MADISON, WI, May 19, 2013 – The communication of ideas in our world takes place primarily through language—both written and spoken. Over time, language inevitably changes, either intentionally or accidentally. Words assume alternate and sometimes unrelated meanings. In no other area of society is this distortion of language both as profound and as unnoticed as in the realm of politics.
From the thinking of philosophers to the tinkering of public officials, from party platforms to campaign speeches, the amazing abilities of language cannot be overestimated. Rulers and those seeking to rule can convey passion and patriotism; they can deceive their countrymen and lead entire populations to dark places they never knew existed. A totalitarian’s most frequently used means of control, wrote F.A. Hayek, include “the complete perversion of language,” and “the change of the meaning of words.”
One of the grossest language perversions has been the besmirchment of the word “liberal.” Especially in the United States, “liberal” now possesses a meaning entirely different than—and in many ways, diametrically opposed to—its meaning of an earlier time. In Liberalism, Ludwig von Mises, a self-described liberal, demonstrated that the entire liberal school of thought is extrapolated from the notion of private property rights.
It was the liberals who gave us foreign policies of nonintervention and the ideas of laissez-faire capitalism. Indeed, everything that is deemed necessary for the proliferation of freedom and liberty is liberal. Nowadays, as any remote observer of politics will recognize, the term has acquired connotations that imply the approximate opposite of its original meaning. In the aforementioned treatise on the matter, which was written during the interwar period, Mises lamented that “almost all who call themselves ‘liberals’ today decline to profess themselves in favor of private ownership…and advocate measures partly socialist.” Alas, “liberal” has been irreclaimably expropriated by Leftists.
The history of the political term “equality” is also one mired in manipulation. The classical liberal conception of equality had absolutely nothing to do with perfect or innate equality. Rather, given individual differences and varying talents and deficiencies, “equality” stressed equal treatment under the law. No special privileges or hindrances. But as of late, “equality” has become synonymous with “egalitarianism”—two notions that hardly imply the same thing. The new “equality” requires that both special privileges and hindrances be applied to certain and necessarily arbitrarily-selected groups of people (e.g., redistribution and transfer of wealth, affirmative action, etc.) in order to make people equal, rather than treat people equally. Thus, from equal means with possibly unequal ends to unequal means with ostensibly equal ends has the political definition of “equality” been transformed.
Reclamation of the originally intended meaning of the aforementioned terms, if attempted, may prove to be a lost cause. The futility or usefulness of any such attempts would most likely be quite different from term to term, depending on how entrenched the distorted meaning has become. A more prudent course of action may be to try to prevent the further degeneration and distortion of political language. As far as current attempts at distortion are concerned, at least one word comes to mind: the assault on the term “libertarian” is quite in vogue.
Nevertheless, hesitation before using certain terminology can be a good thing. For whenever a label such as “libertarian” is applied to a person or an idea (either by oneself or someone else), people stop listening. If the audience finds the label palatable, then the whole person or idea underneath the umbrella of that label will be viewed favorably; similarly, if the audience does not favor the label, then everything to which it is applied will be seen in a negative light. The avoidance of political labels forces an audience to listen much more keenly to one’s nuanced positions on various issues.
In the end, though, in the interest of fostering intellectually honest political discourse, individual awareness is perhaps more important than anything. Inevitably, language will be the victim of manipulation and distortion over time. Political terms—liberal, equality, libertarian, and numerous others—are some the casualties of this unfortunate phenomenon. But knowledge of all meanings and connotations—old and new, explicit and implicit—of each and every term can, in part, palliate the problem.
Joseph S. Diedrich also writes for the MacIver Institute, The College Fix, Young Americans for Liberty, LibertyBlog.org, and in Young American Revolution magazine. Find him on Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn and Twitter @JSDiedrich.
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