Introductory Remarks by Hardy Bouillon given at XV. Vernon Smith Prize Ceremony, Feb. 6, 2023.
Although terms such as justice, democracy or the Rule of Law are understandable to most of us, they have been drained of their clear meaning by the addition of the politically explosive and thus very likely so common and pervasive word ‘social’. Who knows how e.g. Social Justice can ever be defined? Or what might be hidden behind the phrases social democracy, the social state or even behind a social conscience? Accordingly, Prof. Bouillon’s warning explains, why the politically induced influence of our thinking through the creative manipulation of our language has “disastrous consequences … to other people”. The ‘Great Reset’ does not take place through expropriations, but through the hijacking and reinterpretation of familiar terms.
… if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.
Both types of corruption are part of our daily experience, no question. However, one might ask how these two types of corruption take place. Corruption of thought via language is mainly the business of manipulating people, some of them well-minded and some wicked. In both cases they try to gain power over other people. Hardly anyone tries to corrupt his own thoughts by using language in a way that enables him to corrupt his own mind. And if so, it is a rare if not a clinical case, which is of no further interest to us. However, manipulating other people’s minds by some verbal artistry is a phenomenon well known, in particular well known for the disastrous consequences it has to other people. Hardly anyone knew and explained that phenomenon better than Friedrich August von Hayek. The term ‚social justice’ marks the paradigm case. In the past, the meaning of the term has been frequently perverted, thus becoming instrumental to all sort of politics hostile to freedom. ‘Social’ became a weasel word, for its original content is sucked like the oak of an egg is sucked by a weasel, leaving the shell unimpaired. While the shell remains, its content is irrevocably lost.
The peril that comes with the corruption of thought via language is without doubt a critical one, and many examples could be named to illustrate this fact.
Malign as this type of corruption may be, it is by far less insidious than the corruption of language by thought, for a reason that is quite obvious:
The undermining of thought via a distorted language might be indeed very repellent. However, it can be fought off. All it takes is to uncover that sort of corruption and reveal the wickedness with which the terms are redefined. We can resist the corruption by others, simply by activating our intellectual strength, by employing our powers of reasoning. Moreover, we can withstand the moral corruption that comes along with corruption of the intellect by setting our moral powers against it.
The corruption of language via thought implies by far much more treachery than its counterpart does, the corruption of thought by language. The reason for this is very simple: The corruption of language via thought is homemade, at least in the last resort. We ourselves are its originators. Our language, though a by-product of the culture we adopted, runs through our brain each time before it leaves our mouth. Before being spoken, each single word has to pass our mind and the categories the brain provides for reasonable thinking. If it were different, we would speak nonsense all the time. We decide about the propositions and terms we use to express our thoughts and to criticize and comment on the ideas of others, including those ideas of others that corrupt our thought by giving words a distorted meaning and thus seduce us to become victims of the intended corruption. After all, nobody else than we bring to paper what we think is well formulated. We express our thoughts and nobody else does.
Our category system, consisting of intellectual and moral faculties, is not subject to daily impeachment. We don’t put it in question each and every moment. On the contrary, we take it for granted, use it as a tool that did well in the past and needs overhaul and adjustments only now and then, when cognition and insight ask for such adaptations; when we realise that the category system has a bug that needs to be eliminated for we want to save our mind from making mistakes in the future. However, if such a rare case is not given, then we analyse everything that passes our mind with the help of our category system in which we trust. The basic trust in our judgement is vital, indispensable for living an orderly life. A life of permanent self-doubts is doomed to fail. So, we cannot but trust ourselves, trust our category system. However, this basic trust is also the main source of our homemade corruption, the corruption of language via thought.
That makes the corruption of language by thought so tricky and dangerous. We cannot but trust ourselves, and we trust our category systems more than anything else. After all, it is the basis of all our conjectures and the conclusion of numerous premises that were subject to severe testing in the past; it is a coherent system of categories that we checked several times before we finally looked at it as our own; the result of an ongoing test procedure that we conducted personally and still amend when we think to have good reasons for doing so.
No one willing to live a free and responsible life will nor can permanently question such a systemic result.
The impossibility of permanent self-impeachment provides us with a robust and reliable tool, a tool that allows us to plan and conduct our actions in a reasonably responsible life will nor can permanently question such a systemic result.
e way. Apart from that it also allows us to stick to our errors without knowing, without realising that we do. We do so a lot of times only because our misconceptions seem to be irrelevant or even harmless, reason being that these misconceptions rest on figures of thought that proved useful and correct in many other circumstances similar to the ones in question. Think of contrastive pairs in language and thought. If they are contrastive in language, then we belief that they are also contrastive in thought.
