician feels when he reclines in his limousine and tries to figure out how to make you pay still more. I’m surprised that I ranked this one as only No. 3.

2. “Up for grabs,” as in “the Iowa caucus is now up for grabs.” Nothing unusual about this one — just the awful certainty that for the next 11 months we’ll be told that “South Carolina is up for grabs,” “Florida is really up for grabs right now,” “there are over 400 House seats, and they’re all up for grabs,” and yes, “the White House itself is up for grabs.” I suggest that this metaphor be replaced by something similar but more explicit. Let’s try “the Senate is up for sale,” “the House is up for sale,” and “the White House is up for sale.” Those expressions would acknowledge the fact that if you tell the voters you are not going to pay them off, you are not going to increase Social Security benefits, increase veterans’ benefits, increase students’ benefits, increase almost everyone’s benefits, while decreasing almost everyone’s taxes, you will not be elected. Or so we are told.

Now bring the drums and trumpets! The end of the procession is in sight.

As Pogo said, we have met the enemy, and he is us. We are what our president calls the

1. “Folks.” All right, this is just another Obama-ism. But does that make it innocent? Certainly not. Yet its origins are sad. The f-word first gained control of Obama’s mind when the polls showed conclusively that he had lost the “folks.” So he obsessively created stories about various kinds of “folks” — “folks sittin’ around the kitchen table” (see no. 3, above), “folks that are just tryin’ to balance their checkbooks,” “folks that are hurtin’,” “folks that we’re helpin’” — an enormous crowd of folks to surround and comfort him. I reckon I’m one a them folks, cause I’m really hurtin’ when I hear crap like this. It worked for Huey Long, but, sorry, it doesn’t work for a guy who ran for president on his credentials as a Harvard grad. It there are folks in this world, President Obama is a non-folk. Like most partisan words, however, “folks” has wanderlust. It doesn’t care which side of the aisle it’s on. And why shouldn’t the Republicans have their crack at it, too? I’m sorry, very sorry to say this, but 2012 is likely to be the Year of the Folks. That’s what makes No. 1 so dangerous.

Now, that’s sort of a downer, isn’t it? You see what I meant about New Year’s. We’ve come to the end. The awards have been given. Nobody’s happy. It’s time to leave the auditorium.

I’m sure you’ve noted, however, that most of phrases on this year’s roll of shame are political. I put it at six out of ten. This is not an accident or product of my own whim. There is a law at work here, a law of linguistic devolution: the larger the government, the more it talks, and the more influence it has on everyone else’s discourse. That can’t be good.

But just remember: Liberty’s got your back.




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Reclaiming the Word “Liberal”

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I propose that we call left-liberals just that, not “liberals” without qualification. Doing so would help reclaim the original name of an honorable old political tradition. It would resist the purloining and perversion of the word “liberal” as used in the United States. It would avoid ambiguity by bringing American usage into line with usage in much or most of the world outside the United States, where the word “liberal” retains its classical meaning, as I shall try to show. Left-liberals contrast sharply with classical liberals; they incline to interventionist and redistributionary policies extending into ever more aspects of life.

John Kekes’ Against Liberalism (1997), although a generally meritorious work, illustrates the ambiguous use of words. From a self-styled conservative, I expected an attack on his doctrine’s classical rival. But no: Kekes muddles classical and left-liberalism together, making his attack less incisive than it might have been.

Beyond inviting misunderstanding, controversialists put themselves at a disadvantage when they let their opponents define the terms of debate. When classical liberals and conservatives let “liberal” be purloined and even use it themselves (as a term of abuse), they concede too much to their opponents.

Words and Policy

The word “liberal” derives from the Latin for “free.” Classical liberals do not all share the same detailed understanding of their values; but to minimize repetition in what follows, it is convenient to list typical characteristics. Classical liberals typically believe in the importance of individual responsibility; in the freedom to live one’s own life, to travel, to change residence, and to choose one’s own occupation; in freedom of speech and press; in tolerance of the opinions and lifestyles of dissenting minorities; in capitalist enterprise with secure property rights and free markets for domestic and international trade; in freely and honestly elected representative government of defined and limited powers that protects human rights; in the rule of law, equality before the law, independent administration of law and justice, and separation of church and state.

