Where Is the Language of Liberty?

It is difficult to think critically with words that carry hidden assumptions into our reasoning.

We must not abandon ourselves to a poisonous language that strangles our doubts and numbs our judgment. Instead, we need to cultivate a language that inspires fundamental doubt and unterrified inquiry.

In George Orwell's 1984, the state of Oceania is devising a new language out of the old, pre-revolutionary English: Newspeak. “When Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten,” Orwell wrote, “a heretical thought . . . should be literally unthinkable.” Modern cognitive science provides fascinating evidence for the influence of our language on our thinking. Unlike Oceania's Newspeak, our English is not the result of malicious (re)design. But does it serve us well in thinking clearly and critically about matters of politics and economics?

Language, Culture, and Critical Thinking

The compilers of the Newspeak dictionary in Oceania's “Ministry of Truth” first and foremost purge words for undesirable ideas from the new language. Indeed, it is difficult to think about ideas for which we lack words. Even today, there are Amazonian tribes that do not have words for numbers. People of an anumeric language fail even most simple arithmetical tasks. However, it seems that what they lack is not innate mathematical ability but a mathematical language—and culture—that we just take for granted.

It is difficult to think critically with words that carry hidden assumptions into our reasoning.

Economic thinking needs cultivation no less than mathematical thinking. This means not only developing an adequate terminology but also avoiding a misleading one. Not only is it difficult to think without suitable words, but it is also difficult to think clearly and coolly with ambiguous and emotionally loaded words.

Most of all, it is difficult to think critically with words that carry hidden assumptions into our reasoning. Calling a substance “medicine” means taking for granted that its effects are beneficial without explicitly stating and specifying this crucial premise. Thus, we may fail to even ask the question and start a genuine inquiry.

Order vs. Regulation

This is exactly the case with the term “regulation.” Traffic signs “regulate” the traffic, right? That's what they're supposed to do. But what if they don't? By now, there is ample evidence about the effects of removing all traffic signs from crossroads: fewer casualties and more fluidity. The real effects of such traffic signs are more casualties and less fluidity. Calling them “regulations” is like calling a poisonous substance “medicine.” It is a bad habit bred of ignorance before we have found out about its real effects. It turns into negligence or even fraud after we have.

Only the absence of such “regulation” allows safe and fluid traffic to emerge as a spontaneous order.

A red light hinders people when it would be perfectly safe to go, and a green light entitles them where consideration would be more appropriate. Without the lights, traffic is regulated by criminal and tort law, but most of all by people's desire to avoid accidents and a thousandfold individual on-spot knowledge of how to do so best.

More information is put to use than could be collected and processed in any centrally planned system of traffic signs. Only the absence of such “regulation” allows safe and fluid traffic to emerge as an unanticipated and unintended order of coordination—a spontaneous order.

The Fallacy of Creationism

The same is possible for all kinds of state decrees. Calling them “regulations” presupposes the answer to the very question the economist—and any critical mind—has to ask: What are their effects on the wealth of society? That is to say: the actual effects, not just the intended or declared ones, and all effects, not just the obvious ones, but also those that remain unseen.

The mere word “regulation” carries the creationist fallacy into our thinking, that there cannot be order without design.

In particular, what kind of spontaneous orders do the state decrees prevent from emerging? That which remains unseen is all the harder to imagine if it goes against our gut feeling. But if the task of science is to gain and convey insights that run counter to our gut feelings, its language must not confirm them at the outset of inquiry and instruction.

The mere word “regulation” carries the creationist fallacy into our thinking: the notion that there cannot be order without design. Life, language, customary law, money, and many more natural and social phenomena are all clear evidence to the contrary. The economist who criticizes “too much regulation” uses an anti-scientific language and makes himself sound self-contradictory. Who could be against “more regulation”—against a more regular, orderly, and desirable state of affairs? With the mere word “regulation,” the creationist fallacy is not only conceded but at once embraced and veiled from critical scrutiny.

Suppressing the Ethics of Liberty

Price decrees are a classic example of state interference that defies its real or declared intention. When selling a good above a certain price becomes punishable, the main effect is to impede and discourage its production.

The absence of state legislation by no means implies an absence of rules.

Greater scarcity, longer waiting lines, and even higher prices on the “black market” are the results, from the Pharaohs' Egypt over Nixon's America to Chavez's Venezuela. But calling such state-decreed punishments “price controls,” “ceilings,” “floors,” or “regulations” not only blinds us of these economic consequences but also blinds us of important ethical and legal implications.

The absence of state legislation by no means implies an absence of rules. In the absence of threats of punishment by state decree, prices are regulated by the rules of self-ownership and freedom of contract. These rules provide an extensive and strict legal regime. In particular, they criminalize all sorts of force and fraud. Nobody has the privilege to make offers that cannot be refused. Historical evidence and economic reason suggest that by this principle, a society gets the best offers humanly possible.

Laws and Markets

On these utilitarian grounds, many libertarians advocate “free markets.” But this choice of wording is unfortunate, too. There are markets for stolen goods, slaves, contract killings, and for the decisions of politicians and bureaucrats. What libertarians really advocate are the rules of self-ownership and individual property.

The dynamic process of trial and error, discovery, and cooperation that emerges from the observance of these rules contains much more than what is conveyed by the image of a traditional marketplace. Nor is it helpful to speak of “the market” as an acting being, paralleling the equally delusional image of “society” as some sort of higher collectivist creature.

There are many more instances of loaded and misleading language that is nonetheless accepted across the political map, including the libertarian corner. Consider the term “minimum wage law.” Not only does it obscure the use of force and punishment and falsely suggest that its effects will equal its declared intentions, but the noble and authoritative word of “law” has also experienced an outright perversion of its original meaning when generally applied to state legislation, and not just in the extreme cases of the racist “Jim Crow laws” or the anti-Semitic “Nuremberg laws.”

We are warned by the philologist Victor Klemperer, the crown witness of the corruption of the German language under National Socialism:

Language . . . dictates my feelings and governs my entire spiritual being the more unquestioningly and unconsciously I abandon myself to it. And what happens if the cultivated language is made up of poisonous elements or has been made the bearer of poisons? Words can be like tiny doses of arsenic: they are swallowed unnoticed, appear to have no effect, and then after a little time the toxic reaction sets in after all.

What Does This Warning Mean for Us Today?

By liberty, libertarians understand a domain of individual sovereignty defined by the rules of self-ownership and individual property. They hold that if people act, cooperate, and trade on these ethical and legal premises, the results will by far surpass all forms of coercive central planning, whether under paternalist-authoritarian or democratic-egalitarian justifications and by standards of wealth for which most people would vote for with their feet.

We need to consciously cultivate a language that, in its precision and clarity, inspires fundamental doubt and unterrified inquiry.

To investigate the evidence both for and against the libertarian case, we need a language of precision and clarity in matters of politics and economics; a language that does not already in its vocabulary confuse intentions and results, embrace the fallacies of creationism, and obscure the use of force and punishment. We must not unquestioningly and unconsciously abandon ourselves to a poisonous language that strangles our doubts and numbs our judgment as if it were devised by Oceania's Ministry of Truth.

Instead, we need to consciously cultivate a language that, in its precision and clarity, inspires fundamental doubt and unterrified inquiry. If the case for liberty is sound, then its language is in an economic and social science worthy of the name. For the sake of truth and liberty, let us start speaking that language.

Further Reading

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