1st Prize in VSP 2022:
language corrupts thought.
When the “social” becomes an end in itself… individual agency and freedom will disappear: How are intellectuals shaping this ideal?
Lisa Helga Kinspergher
First Prize in Vernon Smith Prize Contest 2022.
Language manipulation is a practice aimed at distorting the actual meaning of words and providing them hidden and subtle connotations. Today this strategy is typically employed by politicians who want to secure elections and legitimize their position of power. In so doing, they need the crucial help of intellectuals who will also benefit from the cooperation with the political class. They will shape a language which grants politicians to be elected and maintain power while at the same time promoting themselves as the only class which can solve the problems of the society. By appropriating the word “social,” they take advantage of the psychological and ambiguous meanings that are attached to this word in order to add to it ethically good connotations. Ultimately, they make the “social” an end in itself. Accordingly, other words such as “democracy” and “justice” will assume a peculiarly positive connotation if associated with “social.” The result is a shift from neutral definitions – society, democracy, and justice – to ethically good ones (meaning redistributive) at the expenses of individual agency, individual rights, and economic freedom.
Around 300 BC in Politics, Aristotle claimed that language distinguishes human beings from animals. In 1945, Orwell wrote a novel in which language empowered pigs, elevating them to the status of human beings. Given the powerful potential that language has, people have always tried to take advantage of it.
Language manipulation is an art; authors dissimulate to conceal their ulterior motives. The practice first arose among sophists around the 5th century BC. They were to Plato the “experts in imitation” and to Xenophon the “prostitutes of culture.” When they were engaging in an exercise called dissoi logoi (“Two arguments”), sophists used the “unjust argument” to successfully overcome the “just argument.” Similarly, the current circumstances are ones in which concepts seem volatile and can change depending on political intent. For example, the adjective “social” has started to be purposely associated with morally good connotations in an effort to justify certain government policies. Accordingly, other words such as “democracy” and “justice” assume a peculiar meaning if associated with “social.”
It is essential to notice that definitions and meanings do not change autonomously. Intellectuals and politicians are the architects of this “anarchy of meanings.” By pursuing their personal aspirations – being socially rewarded and winning elections, respectively – they manipulate language but disempower individuals, weaken individual rights, and jeopardize economic freedom. In this essay I will delve into 1) the role intellectuals play in language manipulation, 2) how the word “social” is involved, 3) its application in relation to “democracy” and “justice,” and finally 4) the effects this corruption of meanings has on individual rights and economic freedom.
The role of intellectuals in language manipulation
Under representative democracy, language is mostly used by politicians to gain political power. Considering that there are regular elections, and it is not acceptable to overthrow the rulers using violence, as instead was possible in ancient Greece, spreading a sounding narrative is of paramount importance for those who seek political power. They may want to take advantage of the use of language in two ways. On the one hand, they want to convince people to vote for and to support them. On the other, they want to promote a credible narrative that will legitimize their privileged position. Politicians, however, usually lack the skills to use language cunningly. Therefore, they need the aid of a third party – ideally socially esteemed and connected to younger generations – to accomplish that work: intellectuals. Functionally, they become the “opinion molders of society.1 As Rothbard noted,
The alliance is based on a quid pro quo: on the one hand, the intellectuals spread among the masses the idea that the state and its rulers are wise, good, sometimes divine, and at the very least inevitable and better than any conceivable alternatives. In return for this panoply of ideology, the state incorporates the intellectuals as part of the ruling elite, granting them power, status, prestige, and material security.2
Intellectuals act as a go-between politicians and citizens, power, and legitimization. They accept this role because it enhances the possibility of making an impact in the community and of being rewarded for their efforts. In fact, intellectuals in the job market “experience a status of disparity, a disparity between their great possession of culture and their correspondingly lesser enjoyment of incomes in power and wealth.3 Their language can legitimize politicians and empower themselves at the same time. Their mission is to identify bright goals that society is required to achieve but that are all very difficult for the laity to observe, measure, and solve.
For example, some of these goals might be “social justice,” “the end of poverty,” “climate change,” or the “ethnicity gap achievement”. In so doing,
They create a very caustic discourse which delegitimizes everyone’s claims towards authority, towards certainty, towards reality and towards knowledge. And then, in this ironic void that is left, well, somebody has to take up the slack, somebody has to be willing to make the possibility of moral and political judgements in a new key and intellectuals will take up this mission.4
As a result, citizens will think these issues can be handled exclusively by politicians, with the aid of intellectuals’ expertise and advice. Ultimately, they will disengage from politics but will nonetheless redouble their support for politicians.
