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26 May 2010

Plain English Glossary

Plain English Glossary

Often we generate more heat than light because we are reading from different dictionaries. Perhaps nowhere is this more true than in the so-called marketplace of political ideas. Take the word liberal. In terms of what Rush Limbaugh means by liberal, I'm a flaming liberal, while in the sense of what the Economist (magazine) means by liberal, I'm a flaming antiliberal. Then there is the related term 'libertarian,' which somehow during the 20th century (in America, at least) morphed from being (among other things) an anticapitalist movement to being (among not many other things) a laissez-faire capitalist movement. Libertarians in the American sense (henceforth called litas in this blogentry) cherish markets and liberty, while they disparage egalitarianism and collectivism. My own attitudes are largely the opposite, in spite of very real common ground. My purpose here is to provide a small list of words that are especially prone to multiple connotations, and explain my understanding of what they mean, along with my understanding of the litas' understanding of what they mean. I generally prefer to use words in whatever way is most consistent with what the words mean in everyday, non-jargony English.


The pencil-and-paper science called economics conceives of a 'market' as a category of product or service, and that portion of the population who either buy or sell that product or service. This 'market' can be described in terms of a supply curve and a demand curve. It's really all quite abstract. To me, and to many if not most, 'market' is a verb, as in: "In the new economy, you have to market yourself." Market is also, of course, a noun: "I have to go to the market and replenish my supply of cat food." The verb usage of market has the most bearing on my social/political/economic worldview. In my experience, the more 'market oriented' the political climate gets, the harder I have to [expletive deleted] sell, sell, sell myself to get a job offer on the table. I definitely associate market-oriented policy with economic precarity, if not hardship. Maybe that just means I'm a loser, but that's how I feel.


The snarkiest voices among the litas and other rightists frame equality as something that comes in precisely two distinct forms, which they call equality of opportunity and equality or results. The former is possible, if not inherent, in the frictionless plane that is the unfettered market, while the latter is theoretically impossible, and as a stated goal is a symptom of the psychological disorder called sense of entitlement. They love to ridicule it with Diana Moon Glampers jokes or by implying that it implies people being identical. I recognize a third sense of the word equality, characterized by the very widely understood notion of an equal footing. I understand this type of equality to be somewhat broader than the narrow sense of equality of opportunity that seems to imply a society free of de jure privilege. It requires the (to me) more ambitious goal of a society free of de facto advantage. This is in no way equivalent to equality of results.

What does it mean to be on an equal footing with another party? I think most people know intuitively what it means. It means nobody has your head over a barrel. It doesn't mean getting everything on your terms, but it does mean you have enough clout, game, or whatever, to negotiate a compromise in which the other party doesn't, either. Expressions like 'market leverage,' varying degrees of 'duress,' 'boilerplate contracts,' 'getting taken advantage of,' and 'monopoly' are very common figures of speech, even though the litas perform much derivation to demonstrate their theoretical impossibility. Everyone understands what they mean, and that understanding comes from very routine personal experience. Certainly it's possible for the conventional wisdom to be wrong, but I find it to be a more ready guide than theoremsies derived from assumptions such as a universe in which the only economic goods that exist are eggs and root beer.


Litas love liberty (the 'l' in litas stands for libertarian, after all) and they love the word liberty. I love liberty. What self-respecting person doesn't? It turns out that in recent years I have been more and more reluctant to self-identify with liberty. The liberty equals negative liberty meme has been pounded so relentlessly, at least on the Internet, that I've been conditioned to think of liberty as a basically right-of-center concept. People on my side can and should, of course, remind me not to let our adversaries steal our issues and hijack the language in other ways. I agree, but there is some practical value in ceding the field in spite of my better judgement. Navigate down any blogroll infused with blognames like liberty this, liberty that, CamelCaseLiberty, whatever, and you'll find a rogues gallery of the usual suspects; Birchers and other conspiracists, litas, agoraphiles and other FMF's, as well as a bumper crop of Republicans. Including the word 'liberty' in my blog name would simply create the wrong impression, and would put me in company I don't want to be associated with. So, for better or for worse, the colloquial meaning of 'liberty' has successfully been massaged to rightist specifications. This sort of poisoning of a word is not uncommon. The 20th century variety of communism fetishized the word people so much with their people's republics and people's liberation armies, that almost reflexively, seeing a sign that said something like 'People's Pharmacy,' my first thought would be, 'I wonder if it's run by communists.' Likewise with the word family and Bible-based Christians.

What about 'freedom?' To the litas, freedom means nobody is holding a gun to your head. It's become quite a cliché. I think of freedom as 'play,' in the mechanical sense, that is, some part is free to move along more than one axis. Analogous is the mathematical idea of degrees of freedom. In this spirit, freedom of action is far more precious than freedom of expression. Freedom of conscience is more precious than freedom of belief. In Plain English, economic freedom is synonymous with the phrase 'set for life.' To the litas, of course, economic freedom means freedom to fail. At least that freedom is universal. I've been trying to popularize the idea that economic freedom means freedom from economics.


In Plain English, capitalists are people who are in business for themselves. It's a functional, not an ideological, term. Practicing capitalists, in general, don't mind having the government as a customer.


The ultimate dirty word among the litas, it's not really part of everyday English. Perhaps its most widely recognized usage is collective bargaining. 'Individual bargaining,' or negotiating one's own wages (and of course terms of employment) without representation, is asymmetric. The other side has legal representation, as the job application and other signable documents are professionally-drafted boilerplate. It is also important to note that the other side (the employer) is in almost all cases a collective entity.

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