All Commentary
Friday, January 1, 1993

Is Freedom an Antiquated Term?

“Subsidy” and other concepts are undergoing subtle semantic changes.


Mrs. Moore is a freelance writer in Santa Rosa, California.

Some of George Orwell’s memorable insights in the novel 1984 concern the power of language. The function of New-speak was not merely to express ideas but to manipulate them so that freedom would come to mean slavery and ultimately to be embraced willingly as such.

It would seem that much subtle manipulation of language is going on today. In a world that seems to be rejecting Communism and questioning its partner socialism, the purveyors of collective social and economic theories are still vigorously proselytizing their vision of a brave new world. Though the message is not being proclaimed in terms as blunt as “class conflict,” “equal distribution of wealth,” “centralized economic planning,” or “dictatorship of the proletariat,” the collective meaning inherent in these expressions is being shifted to other more acceptable words and phrases.

An example of this subtle linguistic mutation is the word “subsidy.” The dictionary meaning is straightforward: a grant of money by the government to a private enterprise to effect public benefit. The implication is that the government first takes part of the wealth of all taxable individuals, and then distributes it to private entities to perform some service from which ostensibly all those individuals will benefit, e.g., police protection, garbage collection, or street sweeping. What is important here is the implication that the wealth being transferred is first private wealth belonging to the citizens who earned it, and only after taxation does it then become government wealth.

How is the word “subsidy” being transformed before our eyes? Let me give you an example: The newspaper in my medium-sized California city features a columnist who is ostensibly a “spokesperson” for modern feminism of the leftist variety. No, she doesn’t indulge in rabid, hate-all-things-masculine-and-[wo]man-the-barricades prose, but her very reasonableness and low-key style make her use of language an important barometer of leftist thought.

In a recent article she aimed her guns at the inaccurate stereotype of the welfare mother who lives “high on the hog” with public money. Her particular example was that of a woman whose husband had left her just before the birth of their fourth child. The gist of the article was that public assistance helped this woman keep her family together and allowed her ultimately to attend law school and become an attorney.

The ex-welfare mother attorney was interviewed in the article and described the demeaning way in which the welfare office had treated her and other mothers on public assistance. Along with the benefits she had received, she described the roadblocks which the bureaucracy had placed in the way of anyone trying desperately to get off welfare, how eligibility workers were more fond of pushing people into low-paying dead-end jobs than into higher paying professions. Neither the columnist nor the attorney advocated scrapping the system. In good socialist fashion they placed the blame upon an unfeeling public which nurses the unfair stereotype and which rails at the system’s obvious waste and inefficiency.

The last paragraph of the article reveals the subtle shift in thought which has given new meaning to the word “subsidy.” The attorney contrasted the welfare mother on $600 a month of government money to a “wealthy businessman” who “doesn’t have to pay taxes.” In her mind the latter situation is “the same as being subsidized.” She ended the article with the attorney’s comment, “Who do you want to give your money to?”

Obviously, the article writer was not above allowing the stereotype of the wealthy businessman to aid her in her crusade to reverse an unjust stereotype of the welfare mother. Neither was she above using a brand of Newspeak in drawing the conclusion that the welfare check and the tax write-off are both government subsidies.

There is only one premise that would support the notion that these are one and the same and that “your” money is being given to the businessman as well as to the welfare recipient. That premise is that all wealth, regardless of how it is generated or by whom, first belongs to the state, a blatantly collectivist idea dear to every Marxist visionary.

If this notion is becoming part of the accepted definition of subsidy, then we must wonder what other concepts are undergoing subtle semantic changes. Is it possible that freedom of speech will become freedom to use only socially correct words and phrases? Could the right to ply one’s trade become a privilege licensed by the government? Could the term “private enterprise” come to mean licensure, government franchise, and state monopoly? Could the right to own private property come to signify a privilege granted by the sovereign state on condition of approved use and the payment of taxes? Could independence come to mean need? Could freedom come to mean slavery? Does it already?