Left-liberals share many of these values, of course; the chief difference concerns the character and scope of government, which affect the degree of respect that left-liberals have for others among those values.

Liberalism, if not yet so called, became a powerful force in the Age of Enlightenment. It rejected hereditary status, the divine right of kings, absolute monarchy, and established religoin. Leaders of the American and French Revolutions used liberal philosophy, including insistence on consent of the governed, to justify overthrowing tyrannical rule. The 19th century brought more or less liberal governments to countries in Europe and the Americas.

When classical liberals and conservatives let “liberal” be purloined and even use it themselves (as a term of abuse), they concede too much to their opponents.

An early political use of the term “liberal” dates from the Cortes of Cádiz, which adopted the Spanish constitution of 1812. There the conservatives derided their majority opponents as “liberals.” The liberals wanted to carry on the Enlightenment philosophy of Charles III, adding several ideals of the French Revolution. They fought for civil liberties and against absolute monarchy. Even though the constitution of 1812 remained in effect only for brief intervals, it served as a model for liberal constitutions of Latin countries in the nineteenth century. (These facts are found partly by Googling for “liberals” and “liberals Cadiz” and in the Wikipedia entry on “Constitución española de 1812." Club Liberal Español is also useful.)

Elsewhere also, and perhaps especially in Great Britain and its colonies, liberal aspirations included removing various restraints on residence, occupation or employment, and property ownership; increasing the flexibility of land inheritance; modernizing onerous old legal structures and practices; removing various legal discriminations; extending the franchise and (in Britain) remedying the over-representation of rotten boroughs in Parliament. Workers eventually gained the right to form unions.

How, then, did the word “liberal” acquire its changed meaning? Well, the early liberals worked for freedom from burdensome and oppressive old laws and regulations. Liberalism meant action. The ideal of change toward increased freedom and modernity drifted into accepting change almost for its own sake — or so I conjecture. Many conditions in the world plausibly seemed open to improvement — even in the liberal direction — by changing or adding some laws and regulations.

The case for a typical one of these interventions, taken by itself, may indeed be strong; yet a great accumulation of individually plausible interventions may become oppressive and make the task of monitoring government all the more difficult. Overlooking this point commits the fallacy of composition, the fallacy of supposing that what is true of the individual case is therefore true of such cases taken together. (The standard example compares one spectator standing up to see a parade better, and all standing up to see the parade.)

Even so, advocates of each particular intervention tend to focus on it, not perceiving or worrying about the fallacy. Some interventions may have unintended side effects that seem to require still others as correctives (as Ludwig von Mises explained). Ongoing growth of government activity motivates special interests to seek more interventions on their own behalf or in self-defense against privileges given to others. The political expediency of a “moderate,” middle-of-the-road position — the Hotelling effect, so called following Harold Hotelling’s article in the Economic Journal (1929) — allows the more active side of the road to drag along what is considered the respectable middle, thus reinforcing the drift. Many or most participants in an interventionist drift may well be high-minded people; but the drift does offer opportunities to control freaks, who may relish the prospect of power for their own purposes in a semi-socialist state.

The original term “liberal” persists, in the United States, anyway, even for an orientation that has metamorphosed into almost its opposite. The process illustrates the Hegel-Marx notion of a change of quantity into quality, of degree into kind (as rising temperature changes ice into fluid water and then into steam). An itch to change things has taken hold, with politicians and special interests constantly imagining what further government interventions into what further aspects of life might do some good.

Participants in the Drift of Meaning

John Stuart Mill illustrates a stage in the slide toward left-liberalism. Mill was a genuine classical liberal, concerned with removing interferences with individual freedom. He was an early feminist, urging that women should have fully as much control as men over their own persons and property. His On Liberty is a classic defense of the individual’s right to act as he wishes, even mistakenly, provided only that he does not infringe on the rights of others. He championed freedom of speech and controversy and freedom even from pressures to conform to general opinion; he valued eccentricity. On Liberty urged the benefits of private enterprise and the spirit of innovation.

