48 Cliff Road, Cowes, IOW, PO31 8BN, England
Paul@paulbirch.net and http://www.paulbirch.net
Have you noticed how people obstinately refuse to be persuaded of the virtues of the free market? No matter how eloquently we portray the inadequacies of the welfare state, detail the failures of government intervention, or defend the innate morality of capitalism, the man in the street is not convinced. Indeed it is seldom that we can succeed in converting from socialistic modes of thought even the highly intelligent and supposedly unbiased academic.
Why is this? Why will almost everybody accept that the NHS is a mess, yet almost nobody accept that the solution is to scrap it and let the market provide? Why is almost everybody dissatisfied with state schooling, yet almost nobody prepared to countenance the obvious alternatives? Are our arguments so poor? Are our ideas so fallacious? It is clear that they are not. The case for laissez faire is at the very least a reasonably good one. Even if there are problems with some of our prescriptions, or if many of our ideas should finally prove too extreme; even if the notion of the beneficence of the free market is ultimately to be rejected; still, our arguments do not deserve to be so easily dismissed, to fall as it seems they do into a gaping well of silence. We make a good case, as any honest and rational person ought to admit and as to our face people often do admit.
How does it happen, then, that the moment the conversation is over, our audience slips straight back into believing the same old socialist drivel they did to start with? In one ear and out the other. It's enough to drive you mad.
The reason for our failure, I submit, is not that people cannot understand our arguments, but rather that they refuse to accept or even listen to our conclusions. They do not want to accept them. They want to go on believing what they always have believed, and what the media are continually telling them they ought to believe. They have too much emotional capital invested in their socialism. They have too much at stake. They are carrying too much mental baggage: so much so that they dare not question their assumptions; so much that they cannot even permit themselves to hear what we are saying.
If we say "capitalist" they hear "selfish and greedy". If we say "socialist" they hear "well-meaning". If we say "welfare state" they hear "compassionate society". If we say "laissez faire" they hear "doesn't care". If we say "compulsory school attendance" they hear "a proper education". If we say "competition" they hear "dog-eat-dog". If we say "democracy" they hear "all things bright and beautiful". If we say "private enterprise" they hear "law of the jungle". Never mind that all of this is piffle. It's what goes on in their heads that counts.
Why do people react this way? Why do they hide? Why are they unable to face the truth? Because the truth would be painful. Not only would they be forced to re-evaluate their whole outlook on life, in a costly paradigm shift that any rational person will wish to avoid; they would also have to accept that their customary behaviour and cherished beliefs have been wrong; not merely mistaken, but ethically and morally inexcusable. They would have to admit, to themselves even more than to the world, that they have given aid and comfort to thugs and thieves and murderers, that they have aided and abetted banditry and oppression and fraud, that they are themselves thieves and plunderers and oppressors in short that they are evil.
Is it any wonder that many would prefer never to have to face such a revelation of the corruption in their souls? Should we then be astonished that, in the teeth of all the evidence, they continue to deceive themselves? Surely it is the more surprising that anyone should ever come to hold free market views who did not hold them from the outset.
It may be objected that we seldom insist on calling our opponents evil if only because we might ourselves be subject to the same reproach and might consequently wish just as earnestly to gloss over, minimise or ignore our own previous transgressions. Yet the implications are clear enough: subconsciously at least, our audience must realise that if our doctrine is correct a heavy burden of guilt is laid at their door; our analysis necessarily entails that all those who have knowingly supported the wrongful actions of our society, or have sought satisfaction by political means, have themselves acted wickedly.
We may tone down our rhetoric, avoid condemnatory language, try not to blame any individual with whom we are debating, seek to brush their past misdeeds under the carpet, but in our heart of hearts we know better. If our doctrine is one of personal responsibility for our own acts as it surely is then this fact of moral disapprobation cannot be escaped. If we are not to be untrue to our own beliefs then, offend whom it will, we must be ready to say: you have done wrong; you have fostered evil; you must make amends. If we never use the forceful language of the hellfire preacher, if we are never passionate in our defence of right and the righteous, never vehement in our denunciation of wrong and the wrongdoer, then people will treat us as hypocrites and rightly so. We need not be preaching all the time we ought not be preaching all the time but what we say we must say because we believe it to be true. We cannot hide we ought not hide the uncomfortable implications of our arguments and beliefs.
Now the difficulties we face and will continue to face in bringing home to twentieth and twenty-first century man the fundamental immorality of the welfare state are similar to difficulties also encountered in Christian evangelism. People today lack a personal "sense of sin". Or perhaps it would be more correct to say that the sense of sin has been pushed out of the conscious mind. People have been taught always to blame someone else, or something else: guilt is always collective, never personal; it is the fault of Greedy Big Business, or the Government, or Society, or the Human Race.
