Tweak Your Terms

Want to be a more persuasive classical liberal? Want to avoid some of the perennial perils and pitfalls of anti-state arguments? Try updating your libertarian lexicon. Here are some terms and suggestions I've heard thrown around that I really like.

1. Say "freed market" not "free market."

From the always awesome William Gillis:

You'd be surprised how much of a difference a change of tense can make. Free market" makes it sound like such a thing already exists and thus passively perpetuates the Red myth that Corporatism and wanton accumulation of Kapital are the natural consequences of free association and competition between individuals. (It is not.)

But "freed" has an element of distance and, whatsmore, a degree of action to it. It becomes so much easier to state things like: Freed markets don't have corporations. A freed market naturally equalizes wealth. Social hierarchy is by definition inefficient and this is particularly evident in freed markets.

It moves us out of the present tense and into the theoretical realm of "after the revolution," where like the Reds we can still use present day examples to back theory, but we're not tied into implicitly defending every horror in today's market. It's easier to pick out separate mechanics in the market and make distinctions. Also. Have I mentioned that it makes an implicit call to action?

2. Avoid "capitalism" and "socialism."

Roderick Long in his "Rothbard's 'Left and Right' Forty Years Later":

Libertarians sometimes debate whether the "real" or "authentic" meaning of a term like "capitalism" is (a) the free market, or (b) government favoritism toward business, or (c) the separation between labor and ownership, an arrangement neutral between the other two; Austrians tend to use the term in the first sense; individualist anarchists in the Tuckerite tradition tend to use it in the second or third.[12] But in ordinary usage, I fear, it actually stands for an amalgamation of incompatible meanings.

Suppose I were to invent a new word, "zaxlebax," and define it as "a metallic sphere, like the Washington Monument." That's the definition — "a metallic sphere, like the Washington Monument. " In short, I build my ill-chosen example into the definition. Now some linguistic subgroup might start using the term "zaxlebax" as though it just meant "metallic sphere," or as though it just meant "something of the same kind as the Washington Monument." And that's fine. But my definition incorporates both, and thus conceals the false assumption that the Washington Monument is a metallic sphere; any attempt to use the term "zaxlebax," meaning what I mean by it, involves the user in this false assumption. That's what Rand means by a package-deal term.

Now I think the word "capitalism," if used with the meaning most people give it, is a package-deal term. By "capitalism" most people mean neither the free market simpliciter nor the prevailing neomercantilist system simpliciter. Rather, what most people mean by "capitalism" is this free-market system that currently prevails in the western world. In short, the term "capitalism" as generally used conceals an assumption that the prevailing system is a free market. And since the prevailing system is in fact one of government favoritism toward business, the ordinary use of the term carries with it the assumption that the free market is government favoritism toward business.

And similar considerations apply to the term "socialism." Most people don't mean by "socialism" anything so precise as state ownership of the means of production; instead they really mean something more like "the opposite of capitalism." Then if "capitalism" is a package-deal term, so is "socialism" — it conveys opposition to the free market, and opposition to neomercantilism, as though these were one and the same.

And that, I suggest, is the function of these terms: to blur the distinction between the free market and neomercantilism. Such confusion prevails because it works to the advantage of the statist establishment: those who want to defend the free market can more easily be seduced into defending neomercantilism, and those who want to combat neomercantilism can more easily be seduced into combating the free market. Either way, the state remains secure.

3. Please, please, please, don't call it "anarcho-capitalism" or yourself an "anarcho-capitalist."

Murray Rothbard played an invaluable role in developing the movement and ideology of modern libertarianism. The unfortunate term he coined for his brand of icy-pure liberalism is not representative of the rest of his legacy.

Anarcho-capitalism is a term that aims to displease. Any leftist worth his salt most probably reserves the term "capitalist" as a universal label of opprobrium for everything that's wrong with the existing order--just like we use "statist"--and this will immediately turn them off. Worse yet, talking about anarchistic capitalism with social anarchists sounds like your are mixing together the familiar and beloved with the detestable, and is a good recipe for a black eye. Even if you can fend off bodily harm long enough to explain what you mean, you're still going to face an uphill battle against their subconscious, visceral response. There's a reason you'd complement a Chinese person on their "mother's pickled canola root" rather than their "mom's rape."

It's also just an ass-ugly phrase and makes you sound silly to people anywhere on the political spectrum.

If you didn't get the memo, the cool kids are into "free-market anarchism" or "market anarchism." If you're trying to navigate the mindfields of an academic career, maybe you pull a Randy Barnett and make up something like "polycentric legal order."

4. Support "de-monopolization" instead of "privatization."

From Steven Horwitz:

I would like to see us ditch the term “privatization” for two reasons. First, many of the things government does and then “contracts out” are things that no one should be doing in the first place, either publicly or privately. The use of private contractors in Iraq is the most obvious example here. Libertarians need to join, and many have joined, those on the left who have objected to the use of private contractors to do the dirty work of the war. We need to make it quite clear that this (and the war more generally) is not what is meant by free markets, despite what people like Naomi Klein seem to think.

Second, in the cases where state-provided goods and services could be better supplied in the market, the real goal is not “privatization” but “de-monopolization.” What advocates of free markets should be arguing is that the monopoly privilege bestowed by government is the source of trouble, regardless of whether the organization receiving that privilege is public or private. Rather than selling off or contracting out these monopoly privileges, we should abolish them and reduce any other barriers to entry in the industries in question.

If you hew to these rules I think you'll find it easier to tip-toe around people's prejudices and ingrained responses and slip dangerous ideas into their heads. Good luck!

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Terms to avoid

Terms to avoid sounds reasonable, though it's such an ingrained habit to use "capitalism" and "socialism" that I think it will take a while to change. Some of the alternatives offered don't seem compelling - freed market (eyeroll) and de-monopolization (demonomamonowhat?).

Of the offered alternatives, I like "market" and "market anarchism". That's pretty much it. However, I have also seen the term "market" abused. There may not be any great solution in terminology to the problem of confusion and misunderstanding.