‘Social’ and its applications
The language intellectuals adopt for this purpose has two fundamental properties: “staleness of imagery” and “lack of precision.5 The word “social” fits both. On the one hand it evokes historical and cultural experiences that act as a social bond between members. This in turn reminds people of the tribal life and the identification of a “we vs. they.” Michael Tomasello, an American anthropologist, says that thinking in tribalistic terms is a biological trait of the human psychology since more than 90% of human evolution took place within the tribe. In fact, groups of hunter-gathers are sometimes referred to as a form of “primitive communism.6 On the other hand, regarding lack of precision the word “social” is very ambiguous because it does not refer to any specific set of individuals or groups, but the boundaries of its meaning can be stretched, depending on the context and on personal interpretations. For example, “social” in expressions such as “social capital” and “social class” refers to different people. Hayek believed that the attempt to analyze the term ‘social’ “leads into a quagmire of confusion.” Since it is used as one-size-fits-all concept, the reason why “American sociologists have found it necessary to coin the new term ‘societal’ in its place7 then becomes apparent.
As a result, not only people’s consideration of the “social” is misled, but also is their behavior, and the expectations others place on it. I will now describe these consequences.
First, when something has a “social” connotation, we tend to consider it in positive terms. Hayek claimed that the instrumental use of ‘social’ had increasingly displaced “such terms as ‘ethical’ or simply ‘good.’8 This implied meaning has been ascribed by intellectuals, who successfully establish themselves as a “moral class.” They try to convert different individual moralities into an aggregate morality (the morality of the society) which has its own end – the “public” or “social” good – “so that we all share the same aims and ‘values.’9
Second, and accordingly, as only “social” actions are those morally possible in a society, one’s own self-interest becomes secondary – if not blameworthy. Actions ought not to be value-free but must aim to the benefit of the society. Therefore, society and social actions become the end. As Minogue pointed out: “In other words, the term ‘social’ here involves a switch of logic, from choice to outcome.10 The result is that by trying to pursue the benefit of the society “they are not appealing to “virtue” but to coercion.11 In fact, since there seems to be no empirical reason why we should expect these final outcomes to exhibit any sense of order, following and pursuing the ‘social’ must be “a purely civil profession of faith.12 Who will resist it “should be put to death.13 As the individual must be forced to be free.
‘Social democracy’ and ‘social justice’
Thus, intellectuals now merely can take the adjective “social” and juxtapose next to it any other concept they want to make attractive. This will immediately confer desirable, good, and ethical properties. People will support the concept at issue as long as it is “social” in some ways. “Social justice” and “social democracy” are two examples of these kinds of expressions. According to Orwell, these two package-deal words are part of the “meaningless words” category that a writer uses if “either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not.14 This category includes words such as democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, and justice that “have […] several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. 15 However, Orwell did not realize that by emphasizing the “social” element, the focus of these concepts shifted.
A democracy which is “social” thus shifts its focus from a value-free process of decision making to a moralistic one aimed at achieving this ambiguously defined common good of society. It has the effect of emphasizing the redistributive element vis-à-vis the idea of checks and balances and the limitation of political power. Social democracy is suspicious of individual rights, private ownership, and free markets, but it is eager to provide rights in the form of social rights, and material resources in the form of welfarism. Collectivists in fact,
[…] understand that private property can be confiscated as effectively by taxation as by expropriating it… Moreover, they have discovered–and here is the critical point – that Welfarism is much more compatible with the political processes of a democratic society.16
Social democracy aims for the good of the society; therefore, the means it uses to supply its services are always legitimate and justified:
While expropriation and taxation before may have appeared clearly oppressive and evil to the public, they seem much less so, mankind being what it is, once anyone may freely enter the ranks of those who are the receiving end.17
This is valid even when the problems welfare is supposed to cure have been aggravated in the end – as has historically happened.
Similarly, when justice is “social,” it is no longer about “giving each individual his due […] It pointed to a form of justice whose object was not just other individuals, but the community.18 Social justice aims at satisfying people who think the market is not rewarding them to the extent that they feel they deserve. Therefore, society – namely taxpayers – must support them. In fact, rulers,
[…] use political muscle to change the laws and to coerce mass compliance. In this respect, they are using the term “social justice” as a regulative principle of order, not a virtue… They are not appealing to “virtue” but to coercion. Thus “social justice” is a term used to incite political action for the sake of gaining political power.19
Politicians, therefore, use social justice as leverage during electoral campaigns to be elected, and they enforce it as policy when in office to maintain consensus.
