Taking Back the Language
[This is the second of a regular column by Walter Block, senior scholar of the Mises Institute, professor of economics at the University of Central Arkansas, and author of Defending the Undefendable, a brilliant application of economic logic to everyday problems and political issues. You can read Professor Block's vita here]
In my last column, I claimed that language was important in the ideological battle for the free society. If we allow our "friends" on the statist left to seize the linguistic high ground, we make the battle more difficult for ourselves. We must use words which help us make the case for laissez faire capitalism, not those insisted upon by the other side. Let us now continue this process of "deconstructing" language to these ends with some more examples.
This phrase is uttered with an attitude of disgust. The implication is that wealth is always attained illegitimately.
This of course is sometimes true, but certainly not always. That is, there are indeed illicit methods of attaining riches, such as through theft, or Murder Inc., or fraud, or in a myriad of other ways which violate the libertarian axiom of non aggression against non aggressors, and upon the rights to person and property upon which it is based.
But the usual targets of this loathsome epithet are not crooks or killers; nor are the overwhelming majority of wealthy people thieves.
Rather, the targets are businessmen who have earned vast wealth by enriching the lives of their customers. The presumption, then, is that if a person is well to do, he came by his possessions honestly. Instead of denigrating the rich we ought to hold ticker tape parades in their honor.
And we ought to consider using the counterpart phrase "filthy poor," not to depict those who through no fault of their own are impoverished, but rather those, the "undeserving poor" of an earlier era, who are able bodied, but do little to help themselves, and everything they can to pull the rest of us down to their level.
Properly used, this term applies to those who have been given special advantages denied to the ordinary person. In olden days, this word would be used, for example, to describe to a guild member who could engage in commerce prohibited to those who were not so privileged.
Nowadays, "privileged" would well apply to the beneficiaries of government imposed affirmative action; these people are given contracts, jobs, admission to university, etc., denied to others with identical and even superior qualifications, but with the wrong skin color, gender or sexual proclivities.
But this is not at all the way the word is used in the modern benighted epoch by our leftish pundits, teachers, clergy, and editorialists. Instead, this word is employed to the children of the rich.
"This child comes from a wealthy family in Scarsdale," it is said. "He is privileged."
But this is nonsense on stilts. As long as the parents of the Scarsdale child earned their money honestly, their children were given no unfair advantage. Using "privileged" to refer only to the children of the affluent is just another way of asserting that wealth is per se exploitative.
This, however, is Marxist claptrap, and ought to be dismissed out of hand. We might as well denigrate as "privileged" all children of loving parents, because these kids have a benefit not enjoyed by the victims of child abuse.
According to the arbiters of language down at the friendly revenue office, earned income stems from labor. In very sharp contrast, "unearned income" is generated from profits, investment, interest, etc.
This is, presumably, because work by the sweat of the brow is noble, uplifting and in the public good, while risking one's capital in order to earn a profit by benefitting consumers is the very opposite.
Since when have the Marxists taken over the IRS? If the USSR could rid itself of its Marxists, can we not do the same for our very own made- in-the-good-old-US-of-A Infernal Revenue Service?
Recently, the flagship publication of the Foundation for Economic Education changed its name from "Freeman" to "Ideas on Liberty." This was reportedly done to distinguish this magazine from a militia organization, which called themselves "The Freemen" and ran afoul of federal law. (For the full story on this group, see Who Are The Freemen?).
But the FEE's Freeman had been publishing for decades. It had long been an honorable periodical, but in this decision it has illustrated exactly what should not be done in the battle of ideas. Surely a better course of action would have been to sue for name infringement.
We must protect our own banners, emblems and heritage, not give them up at the first sign of difficulty. Shall we one day, at this rate, eschew "liberty," "property," "free enterprise," "libertarianism"? We will, if this sort of abnegation becomes a precedent.
There are ultra conservatives, but, amazingly, there are no ultra liberals. Where have all the ultra liberals gone? (To be sung to the tune of the popular anti war song.)
"Ultra" refers to a person with whose ideas the speaker disagrees. That is why Mother Teresa was not ultra generous, but anyone to the right of George Bush becomes an ultra conservative. It is time, it is long past time, to begin a search for ultra liberals under each bed; or, better, to leave off this name calling of ultra, which applies only to one side of the aisle.
It is much the same with the suffix "eer." There are "profiteers," because profits are undoubtedly evil and obnoxious. Ask Fidel, he'll tell you. But there is no such thing as a "wageer," even though the salaries of some of our leading athletes and actors have catapulted upward of late. This is because workers are always downtrodden, never greedy, at least according to the fourth estate.
In a recent column "The Comstocks Try for a Comeback on Long Island", Gregory Bresiger took issue with a group of Irishmen who had planned to burn 700 copies of the book "Angela's Ashes" by Frank McCourt. This is a story of the author's childhood, which does not place Irish culture in a good light.
Bresiger has pulled out all the stops in his opposition. He quotes from Ray Bradbury's novel Fahrenheit 451, and even resorts to a quote from Malachy McCourt, McCourt's brother, concerning this practice in Hitler's Germany. He implies that book burning is but the first step on a path which leads to people burning, intolerance and the "crushing of ideas."
One argument against book burning is that of unintended consequences: those who engage in these acts sometimes only succeed in more heavily popularizing the object of their scorn and hatred. But this hardly justifies called them "hyenas" or "blundering clowns."
Nor is there any justification for calling out the big guns of tolerance, Erasmus, Spinoza, John Stuart Mill and John Milton. For the key, here, ignored by Bresiger, is the distinction between public and private book burning.
With regard to the former, I am in total and enthusiastic support of Bresiger. The government simply has no business burning books, or doing much of anything, for that matter.
However, private book burning, of the sort engaged in by the Irish opponents of Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes" is entirely a different matter. Burning one's own books is part and parcel of private property rights. In opposing private book burning, leaping calumny on the heads of those who engage in this activity, Bresiger is treading on the edge of private property rights violations.
If I own a book, I have a right to burn it. Period. While Bresiger never comes out and states that book burning ought to be illegal, this is strongly suggested by his linkage of this practice to Hitler, hyenas, and people burning.
I wonder what is his view of flag burning? Here, as in book burning, the libertarian position ought to be clear: people have a right to burn or otherwise destroy any of their own private property. Any law prohibiting from doing just that is an illicit one.
Walter Block is professor of economics at the University of Central Arkansas. Send him mail.