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The Warped Language of Public Policy

Airbrushing Barbarity

by SHELDON RICHMAN

 

“As the base rhetorician uses language to increase his own power, to produce converts to his own cause, and to create loyal followers of his own person – so the noble rhetorician uses language to wean men away from their inclination to depend on authority, to encourage them to think and speak clearly, and to teach them to be their own masters.”

–Thomas Szasz, Karl Kraus and the Soul-Doctors (1977)

Statism — in the sense that government can do good things for people — depends on lies, or base rhetoric, that is, language that conceals the truth in order to persuade. Proponents of statism cannot easily win others to their cause if they fail to obscure the fact that, in its essence, the state is physical violence and that ultimately its rule consists in intimidation.

You need only listen to the most prominent politicians and pundits to see what I mean. Politics is inherently value-laden. That should be obvious: Among other things it concerns what human conduct the government should require, proscribe, and ignore. Yet discussions of political methods are usually not expressed in value-laden language. The purported objectives of policies are expressed in such language, but the methods of achieving them are not. So, for example, a politician or pundit will proclaim the moral desirability and even the justice of universal medical coverage. But when it comes to discussing the means to that end, the language turns technical and seemingly value-free. Speeches, op-ed columns, and news-talk programs overflow with wonkish deceptive jargon. Terms like “mandate” and “penalty” are thrown around, all the better to hide the fact that if you refuse to follow some bureaucrat’s orders, armed agents will turn up on your doorstep to force you to obey. And if you resist, those agents are legally authorized to subdue and, if they think it necessary, kill you. No penalty will befall them. You don’t often hear such matters talked about that way – and there’s no mystery in that. (“Penalty” perhaps sounds unvarnished, but that word is closely associated with games like football.)

Think of common political terms and how they obfuscate: Social Security, national security, border security, zoning, licensing, intellectual property, deficit spending, quantitative easing, civil forfeiture, civil commitment, taxation, subsidy, free elections, public schooling, farm policy, foreign policy, free coverage, drug war, and many more. All entail forcing individuals to do or not do something against their wishes. These euphemisms are intended to diminish our awareness of that truth. Couching moral/political matters in technocratic language helps us forget the unpleasantness of the underlying incivility and brutality of political measures. The base rhetoricians who traffic in this lingo aid and abet injustice.

One of my favorite examples is Ezra Klein of the Washington Post, a frequent guest on news-talk programs. No one is better at speaking of political aggression in the policy maker’s value-free jargon as he facilely suggests ways to dispose of other people’s money and preclude voluntary cooperation (markets) — oblivious of any consequence except the one he pronounces desirable. (Too bad if you disagree.) In writing about government management of medical insurance, for instance, Klein says, “Ending discrimination against sick people raises premiums for the healthy but lowers them for the sick.” He relieves his readers of the responsibility of focusing on the fact that “ending discrimination against sick people” is a misleading way of proposing to force innocent people to behave in ways that would convert insurance, which is a means of grappling with risk, into pure political subsidy. (How could proper medical insurance not take account of the fact that some people are already sick?)

Another favorite of mine is Thomas Friedman of the New York Times. It’s typical of him to write, “We need to keep investing in the engines of our growth — infrastructure, government-financed research, education, immigration and regulations that incentivize risk-taking but prevent recklessness.” By we he means the state, which is the machinery that forcibly overrides innocent people’s judgments about the best thing to do. By investing he means that government agents seize your money and spend it according to the politicians’ whims.

Political discourse is fundamentally dishonest in that it airbrushes barbarity. (In this connection, see George Orwell’s classic essay “Politics and the English Language.”) What Thomas Szasz wrote about the language of the mental-health industry and mainstream social sciences is true of the language of public policy: “Indeed, one could go so far as to say that the specialized languages of these disciplines serve virtually no other purposes than to conceal valuation behind an ostensibly scientific and therefore nonvaluational semantic screen.”

Thus, he added, that type of language “is, necessarily, anti-individualistic, and hence a threat to human freedom and dignity.”

Sheldon Richman is vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation (www.fff.org) in Fairfax, Va. He can be reached through his blog, Free Association.