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Watch Your Language

February 21, 2000

Tags Media and Culture

[With this column, Mises.org inaugurates 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]

Language is crucial to clear communication. It
makes distinctions. We can hardly express ourselves without it. Our
very thoughts can either be brought forth, or not, depending upon
whether we have sufficient verbiage with which to attain this end. If the
pen is mightier than the sword because it can determine the direction in
which this weapon is aimed, then words are even mightier than the pen,
for without the former the latter is useless.

Which words have we lost? Which have been thrust down our
throats by the forces of socialism, statist feminism, and political correctness?
What changes are imperative, if we are to even have a chance to turn
things around in a more freedom oriented direction?

Ms.

Mrs. and Miss have been all but taken from us, and we have been
given the execrable
Ms. in their place. This is a crucial loss, for the modern language in this
regard papers over, nay, obliterates, the distinction between the married
and unmarried state for women, while the "archaic" words positively
exult in this distinction. This alteration has become so well
entrenched by the "inclusive" language movement that even some
ostensibly conservative writers and periodicals have adopted it.

Why is this a tragedy? Because it is a disguised attack on the
family. Whether the feminists accept this or not, virtually all
heterosexual bondings are initiated by the male of the species. (There
are good and sufficient sociobiological reasons why this should be the
case). Anything that promotes this healthy and life affirming trend must
be counted as a good; anything that impedes it as a bad. If it is easy to
distinguish between married and unmarried females, male initiative is to
that extent supported; if not, then the opposite.

If unmarried males are
given incentive to approach unmarried females, this supports the
institution of marriage and heterosexuality. To the extent they approach
married women, this not only undermines marriage, one of the main
bulwarks of society, but directly attacks civilization by exacerbating
jealousy and intra male hostility.

Why have the feminists urged Ms. upon us? Ostensibly, because it
is "unfair" to distinguish between women on the basis of marital status,
but not men. If so, then far better to urge the analogous distinction
Mister and Master for married and unmarried men, than to lose that for
women. We live in a complex age; surely any institution which simplifies
it, by costlessly giving us more information, not less, is to be applauded.

But the softening of this distinction between Mrs. and Miss has
implications far removed from any questions of "fairness." This can be
seen by asking "Quo bono" from Ms? Those who benefit from making
single women less available to heterosexual men are homosexual women,
plus all those concerned with the so called overpopulation problem. In
economics, when there are large numbers of people or anything else
involved, it is commonly assumed that at least some are on the margin.

In this case, there are males on the margin between approaching a female
or not, and females on the margin between hetero and homo sexuality.
Ms moves society in the diametric opposite direction from the desirable
in both these dimensions.

One argument against refusing to adopt to this modern consensus is
that people should have the right to choose their own names. If
someone wants to change from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali, or from
Don McCloskey to Dierdre McCloskey, that is their business. Polite
people will refer to them by their chosen not their given names.

But this does not at all apply to titles. If I call myself King Block, or
Emperor Block, no one need follow suit on this out of considerations of
etiquette. Ms. is a title, not the name of any person. When in doubt,
always use Miss, not Mrs. The latter is or at least should be an
honorific, not lightly to be bestowed in ignorance.

And the same analysis applies to using "he" to stand for "he" or
"she", or "him" for "him" or "her." Our writing has become convoluted,
and singular and plural no longer match, in an attempt to defer to the
sensibilities of self styled feminists. There is nothing more pathetic than
a conservative magazine, attempting to score points against a feminist
idea, and yet feeling constrained to use such "inclusive" language.

Could we have as successfully criticized Marxism, had we felt
constrained to couch our attacks in Marxist language?


Developing Countries

It is arrant leftism to call the underdeveloped countries of the world
"developing." This is a triumph of will and good intentions over reality;
many of these countries are retrogressing, not at all developing. Why
not call a spade a spade and insist upon truth in political economy? Let
us reserve the honorific "developing" for those countries which have,
however imperfectly, embraced capitalism and are hence growing, and
use "underdeveloped" or "retrogressing" for those, such as North Korea
or Cuba which still cling to central planning and government ownership,
and as a result are in the process of moving back to the economics of the
Stone Age.

Rent seeking

In the literature of the Public Choice school of economic thought, the
phrase "rent seeking" is used to described what, even for them, is a
rather despicable act: using the power of the state to capture wealth
which would not be forthcoming through ordinary market transactions.
Examples include minimum wages, farm subsidies, tariffs, etc.

But why use the rather innocuous word "rent" to indicate what is
really (indirect) theft? Why not, instead, characterize such acts as loot
seeking, booty seeking, pillage seeking, plunder seeking, swag seeking,
ransack seeking, theft seeking or plain old robbery (via the
intermediation of the government).

This Public Choice practice actually denigrates either one or two
things that go by the same name. One is the ancient and honorable
institution of collecting rent for land, or houses, or other property,
instead of selling them outright. Is there supposed to be something
wrong with being a landlord? The other is the concept of economic rent
which depicts something that has no foregone alternative.