In the last chapter of his Principles of Political Economy, a chapter entitled “Of the Grounds and Limits of the Laisser-faire or Non-Interference Principle,” Mill reviews the various arguments against extending the scope of government. Still, he considers how government intervention might enhance freedom. He distinguishes between two types. One is “authoritative interference” — requiring or forbidding private actions. A second type, alternative to commands and penalties, includes giving information and advice. But the scope for intervention, as imagined by Mill, is much wider.

Liberalism meant action. The ideal of change toward increased freedom and modernity drifted into accepting change almost for its own sake.

Mill wants to free individuals from finding their future selves bound by very long-term contracts. He would accept intervention when the consumer has inadequate knowledge of the market or is unable to judge the desirability or quality of some good or service, education perhaps being an example. Intervention might be justified when some persons exercise power over others, as over children and animals. The government might intervene to remedy defects of delegated decisions or management, as by giving shareholders more power over the companies they own. Intervention might help give effect to the desires of the persons concerned, as when, for example, workers might want shorter hours but could hardly demand them individually rather than collectively. Mill sees a case for public alongside private charity. Government might properly regulate or own such natural monopolies as gas and water. It might pursue any object of general interest in default of private action — roads, docks, harbors, canals, irrigation, hospitals, schools and colleges, a national bank, a manufactory, a postal service, an established church. (He even mentions printing presses!) Private alternatives would not be banned; private and public education might exist alongside each other. Government should regulate the colonization of new lands (e.g., Australia). In general, government might undertake any beneficial activities that private agencies would find unprofitable; it could support what are now called positive externalities. Mill’s example was voyages of geographical or scientific exploration; nowadays we might think of the space program.

Earlier in his Principles (Book II, Chapter I), Mill expressed some interest in and even sympathy for socialism in some sense or other. The decision between it and the present system of private property “will probably depend mainly on one consideration, viz. which of the two systems is consistent with the greatest amount of human liberty and spontaneity” (Ashley edition, 1929, p. 210). “It is for experience to determine how far or how soon any one or more of the possible systems of community property will be fitted to substitute itself for the ‘organization of industry’ based on private ownership of land and capital. . . . [However,] the object to be principally aimed at, in the present stage of human improvement, is not the subversion of the system of individual property, but the improvement of it, and the full participation of every member of the community in its benefits” (pp. 216–217). Thus, even Mill’s interest in (though not commitment to) socialism reflected his concern for individuality and personal freedom and opportunity.

I get the impression from his Principles that Mill’s acceptance of intervention and his interest in socialism were rather reluctant. He wanted to serve and enhance the autonomy and effectiveness of the individual; personal freedom was his touchstone, but he thought that wise government guidance could enhance it. He wanted to give a fair shake to doctrines or practices that he himself may have contemplated only reluctantly or tentatively.

Like Mill, Thomas Hill Green (1836–1882) exemplifies the drift (especially in his lecture on “Liberal Legislation and Freedom of Contract”; see also the Wikipedia entries on Green and on “Social Liberalism”). He was a philosopher, adherent of the Liberal Party, political radical, temperance campaigner, and prominent figure among those, also including L.T. Hobhouse and John A. Hobson, who became known as the New Liberals. These men used the classical language of liberalism in support of state intervention in economic, social, and cultural life. Green favored factory legislation for safety and health, restrictions on child and women’s labor, public schools, reform of inheritance of land, protection of tenant farmers against arbitrary landlords, and restrictions on the sale of alcohol. He defended such interventions against the objection that they impair freedom of contract.

In distinguishing between negative freedom and positive freedom, Green made a now notorious play on words. He called the latter “true freedom,” charitably interpreted to mean individuals’ efficacy in pursuing their own interests and in political participation. Sir Isaiah Berlin made the same distinction in his “Two Concepts of Liberty” (1958), but he did so to warn against the equivocation involved.

Even Mill’s interest in (though not commitment to) socialism reflected his concern for individuality and personal freedom and opportunity.

