Our Ideologically Biased Language

CAPITALISM1000-500x333From Barack Obama to Pope Francis, the subject of “income inequality” has been rolling off of the tongues of some of the planet’s most visible figures over the last couple of weeks.  The former went so far as to describe as it as “the defining challenge of our time.”

In his book, The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism, F.A. Hayek reminds us of this pearl of wisdom from Confucius: “‘When words lose their meaning, people will lose their liberty.’” 

The words surrounding this topic of “income inequality” need to be meticulously reconsidered (if they’ve been considered at all).

Capitalism,” for example, as Hayek notes, was invented by German academic and self-described “convinced Marxist,” Werner Sombart.  Friedrich Engels commended Sombart on being the only German professor to have achieved a genuine understanding of Marx’s Das Kapital.

“Capitalism” conjures, and is meant to conjure, an image of a consciously designed system intended to serve the interests of a minority—the owners of capital—at the expense of the overwhelming majority of us—the laborers.  Clearly, the word itself cooks the case against such a system.

Free market economy” is also problematic in that it implies the existence of something that exists over and above the sum total of the countless transactions of the billions of individual human beings that comprise it.  It is not “the market” that determines the price of a product. Rather, product prices are the function of patterns formed by untold numbers of people freely seeking the satisfaction of their needs and wants.

Free enterprise system” is another common term not without its challenges. It is better than both “capitalism” and “free market economy,” it is true, but it still suggests a premeditated system designed to marshal all agents into the service of one grand enterprise, the realization of a “unitary hierarchy of ends,” as Hayek characterized it.  Plus, with the word “enterprise” in its name, such a system sounds as if it is for the benefit of entrepreneurs—and most people don’t see themselves as entrepreneurs.

Distribution,” as has been long remarked upon, is as misleading as any a term when it comes to describing the property arrangements of a free association of human beings (a “free society”).   This nefarious word is meant to have us think that there is some agent or committee of agents responsible for divvying up shares of money from some preexistent pile and distributing them, arbitrarily, to the rest of us: some get more, some get less.

Of course, this is a gross, indeed, a childish, misunderstanding of how income comes about in the real world—even in societies whose governments aren’t self-divided like that under which Americans live.  No government has one red penny that it hasn’t extracted from someone who first earned it.

There is one final term that liberty’s apostles must challenge.  Interestingly, to my knowledge, no one has yet to mention this point, but there is none that is as crucial as this.

It is imperative that liberty lovers stop referring to “income inequality” as if there is any sense to it, for “inequalities” in income are nothing more or less than differences in income.

Between any two human beings all manner of differences can be found.  Among large numbers of human beings the differences promise to be staggering, and when those human beings make their dwelling in a “free society,” their differences from one another will be infinite.  Ironically, it is just those who insist upon the moral imperative of rectifying differences in income who otherwise are admonishing us to celebrate our differences, or our “diversity.”

And this is one reason why they will never abandon the word “inequality” in favor of the more honest term of “difference” when speaking of differences in income.  Yet there is another.

“Equality”—equality before God and/or under the law—has been a moral ideal in the West for centuries, at least since the dawn of Christianity.  This ideal has enjoyed a particularly privileged position in the American imagination since the founding. The champions of “redistribution” exploit this fact by assuming, a priori, that differences in income are violations of the moral ideal of equality.  That is, they assume that income differences are “inequalities” and, thus, immoral.

That this is their strategy can be seen from the fact that, to paraphrase a respondent to another one of my pieces, differences in the price of labor (income) are treated as “inequalities” to be rectified while differences in the prices of other goods never are even remarked upon.  We never hear about “price inequality.” We never hear about how unjust it is that individual pencils cost but pennies to purchase while a brand new Mercedes cost tens and tens of thousands of dollars.

For far too long, liberty’s defenders have subtly reinforced the position of their opponents by using the latter’s terms.  It is high time that we recognize—and call out—these terms for the ideological devices that they are.

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  • Fred Glass

    Wouldn’t it have avoided confusion & fuzzy thinking if in the Declaration of Independence after the sentence: “We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal…..” the clause, before the law, was added. Wonder why the statement was left so ambiguous.

    • PhillipGaley


      Well, if to borrow meaning from the article, in that age, the sight of physical differences i.e. economic position, born estate, education, freehold vs slavery, being plain and in affect on every hand—witness for instance that, Chas Dickens had not yet begun writing—in the logic of discussion, then, evidently, that phrase was there chosen because it was to be understood in the larger sense of life. And today, I and very many others accept it so, continuing differences in born estate, educational achievement, economic position, religious inspiration and so on, notwithstanding to alter the fact of valid use of the term

      And yet again, and from our own perspective, although you and I are different, the term comprehends that difference in a way which is fair for the reason that, ultimately, there is a G0D who as The Great Equalizer, is able to set such valuation and final assessment such that, in the true and meaningful sense, it will then be seen that, yes, we were actually created as equals. In a word, while “created” points to The Creator, there, their use of “equal” does, too.

    • tagalog

      The statement “… that all men are created equal…” seems quite plain to me. It obviously has nothing to do with the notion that all men must wind up equal.