If we are to name the opposite of negative discrimination, then we are likely to say loudly ‘positive discrimination’. Is not the opposite of negative discrimination more than only stopping negative discrimination? Is it not also the correction with help of positive discrimination? If we want to restitute theft, then we not only ask for stopping future theft; we also ask for giving back what was stolen. In face of that, it seems logical, logically valid, in cases of negative discrimination to ask not only for ending it in the future, but also to recompensate those who became victims of negative discrimination in the past. After all, they were denied chances. Hence these chances should be given to them now, as compensation, or else things will remain unjust.
The chances of life, they belong to everybody, they are common goods, aren’t they? They cannot be denied to some and reserved to others. They are not privileges to which some are entitled, whereas others are not.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I trust you realise how easy it is – with the help of thought figures we adopted as our own and still share with others – to consider oneself sailing in free waters while gradually entering the high seas of socialism.
Of course, if all free goods were common goods – even those that come about spontaneously by the interactions of members of the society –, then the slippery idea that positive discrimination is the opposite of negative discrimination would be correct; and the request for correction of past iniquities that came with negative discrimination would be justified. On top of that, each request for redistribution caused by negative discriminations in the past would also be a justified demand to which no freedom loving person could close her mind.
However, free goods are not common goods. Man is free to make free goods becoming his property. Appropriation of free goods needs no permission by others or society as a whole. If things were different, then society would be the owner of all free goods in the first place; then there were no free goods at all, only common goods – right from the beginning. Consequently, all an individual could appropriate – of course only with the placet of society – would be separate property, separate ownership. Nobody else than Anthony de Jasay has made this clear to us. And it was him who reminded us of the many thinkers, allegedly liberal thinkers, who fell prey to the temptation of confusing free goods and common goods. It was John Stuart Mill who wrote, ‘[e]ven what a person has produced by his individual toil, unaided by any one, he cannot keep, unless by the permission of society. The distribution of wealth, therefore, depends on the laws and customs of society.’1
Be this as it may, common goods are not the natural solution. They are not what nature offered to men when we came to populate the globe. It is appropriation that turns goods into property, be it individual property or collective property, i.e. common goods. How this appropriation comes about, whether by work, taking possession, or by other means, is a question of subordinate nature; a question that cannot keep us away from the insight that free goods are not common goods per se. It is not enough to claim that free goods are common goods, and that it is to the discretion of society to disperse them and what can be produced with their help. A private person could just as well declare all free goods to be his or her private goods.
She or he who misses to see the difference between free and public goods, and the fact that only free goods are unowned goods while all other types of goods presuppose the act of appropriation before they can build a new class of goods (private, collective or other), could easily fall into the thought trap that tells him or her that negative discrimination violates some people’s right; their right to participate in common goods, the common good of equal chances, brought about either naturally or spontaneously by the interactions of others.
Ladies and Gentlemen, being asked to write a short introduction to this ceremony, I was tempted to give you many more examples of these little logical lapses that have huge societal consequences. However, lack of time asked me for self-restraint. After all, this evening is devoted to our prize-winning essayists and their ideas when it comes to the mutual corruption of thought and language.
*Hardy Bouillon (D), studied philosophy and art history at the universities of Albuquerque (NM, US), Oxford (UK), and Trier (D). As a leading liberal philosopher he is currently apl. professor of philosophy at the University of Trier. He also serves on the academic board of a number of international institutions and leading think tanks. However, Bouillon is mainly concerned with carrying out selected philosophical research projects. Several guest professorships have taken him to leading European universities, including Frankfurt (D), Vienna (A) or Prague (CZ). Bouillon is a prolific scholar and has authored and/or edited a number of books and far more than 160 scholarly essays, with translations into Chinese, English, Italian, Romanian, Turkish, and Vietnamese. His publication list include 5 monographs and 15 (co-)edited anthologies. Among the latter are Government: Servant or Master? (1993), Values and the Social Order (1995), Libertarians and Liberalism (1997), Ordered Anarchy (2007), and In Loyalty to Liberty (2018). Amon his most recent monographs are Business Ethics and the Austrian Tradition in Economics, 2011 and his seminal taxonomy of the theories of social justice Gerechtes Glück (2020, in German).
1 Mill, John Stuart: The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume II-III: The Principles of Political Economy with Some of Their Applications to Social Philosophy (1848), ed. John M. Robson, introduction by V. W. Bladen, Toronto 1965, S. 199.