John Maynard Keynes, member of the Liberal Party in Britain, was arguably a figure in the leftward drift. At least two schools of interpretation of his General Theory demonstrate the ambiguity of his position. One school stresses his evident appreciation of private property and a market economy; he had no particular quarrel with how the price system allocates resources. Writing during the Great Depression of the 1930s, however, he did worry about a persistent tendency toward lack of enough total demand to maintain prosperity with full employment. That defect could be remedied rather straightforwardly by monetary policy and especially by government fiscal policy, both without detailed control over the allocation of labor and other resources. On this interpretation, Keynes remained basically a classical liberal. The rival interpretation sees him as a meddlesome interventionist, or worse. It takes literally some of his stray remarks, such as his comment about the “socialization of investment,” as if he meant more than policy to stimulate enough investment to absorb otherwise excess saving — as if he did envision widespread government ownership of the means of production — in a word, socialism. Actually, he did not go that far.

The Oxford Liberal Manifesto of 1947/1948, written by Salvador de Madariaga and adopted by delegates from 19 countries, also illustrates how classical liberalism became stretched. Unsurprisingly, it urges protecting the standard freedoms and enhancing the several components of political liberty. But it goes further. Its concern for the freedom and wellbeing of persons extends to education; security from the hazards of sickness, unemployment, disability, and old age; and continuous betterment of conditions of employment and housing. Economic freedom must be protected from monopolies and cartels. “The welfare of the community must prevail and must be safeguarded from the abuse of power by sectional interests” (Wikipedia entry and text of the Manifesto).

So the Manifesto almost welcomes myriad detailed interventions. It allows politicians opportunities to perceive or invent ills that their legislation and regulation might remedy. In H.L. Mencken’s much quoted exaggeration, “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” As if to illustrate Mencken’s point, a recent call-in session on C-SPAN recognizes appropriate federal government concern about . . . bedbugs.

The word “liberal” in the sense of left-liberal is (or was until quite recently) accepted gladly, and even as a self-congratulatory term, by American adherents of that political persuasion; and most do so use it still. However, many conservative politicians and commentators, such as Rush Limbaugh, have come to use it as a pejorative. Thus even conservatives join in perverting the unmodified word to mean incessant leftward change.

International Usage

This drift toward perverting the word has not occurred, however, in all writings and all countries. In some English-speaking countries outside the United States (Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom), usage of the term “liberal” seems to be complicated by their having thus-named Liberal (or Liberal Democratic) political parties. But in the UK, anyway, the classical usage still seems to prevail. The London Economist does routinely and unambiguously so use the word. For example, its issue of 16–22 October 2010 hails Mario Vargas Llosa, winnner of the Nobel Prize for literature, as “A Latin American Liberal”: “His liberalism is universal, inspired by such thinkers as Karl Popper and Isaiah Berlin.” In most other countries and languages, also, “liberal” means classical advocacy of a free-market economy; personal rights, liberties, and responsibilities; equality before the law; and a democratic element in limited government.

Liberal policies could plausibly drift into left-liberal interventionism, as I have argued, without any sharp break point bringing a change in terminology. But why did the change of meaning occur mainly in the United States while “liberal” retains its classical meaning in so many foreign countries? Well, in some developing countries where free markets and democratic politics have not yet fully emerged, classical free-market liberalism may still be only an aspiration of an intellectual minority and not yet an actuality subject to being democratically corrupted by organized interests; the process described by Mancur Olsen in his Rise and Decline of Nations (1982) has not yet taken hold. But this mere conjecture leaves unsolved the puzzle of why “liberal” or “liberalism” does indeed retain its classical meaning in many countries outside the United States.

As if to illustrate Mencken’s point, a recent call-in session on C-SPAN recognizes appropriate federal government concern about bedbugs.