      The reference in the operative document, the supreme law of the land, the Constitution, is that all people present in the United States (or on U.S. territory) have the right to equal protection of the law. It’s the law that is at fault in that regard, to the extent that it provides for equality of result.

      • Leland64

        Equality? I want to be the point guard for the Bulls – sorry. I am an old white guy. How about this? – Affirmative action for non- blacks in the NFL and the NBA. Why do all those black guys step up and perform so well? Discrimination? Us Whites, Asians, Mexicans are mostly not NFL, NBA quality. The under performing, regardless of race, never have a chance. The best performers play while the rest of us watch on TV.

        • tagalog

          Let everybody be at liberty to do what he pleases within the boundaries of the law, which applies equally to everyone, and let the equalities and the inequalities emerge as they may.

    • gray_man

      The only fuzzy thinking here Fred, is yours.
      The sentence was quite clear.
      I suggest you look up “ambiguous” in the dictionary. It doesn’t mean what you think it means.

    • gray_man

      The only fuzzy thinking here Fred, is yours.
      The statement is quite clear.
      Get a dictionary and look up “ambiguous”. It does not mean what you think it means.

  • tagalog

    The one English term that can be employed to rebut the claim that the English language contains terms that lend themselves to Leftist ideology (the English language also contains terms that can be used for right-wing ideology, and all other languages have the same capability), is the term “equality of opportunity” as opposed to “equality of result.” Those terms are readily and easily distinguishable, in English as well as in all other languages. You just have to think for 30 seconds.

  • Texas Patriot

    Great, great article. It is clear that most Western industrialists who call themselves capitalists have no idea that they are already conceding that what they are doing is immoral and contrary to the best interests of humanity. Adam Smith did not call his ground-breaking treatise “The Capital of Individuals and Corporations”, rather he called it “The Wealth of Nations”, and that is the correct formulation.

  • http://libertyandculture.blogspot.com/ Jason P

    The proper word for our disposition is liberal. It’s an honorable word that goes back to Roman times and refers to everything proper to a free man. Many classical liberals in the 1950s wanted to retain the word. It’s sad that conservatives allowed this honorable term to be hijacked by socialists and other paternalistic creeds.

    I still use the word in phrases like “liberal society,” “liberal order,” and even “liberal economy.” Not once have I found a conservative confused by my usage. It bothers social democrats to hear “liberal” applied to the economic sphere with the implication that their creed is illiberal. That’s more of a reason for us to revive the original usage.

    PS Read Hayak’s appendix in “The Constitution of Liberty” on the word “conservative.”

  • carltjohnson

    Ok…This is raw, but here it goes. How about this:
    We are all equal to EXPERENCE the CONSEQUENCES of our choices according to one’s ability, wants, desires, just laws and the marketplace of society.
    Does that cover it all without surface level misunderstanding?

  • http://libertyandculture.blogspot.com/ Jason P

    Jack, one pattern common to your analysis of all the terms (aside from capitalism) is the very collectivist and paternalist nature of the terminology. Whether one is talking about the economy as a whole or a system of economics or so-called material inequality, the analysis is inherently utilitarian in its analysis of the outcome for society as a whole.

    In that regard the left’s concepts are inherently concern with what is known as “distributional justice.” This is the idea that some a priori outcome is the proper criteria for justice and, by implication, some paternalistic guidance is required. Even utilitarian theories of free markets or free enterprise by our friends on the right justify liberty as a privilege, conditional on “the greatest good for the greatest number” or “as long as it contributes to elevating the poorest” etc. Ultimately case-by-case utilitarianism undermines liberty as people tend find rationalizations for having one’s neighbor’s wealth redistributed to one’s own account.

    As opposed to “distributional justice” is “commutative justice.” The right means of acquisition and securing the fruits of one’s labor become the main concerns. Man is an actor, not a passive recipient. He cultivates his productive ability, applies practical reason to his affairs, creates wealth for others as a means of earning his keep, and respects the sovereignty of his fellow citizens. He thrives and passionately values other honest and productive individuals. That this has led to the most prosperous nation on such a vast scale is a derivative matter that to be expected in the nature of the thing. But that outcome never becomes the a priori criteria. Each and every individual is an end, not a means.

  • A Z

    “‘When words lose their meaning, people will lose their liberty.’” – Confucius

    That fits so well with 1984 & Newspeak

    Orwell must have read some Confucius’ work, but how much?

    If not, then the truth must be self evident to great minds when they consider a subject after a time.

  • popseal

    Assaulting the language by impregnating dark meanings into common words is a propagandist’s tactic as old as dirt. Shallow unthinking herd animals looking for a free lunch will buy their lies every time. As long as the general population is waiting for a bureaucrat to make its life better, the verbal claptrap will continue.

  • tagalog

    Consider the mainstream nature of the idea that (as one example among many) women earn less than men; then consider the polls that find that 80% of Americans think women and men earn about the same for doing the same job.

    There is a cognitive disconnect at work here. People have been propagandized into swallowing what Orwell characterized as Doublethink.

  • Jakareh

    Instead of “capitalism”, we should say “a free economy”, as in, “I’m not in favor of type of socialism, I support a free economy.” Done!