For example,
when the price of Rembrandts increases, this does not call forth an
additional supply of these paintings; their fortunate owners gain an
economic rent. But why should this be denigrated? As a matter of
justice, these particular people made these investments; why should
they not profit from them? And as far as economic efficiency is
concerned, these higher prices still play an allocative role.

To conflate either of these activities with running to government for
special grants of privilege to undermine one's competitors is thus an
unwarranted attack on rational language. With friends like these, the
freedom philosophy hardly needs enemies.

Social Justice

For any rational person, "social justice" would indicate a subset of
justice focused more narrowly that the entire concept on just,
presumably on "social" issues, whatever they are. But in the real word,
this phrase applies not to a subcategory of justice, but rather to one
particular perspective on justice, namely, that articulated by our friends
on the left.

This places opponents of socialism, multiculturalism, etc., in the
position of having to say that they oppose social justice. Wonderful,
just wonderful. Far better to stick to our guns, to attempt to use
language in a way we prefer, rather than have it dictated to us by our
intellectual enemies.

In my view, we, too, should embrace "social justice." However, of
course, instead of taking an egalitarian position on the concept, we
utilize our tried and true insights involving personal and private property
rights, negative liberties, homesteading, etc.

Tax subsidies

The government does not tax the churches. The government does
not (yet) tax (and control) the internet. Is this fair? Not at all, maintain
some. These are tax subsidies. The government is subsidizing churches
and the e mail, forcing the rest of us to pay more as a result.
That is one way to look at the matter.

Another, a far more appropriate way, is that these are not subsidies
at all. When some of us are allowed to keep our own hard earned money
in our pockets, to spend as we please and not as our masters in
Washington D.C. wish, this is hardly a subsidy. Rather, this is part and
parcel of private property rights. To take the opposite position is to
implicitly acquiesce in the notion that the state really owns the entire
wealth of the populace, and anything they leave us is an act of
generosity, or subsidy.

This is nonsense on stilts. We are the
legitimate owners of all we produce, and government doesn't have a
penny they didn't first mulct from us.

* * * * *

Tom Bethell on Property Rights

Tom Bethell is fast becoming a "point man" on the subject of private
property rights. This reputation was initially garnered with the
publication of his book The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity
through the Ages
, which just came out in paperback last year, courtesy
of St. Martin's Press.


This was followed up with his Wall Street Journal
column of December 27, 1999 entitled "Property Rights, Prosperity and
1,000 Years of Lessons." Evidently, Bethell didn't read, or at least not
carefully enough, my critique of his book published in the Fall 1999 issue
of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, because he is up to his
old tricks again: pretending to be an advocate of the private property
philosophy while actually undermining it.

A quote from his latest missive: "The great legal innovation of this
millennium was equality before the law, which first evolved in England.
In the courts of common law, all men were seen to be created equal. This
had momentous economic consequences. The new equality of status
encouraged the (sic) freedom of contract and the rise of an exchange
economy. The transmission of property became increasingly 'horizontal'
- from seller to buyer - and decreasingly vertical - from father to son.
Wealth was democratized. It was acquired by those who, by virtue of
their labor and ingenuity, merited it rather than inherited it. Contract
superseded status."

Now this is more than passing curious. Why does Bethell think
fathers work so hard, save their money, innovate, etc., if not to help their
sons in particular and their families in general?

The vertical vs horizontal distinction is a good one. And, yes,
Bethell is also correct in identifying the vertical relationship as the evil
one, contrary to economic freedom and private property rights, and the
horizontal one as the good one, consistent with these desiderata. But to
claim that inheritance is contrary to merit, exchange and economic liberty
is almost purposefully perverse. Very much to the contrary, inheritance,
and, for that matter, gifts given during one's life, are integral aspects of
horizontal or voluntary institutions.

If Bethell is in such great opposition to inheritance, and if he wishes
to act in a manner consistent with this perspective, then he must also
oppose fathers giving their children birthday gifts, wedding presents,
putting them through school, giving them foreign language lessons, etc.
But more. Some parents read their young children stories at bedtime,
keep them properly fed, hug and kiss them all the time, adorn their homes
with music, art, books, love, etc. Others, while stopping short of child
abuse (and sometimes not), give their children a very different kind of
monetary and nonmonetary "inheritance." Is this "fair"? Of course not.

All children should choose their parents more carefully. But for the
Bethell's of the world, this, presumably, is something to be changed by
the force of law. We've got to "democratize" things, don't we?

A far better candidate for the role of oppressor in the vertical
direction is the government, curiously not mentioned by our private
property rights advocate. This is what philosopher Henry Maine was
referring to when he famously recommended "contract" not "status." In
the bad old days members of the government ruling class acquired
wealth from commoners not on the basis of voluntary trade, but through
various forms of statist compulsions. This is what Bethell should be
opposing in the name of private property rights, not, forsooth, voluntary
gift giving.

* * * * *

The Cuban Boy Controversy

What to do with 6 year old Elian Gonzalez? The position of Clinton
and Reno is clear. Do not make this into a political football. Allow the
courts or the INS or indeed, pretty much anyone else, to decide, as long
as they make a determination in favor of Castro. We can reject the views
of these Waco killers out of hand; they have already far too clearly
established a record with regard to the rights of children.

