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Watch Your Language

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02/21/2000Walter Block

[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?


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.


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.



Contact Walter Block

Walter Block is the Harold E. Wirth Eminent Scholar Endowed Chair in Economics at Loyola University, senior fellow of the Mises Institute, and regular columnist for LewRockwell.com.

Click here to see an extensive online compendium of Dr. Block's publications.

Click here for a complete list of Dr. Block's books.