But it does. Evidence follows. The Atlas Foundation, founded by Sir Antony Fisher and now headquartered in the United States, is an umbrella organization for classical-liberal programs and thinktanks around the world. Atlas lists many dozens of them that it supports or that cooperate with it. I tried to find all of these web sites (and also found a few others). Unsurprisingly, most by far of the American thinktanks use “liberal” or “liberalism,” if at all, in the American leftist sense. In other countries, also, by no means do all or even most of the free-market thin tanks explicitly label themselves “liberal” either by their names or in their homepage self-descriptions. That is understandable. They may not want to risk frightening away potential supporters by one explicit label. They do, however, express sympathy with the tenets of classical liberalism, which they review.

Yet some do explicitly name themselves. Examples include Club Liberal (Spain), Unión Liberal Cubana (located in Spain), Instituto Liberal (Brazil), Instytut Liberalno-Konserwtywny (Poland), Liberaljnaja Missija (Russia), Association for Liberal Thinking (Turkey), Center for Liberal-Democratic Studies (Serbia), Centre for Liberal Strategies (Bulgaria), Liberal Group (India), Liberal Network Europe (Bulgaria), Liberales Institut (Switzerland), Libertarni Klub (Slovenia), Eurolibnetwork (France), Liberal Youth Forum (India), and Red [Network] Liberal de América Latina (16 countries).

Tanks describing though not actually naming themselves as liberal include Free Market Center (Serbia), Free Market Foundation of Southern Africa (South Africa), Fundación para el Análisis y los Estudios Sociales (Spain), Institut Constant de Rebecque (Switzerland), Institut Turgot (France), Institute for Development and Social Initiatives “Viitorul” (Moldova), Institute for Economic Studies Europe (France), Instituto de Ciencia Política (Colombia), Instituto de Estudos Empresariais (Brazil), Instituto Liberdade (Brazil, formerly named Instituto Liberal do Rio Grande do Sul), Istituto Acton (Italy), Istituto Bruno Leoni (Italy), Liberté Chérie (France), Mont Pelerin Society (international), Prague Security Studies Institute (Czech Republic), Center for Political Studies (Denmark), Centre for Independent Studies (Australia). The Centre for Civil Society (India) straightforwardly calls itself “liberal,” as in announcing a “Colloquium on the Indian Liberal Tradition” and issuing invitations to the 2011 regional meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society, whose theme would be “India as a Global Power: Practicing Liberal Values at Home and Abroad.”

In addition, many of the tanks not explicitly so naming their philosophy do present articles or other content using the word “liberal” (or “liberalism”) in the classical sense. Examples include Andes Libres Asociación Civil (Peru), Center for Free Enterprise (Korea), Center for Institutional Development (Romania), Centro de Investigación y Estudios Legales (Peru), Centro para la Apertura y el Desarrollo de América Latina (Argentina), Education Forum (New Zealand), Eudoxa AB (Sweden), F.A. Hayek Foundation (Slovakia), Free Market Center (Serbia), Fundación Pensar (Argentina), Imani Center for Policy and Education (Ghana), Instituto de Libre Empresa (Peru), Free Market Center (Serbia and Montenegro).

Why did the change of meaning occur mainly in the United States while “liberal” retains its classical meaning in so many foreign countries?

Many institutions indicate their orientation by naming themselves after classical liberals. A list, partially overlapping the preceding ones, includes: John Locke Foundation (US), Locke Institute (US), James Madison Institute (US) Henry Hazlitt Foundation (US, now dissolved), Alexis de Tocqueville Institution (US), Bastiat Institute (US), Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation (US), Istituto Bruno Leoni (Italy), Adam Smith Institute (UK), Adam Smith Society (Italy), Adam Smith Centre (Poland), David Hume Institute (UK), Institut Turgot (France), Institut Constant de Rebecque (Switzerland), Fundación José Ortega y Gasset (Spain), many named after F.A. Hayek (Austria, Slovakia, Russia, Germany, Canada), and many named after Ludwig von Mises (US, Belarus, Belgium, Mexico, Argentina, Russia, Brazil, Romania, El Salvador, Czech Republic, Slovakia).

Conclusion

It is understandable how change in the liberalizing direction might have gained momentum and drifted into change valued almost as itself. But where should an originally admirable drift stop? It is odd that continual change through legislation and bureaucratic regulation, however democratically adopted, should be made a philosophical ideal. Political philosophy might better present a stable vision of the good society, one in which individuals can successfully pursue their own goals in life in peaceful and productive cooperation with others through trade and otherwise.