The liberal's views are also distressingly clear. One would have
thought that they would favor keeping the Cuban boy in this country.
After all, they are hardly well known as advocates of parental (that is,
father's) rights over children. But this episode is a major embarrassment
for Castro and evidently the soft spot of liberals for Communist dictators
is stronger than their aversion to family values.

Nor have feminists acquitted themselves with distinction. This must
be the first time in the history of the universe that they gave anything
but short shrift to the wishes of the father, and completely ignored those
of the mother.

And what of the Cuban-Americans? They have vociferously
campaigned for the right of this young immigrant to stay in the U.S. But
if they really felt this strongly, they would have spirited him away a long
time ago.

The only group to be unsure about this whole episode are the
libertarians. And with good reason, I shall argue. This is a case where
the various libertarian principles apply only tangentially, and in seeming
conflict.

Why?

Let us begin by considering the case for keeping Elian in the U.S.
First of all, there is no clear evidence that the boy's father really wants
his son brought back to Cuba. He has, of course, testified to this effect,
but anything said by anyone in that island nation has to be taken with a
grain of salt; in a totalitarian dictatorship, all such statements are made
under duress. The only way to determine the voracity of the father's
wishes would be if he repeated them in a relatively free country such as
the U.S.

But even that would not be enough. He would have to do so,
here, in the company of his entire family and indeed anyone else likely to
be harmed by Fidel in revenge. But even that would not be enough to justify shipping Elian back to Cuba.

It is a basic axiom of penology that no one should be imprisoned
unless he has committed a crime. Cuba is nothing more than a large jail.
For proof of this, one need look no further than the very people with
whom Elian escaped. And thousands more Cubans who have voted with
their feet in a similar manner. A prison is a place from which people try to
leave, but are forcibly prevented from doing so by their jailor. If Cuba
does not fit this bill, it is difficult to see why not.

Elian, of course, has committed no crime. Therefore, to consign him
to prison, even one as large as Cuba, would be a travesty of justice. If
his father truly wishes for this result, and is willing to act to attain this
end, then he is guilty of child abuse and should himself be incarcerated.

This point would be crystal clear even to liberals if, instead of a
Cuban boy fleeing from that country, it was a Jewish boy attempting to
escape from Nazi Germany. No one, perhaps excluding the U.S. Nazi
party, would advocate us turning our backs on a child in such a case.
Why the difference? This is because our intelligencia see the
Communists as much more benign than the Nazis. However, in turns of
the number of citizens murdered, Mao (60 million) and Stalin (20 million)
have it all over Hitler (10 million). In terms of percentage of total
population killed, moreover, the Communist Pol Pot is the "champion."

Now let us consider the case for returning him home to his father.
It is a basic postulate of libertarianism that the parents have the right
to bring up the child. With the unfortunate death of Elian's mother, this
right passes on to the father. There is of course one caveat: if there is
any child abuse, all bets are off; these rights, and much more, are ended.

The problem is, where precisely is the cut off point between responsible
child rearing and abuse? When parents stub out their cigarettes on the
stomachs of their children, this point is clearly passed. When a parent
spanks his child for not doing his homework or brushing his teeth,
clearly it is not.

What, then, of the present case? Is it per se child abuse to bring up
progeny in Cuba? This would mean that all parents now living in that
troubled Island nation are guilty of this crime. When and if this
Communist country is liberated, all heads of families (who have not at
least tried to escape at the risk of their lives) should be punished. This
seems rather far fetched, because, say what you will about Castro, in
terms of mass murder he is no Mao, Stalin, Hitler or Pol Pot.

And yes, were a black slave in Georgia in 1830 to insist that his son,
now free in the north be brought back to live with him, or were a Jew in
Nazi Germany in 1943 to make the same demand regarding his son living
safely in, say, Canada, each would reasonably be considered guilty of
child abuse. But the same cannot be said for Cuba vis a vis the U.S.

For those who doubt this, consider the following. America is not the
freest country in the world. Contrary to fans at basketball games, we are
not #1. According to the rankings put forth in the book Economic
Freedom of the World
, 1975-1995 (Gwartney, James, Robert Lawson and
Walter Block, Vancouver: The Fraser Institute, 1996) Hong Kong,
Singapore and New Zealand are all freer.

Suppose that a distant cousin
or an uncle from say, New Zealand, kidnaped an American child and kept
him there on the ground that his country was freer than the U.S., and it
would therefore be child abuse to return him (I owe this example to Jeff
Tucker).

Would we give such a claim any credence? Hardly. We would
give it the back of our hand. In like manner, just because the U.S. is
undoubtedly a more free country than Cuba does not logically imply it is
child abuse to raise a child there. And if not, then, at least for the
libertarian, the father's wishes are paramount.

What, then, is the solution? We must ensure that the return of the child is really the wish of Elian's sole surviving parent. This can be accomplished by allowing Juan Miguel Gonzalez, along with his family and friends, to come to Florida to pick him up. (I assume that Elian is too young to
make this decision for himself). Then, he and only he should be allowed to decide.

--------

Walter Block is professor of economics at the University of Central Arkansas. Send him mail.


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