Intended and unintended consequences
The new meaning that the word “social” has gained and its combination with other words ultimately fulfill politicians’ and intellectuals’ aspirations. These were indeed the intended consequences of the strategy all along. However, the unintended consequences provoked also need to be addressed. They mainly concern the sphere of individual rights and economic freedom.
First, by emphasizing the importance of society individual agency fades away and the result is what postmodernists advocate: the full socialization of the individual. Postmodernists consider artists or scientists not as independent talents, but as persons crafted by the political and ideological structures of society. Similarly, individual knowledge is assumed to be socially necessitated and it is studied exclusively in relation to the power structures that fostered it. If knowledge and ability are possible only through and within the society, how can individuals really be themselves outside the realm of the collective body? It is clear that society becomes the essential good for the individual.
Consequently, disempowered individuals will naturally expect that society – be it politics, politicians, or taxpayers – would give them rights and permissions. In fact, proponents of “civic” or “social” rights constantly undermine the essence of individual rights. Their motto is “the more rights, the better20 but they forget they are actually asking for government permissions and rewards. Eventually, welfarism will gradually replace independence and responsibility. In 1964, when he was running for the electoral campaign, Barry Goldwater clarified the forthcoming detrimental effect of this policy:
Welfare programs cannot help but to promote the idea that the government owes the benefits it confers on the individual, and that the individual is entitled, by right, to receive them. Such programs are sold to the country precisely on the argument that government has an obligation to care for the needs of its citizens.21
The idea promoted here is that politics can do everything. It can both distribute rights that regulate relations among individuals and control markets through any form of redistribution. I will therefore move to the analysis of unintended economic consequences. Within the economic sphere, the effect of distributing social rights is government’s increase in public spending by higher taxation, therefore, reducing individuals’ income. In some ways, “social rights have been a poor intellectual justification and have served as a rhetorical tool to expand the welfare state.22 Moreover, the opportunity given to politicians of arbitrarily deciding the amount of taxes to raise arises from the weakening of private property vis-à-vis public (or social) property. Politicians are lawfully allowed to devalue, nationalize, and pilfer private goods in the name of the singular “social good:”
In short, the more the state has increased its expenditures on ‘social’ security and ‘public’ safety, the more our private property rights have been eroded, the more our property has been expropriated, confiscated, destroyed, or depreciated, and the more we have been deprived of the very foundation of all protection: economic independence, financial strength, and personal wealth.23
Another unintended economic consequence of social rights and social democracy is the tendency towards market regulation in the service of economic planning. This is Mariana Mazzucato’s theory: the government has a duty to direct the market in order to address difficulties and plan for the long-term.24 Though state intervention may be in good faith, the results are apparent in Europe. In fact, in most countries, government spending is higher than 50 percent of their GDP, but it is not clear why these countries are not considered socialist.25
These are the logical results when a theory is based on false premises about the use of knowledge in society. By replacing the free market with state intervention in the economy, politicians ignore that knowledge is dispersed in the society, and cannot be monopolized by anyone. They confuse power with knowledge and think that knowledge is as easy to concentrate as power is. After all, if politicians know better, why do we need a market economy at all?
Language manipulation plays a big role in our lives, from its use within institutions, to media, and to everyday conversations. It is difficult to use unbiased language when discussing politics or fundamental issues such as living together in a society. However, language did not fall from the sky nor is it a separate entity that is outside human control. Even if Orwell claimed that “what kind of State rules over us must depend partly on the prevailing intellectual atmosphere: meaning, in this context, partly on the attitude of writers and artists themselves, and on their willingness or otherwise to keep the spirit of Liberalism alive,26 adopting new words with ‘social’ connotations and changing their behavior accordingly remains the responsibility of the common man. If they feel deprived of this option and surrender to the alluring promises made by politicians in the name of social justice and social democracy, a gloomy prospect looms over freedom, not because socialism is more efficient or more just, but because ceding control over their actions to others allows individuals to escape, evade and even deny personal responsibilities. People are afraid to be free; the state stands in loco parentis.27
Lisa Helga Kinspergher (I)
Duke University, Durham, NC, United States of America — Fall 2022 — Fall 2024 (expected)
M.A. in Political Science.
Areas of Specialization: Normative Political Theory & Philosophy, Political Economy
University of Milan, Milan, MI, Italy — 2019 — 2022
B.A. in International Politics, Law and Economics.
Final grade: 110/110 cum laude (“Ayn Rand and Her Enemies” — Prof. Luigi Marco Bassani, History of Political Thought)
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