"If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us." 1 John 1:8. And of course we do deceive ourselves. The defence mechanisms that make the sinner refuse to face up to the claims of Christianity are the same ones that make him deny the claims of liberty and justice. He knows he is a sinner, but dare not admit it; he knows he is guilty of complicity in coercion and injustice, but hides it even from himself.
The symptoms are the same. Indeed, the illness is also the same, or has the same cause: namely, socialism, with its doctrine of personal insignificance and the collective will. So perhaps, as apologists for the free market, we can learn from the like experience of those labouring in the religious field. That is why I have drawn this parallel.
So how does the potential convert dodge the hook of the fishers of men? He does it by deliberately misunderstanding what the Christian says. He pretends that to call him a sinner is to imply that he's evil through and through, without any redeeming features whatsoever; he knows he's not that bad, actually he's rather better than most people, by and large, and he's certainly nothing like as bad as that chap down the road, and what about the Inquisition, eh? Now he can con himself into believing that all that stuff about sin is humbug; it might be all right for children, or criminal hard cases, but not for ordinary decent chaps like him.
And how does the collectivist democrat dodge? He deliberately misinterprets our criticism of the National Health Service, say, as an absolute condemnation of all its works. But he knows it's not that bad, actually those doctors do rather a lot of good, by and large, and it's obviously much better than in lots of other places or Victorian times, and what about America, eh?
The tricks are just the same: set up a phoney straw man to rubbish; claim that your beliefs and behaviour are noticeably better than certain others you could mention; ignore the question of whether they are either true or righteous in themselves; make a big fuss about any skeletons in your opponents' closets; if necessary blame them for the skeletons in other people's closets; and if you can't find any real skeletons invent some.
The best response to such evasions is to keep bringing things back to essentials. Never mind how much nicer you are than the man next door; how do you stand with Christ? "For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God." Romans 3:23. Never mind how the NHS compares with what you think they have in Germany; how does it stand before the bar of justice? For there is free exchange and there is plunder; and the NHS is based on plunder.
Now I'm no expert on evangelistic technique, which in any case isn't really the point of this essay; what I'm suggesting is that we could profit by consulting and learning from the past masters of the art. See for example, C. S. Lewis's "Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe (1942)" in Mere Christianity, Fontana, Collins, London, 1970, and his essay "Christian Apologetics (1945)" in Timeless At Heart, Fount Paperbacks, Collins, London, 1987. Incidentally, I would also recommend his essay "Willing Slaves of the Welfare State (1958)" in the same collection. Indeed, anything by C. S. Lewis is well worth reading; he is instructive even when he is, in my opinion, mistaken.
I'm not proposing that we model our rhetoric on that of the professional politician, the expedient propagandist or the TV evangelist. I am talking about learning from people who like us are seeking to counter a pervasive falsehood and spread an unpopular truth in an honest and principled way.
Enough preachy stuff. I want to get back to my main topic: words, and what people hear when we use them; and thus how to make sure they hear the right thing. We've already seen that words like "capitalism" and "democracy" mean something very different to the man in the street than they do to us. There's not a lot to be gained from an argument that seems to state that "selfishness and greed under the law of the jungle with its callous dog-eat-dog mentality is far better than all things bright and beautiful in a compassionate society". But what can we do?
There are three types of word: the informative word, from which the listener derives a rational meaning; the boo-word, to which the listener automatically responds negatively; and the hurrah-word, to which the listener automatically responds positively. In politics, most of the crucial words are either boo-words or hurrah-words. Obviously, it's a bad idea to use a boo-word for something you mean to applaud. But which words are boo-words has mostly been decided for us by our enemies over more than a century of socialist propaganda.
If we want to get people thinking, we should normally avoid both boo-words and hurrah-words. It's easy enough to get people cheering the rhetoric of liberty and freedom, truth and justice; but they don't reason, they react, and once the speech is over they forget the content almost instantly. Besides, our enemies use exactly the same hurrah-words in their own propaganda; since they don't much care about honesty, it doesn't matter to them if the meaning is mangled; but thereby they deprive us of some of our best ammunition.
When it comes to words like liberty and justice we can hardly be expected to forgo them altogether; but we had better define what we mean by them as often as we can, to reinstate them as informative words instead of mere hurrah-words.
