The Problem of Confusing Political Terminology

Co-blogger Eugene Volokh’s excellent post on the sometimes confusing multiple meanings of the word “Jew” call to mind similar confusions in political terminology. For example, the term “conservative” is routinely used to refer to 1) people who are in some sense on the political right, 2) people who oppose changes in the status quo, 3) people who are willing to accept gradual change but not rapid change (e.g. – Burkean conservatives), and 4) people who want to return to the government policies or moral values of a bygone age. The fourth group might be more precisely referred to as “reactionary,” but the word “conservative” is often used to describe them instead, in part because “reactionary” has a pejorative connotation. Because of these multiple meanings, we get situations such as the Western media referring to communists who opposed Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms as “conservatives.” These people were conservative in the sense of meaning 2, but obviously not in the sense of meaning 1.

In many cases, it’s possible to tell which sense of the word “conservative” is meant by context. But sometimes, pundits, politicans, and activists deliberately exploit the ambiguities, as when they act as if people who are conservatives in the sense of 2 are basically the same as those in who are conservative in the sense of 1 or 4. Alternatively, people sometimes try to score debating points by claiming, for example, that people who want to cut back or restructure long-established entitlement programs can’t be “real” conservatives, because what they advocate requires major changes to the status quo. They can still be conservatives in the sense of 1 or 3 (if they advocate gradual rather than immediate restructuring of the programs in question).

There is a similar, but less severe, confusion in the use of the term “libertarian.” The word can refer either to 1) people who want to enforce very strict limits on government in both the economic and social sphere, or 2) people who believe in absolute economic liberties or property rights that cannot be overridden for any reason. Many libertarians in category 1 are willing to recognize that economic liberties or property rights can be overridden if the benefits of doing so are large and cannot be achieved in any other way. Category 2 libertarians are also necessarily libertarians in the sense of category 1, but not vice versa.

Here, too, the meaning is sometimes clear from the context. Unfortunately, some opponents of libertarianism act as if all of libertarian thought is reducible to advocacy of the second view (which is indeed endorsed by some prominent libertarian thinkers), and therefore believe they have “refuted” all of libertarianism if they can show that, in some conceivable circumstances, absolute protection for property rights might lead to horrible consequences. In reality, however, most of the leading libertarian economists, legal scholars, and political theorists (e.g. – F.A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, David Friedman, Randy Barnett, Richard Epstein, John Tomasi, Loren Lomasky, and others) are libertarians in the sense of definition 1, and therefore a rebuttal to position 2 does not automatically refute their position as well. It’s worth noting that even an anarchist can reject category 2 libertarianism, and some libertarian anarchists in fact do (e.g. – David Friedman). Such an anarchist believes that individual rights could justifiably be overridden in order to prevent grave harm, but also believe that anarchy is the best way to minimize the incidence of such harm under actually existing conditions in the real world.

On the left too, there is also a similar division between people who are committed to absolute rights on principle, and those who are willing to override even very important rights in a sufficiently grave emergency. But my impression is that there are fewer intellectuals who are unaware of the division over this issue on the left, than are unaware of the parallel split among libertarians. That said, I don’t doubt that there is plenty of confusion over different meanings of words used to refer to left-wing political ideologies, such as “liberal,” “progressive,” and “socialist.” For example, traditionally the word “socialist” referred to people who believe in total or near-total government control of the economy. But, more recently, some on the right have taken to using it as a pejorative against those who merely advocate extensive government regulation of private sector, without going nearly as far as to advocate a complete government takeover of the economy.

Like Eugene, I believe the meaning of words is determined primarily by usage, rather than by some kind of “objective” rules promulgated by linguistic experts or other authorities. Therefore, I don’t think that any of the meanings of “conservative” or “libertarian” I listed above are inherently “wrong” or illegitimate. Each is widespread enough that they have entered the language, even if some people would prefer that they hadn’t. I think the jury is still out on whether some conservatives’ efforts to turn “socialist” into a synonym for “liberal” will fully enter the language in the same way. I hope the effort fails, because I think there is some value in keeping the terms “liberal” and “socialist” separate and distinct. But it could end up succeeding regardless of my preferences.

Although some ambiguity in political terminology is inevitable, it is important to be clear which meaning we intend to use in a particular case. People who write about political issues should be aware of the multiple meanings of these words. Most importantly, we should try to resist the temptation to use one meaning as a rhetorical ploy to attack political opponents who are actually conservatives, libertarians, or “socialists” only in another sense of the term.

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