A stable society does not mean stagnation. A stable political framework does not obstruct — it fosters — an environment of progress in science, technology, and culture, a rising standard of living, and a widening of people’s opportunities.

Reclaiming the word “liberal” in its classical and international sense will help clarify discussion of such issues. Instead of outright and confusingly reversing how the word “liberal” is commonly used in the United States, qualifying it as “left” serves clarity.“Left” is not an abusive term employed instead of argument; it describes but does not in itself evaluate. Conceivably left-liberals are correct about the issues that concern them. Furthermore, they typically regard being politically somewhat to the left of center as the moral, humane, compassionate, and progressive position. In the many parliaments where the seating pattern distinguishes between left and right, delegates seated on the left are not ashamed of sitting there.

Two alternatives to the terminological rescue that I suggest come to mind. The left-liberals might be renamed “progressives.” Some of them call themselves that already; and some conservatives, such as Glenn Beck, even use “progressive” as a term of abuse. However, the word already names a specific policy stance in early 20th-century America. Furthermore, it concedes an undeserved terminological advantage to the “progressives,” as if they were for progress and their opponents were against it.

Or classical liberals might give up, concede the unqualified term “liberal” to their opponents, and call themselves “libertarians.” But one might plausibly distinguish between libertarians and classical liberals. I sometimes say, only half in jest, that libertarianism is classical liberalism for children, while classical liberalism is libertarianism for adults.

Most briefly, explicitly distinguishing between left and classical liberalism will promote clarity in discussion, particularly when international usage is taken into account.




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NewsBiscuit recently reported that in the wake of Wikileaks revelations, the truth has finally been admitted: "The 'French language' is indeed a one thousand year old hoax. The president of France revealed that what purported to be his native tongue was in fact complete gibberish, admitting the French really speak English, except in the presence of the British."

Here are my comments about this terrible revelation.

It’s a wonder the hoax lasted so long, the deceit was so transparent and so unsophisticated. Take the alleged French word for “table,” for example. It’s simply: “table.” They did not bother to change even a single letter. Or take the supposed French word for “intelligence.” It’s just the regular word “intelligence” pronounced in an affected and effeminate way.

Only once in a while did the French make even a small effort to appear to have their own distinctive language. So, for example, they took the English word “connoisseur” and made it “connaisseur,” turning an "o" into an "a" in the middle of the word to try to trip up the unaware and the naïve. Frequently, they just added an "e" at the end of a normal word in a paltry attempt to appear different. This goes, for example, for the longest word in the alleged French language, “anticonstitutionalisme,” which shows with pathetic clarity that it’s simply pseudo-English.

To be completely fair, the engineers of the hoax of a distinctive French language managed two clever defenses that retarded significantly the unavoidable uncovering of their treachery. I refer here to “irregular verbs” and to so-called “false friends.”

Every young American, or Englishman, or Australian, who was ever forced to learn the French “language” first went through an obligatory period of intimidation. They were all told that they had to master “irregular verbs,” like this: “je vais, j’irai, j’allais, [que] j’aille.” (I go, I will go, I used to go, that I go). They were all told of the three hundred verbs like this that they must master without fail. Naturally, as you would expect, all those young people quickly became discouraged. And, of course, their mass failure only served to reinforce, over time, the myth of a separate French language. The French themselves have never heard of such barbarity. In private, they used words like you and I (“you and me”?).

The second obstacle placed in the paths of students, the so-called “false friends,” was thrown at random into the pseudo-language by the perpetrators. Thus, “deception” means “disappointment,” “entree” means “hors-d’oeuvre,” and the old English word “mercy” was robbed of its final "y" and replaced with an "i." Then they tell you it means only “Thank you” in their pretend-language.

Had we been more observant, we would have uncovered the deception much earlier, noting the curious lack of certain words, in the imaginary French language. Thus, it has no word for “fun” and, on the Internet, it uses “LOL” to mean exactly “LOL.”

We were had. Dommage!




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