There are some difficult cases. Liberal, now a hurrah-word, is one of them. We ought to be able to call ourselves liberals the word describes our politics admirably yet if we do we shall be grossly misunderstood. A liberal has long been thought of as a kind of wishy-washy socialist; today's so-called liberals are increasingly hard-line socialists. Sometimes we compromise by using the term "classical liberal" or even "Adam Smith liberal", but that only works with people who know their political history, an almost negligible fraction of the collectivist population. I don't know what the answer is. Libertarian, the usual replacement, has several drawbacks; first, it should properly be used only for an extreme form of liberalism that most of us do not actually espouse; second, it is a boo-word that people hear as something like "libertinism" or "licentiousness". I tentatively prefer to describe myself as an ultraminimal monarchist, which has the feature (not entirely bad) that only the cognoscenti know what it means.
That the meaning of important words in politics should be systematically distorted is unsurprising and inevitable. For all that, it's a pain. The word "rights" is another hard case. For many years I refused to use it at all, or to accept that any such things existed. I still say that "human rights" do not exist. But the propertarian and jurisprudential usage of the word, as in the phrase "bundle of rights", seems so unavoidable that I am forced to argue now for its rehabilitation. Nevertheless, we must define what we mean by it again and again, so that listeners will have no excuse for misapprehension. Thus we may point out that a right is a delimited piece of property that can be bought, sold, bequeathed and owned; and that it is neither universal nor unconditional. This is true, by the way, even of the so-called natural rights, like your right not to be assaulted; you own that right, so you are entitled to sell it or lend it to someone else; this is what boxers do.
So much, rather unsatisfactorily, for the hurrah-words whose meaning has shifted or been lost. What of the boo-words we'd like to use in their informative sense and with a positive gloss? Words like capitalist or property-developer. Here we're on to a loser. No matter how determinedly we try to clarify what we mean, it won't work. People will just stop listening. I think I first noticed this talking to my mother over the phone; I could hear when she switched off. Something to do with the quality of her breathing. Soon I could identify key words that I knew would switch her off. Libertarian is one of them. You get the same sort of thing performing before a live audience; if the audience goes "dead", you know you've bombed.
Do not use these boo-words.
That's rather blunt. Can I back off a little? How about: do not use these boo-words unless there is no acceptable alternative? Or: do not use these boo-words unless you're in sufficiently sophisticated company? Only sometimes we haven't a great deal of choice and have to make the best of a bad job. So let's turn the prohibition into an exhortation: find a way of saying what you want to say without using any more boo-words than you can help.
Also, maybe you can exchange one boo-word for a less damaging one. Capitalist is a bad one. Laissez faire is nothing like so bad, largely because, being foreign, it takes time to sink in. But free market is better than either, since the slight boo-ishness of market is offset by the slight hurrah-ishness of free. The variant free enterprise, a way of avoiding the word market, now has if anything a slightly stronger negative charge, perhaps because anyone can go to market, but only the enterprising can manage an enterprise; private enterprise is a definite no-no.
Okay. So boo-words are bad news. What other boo-words are there for us to avoid? You'll be able to make your own list from personal experience, but here's a few of the more important ones. I've already mentioned libertarian. But anarchy is worse, and anarchist is appalling. Anarchists throw bombs! We can and do point out that anarchy simply means that nobody lords it over anybody else, that anarchy is an ideal of non-aggression. Forget it. If we say "anarchy" they hear "chaos"; if we like the idea of anarchy, we must want blood in the streets. They confound anarchism with nihilism. They have some excuse: given the imperfect nature of human beings, pure anarchy will fall apart almost instantly into chaos; we look to retain its essence through such contrivances as anarcho-capitalism or the minimal state.
So how do we avoid the word anarchy? Difficult. If we talk about a Lockean state of nature, they will take that to mean the state of savagery or the law of the jungle; we can hardly understand it ourselves without mentally translating it back into anarchy. Probably we will have to employ circumlocutions, such as "a society of perfect freedom", "a land in which only voluntary transactions take place", "a state marked by an absence of coercion". I'm open to suggestions. The term civil society comes close or would do if people knew what it meant except for the implication of an underlying legal order that sustains it.
However, we may be able to get away with anarcho-capitalism; even though it's a compound of two boo-words, it's complicated enough to drain away most of the emotional charge. So long as we can explain the idea without using further boo-words we can hope to keep the listeners on-line. Such non-threatening explanations are not however easy to devise. Here's a hint. Don't use the term protection agency. This will inevitably be heard as "protection racket", the work of gangsters. I prefer the more general term court, which has no such nasty connotations.
There's another, more volatile, set of boo-words. These are the ones which are employed relentlessly as buzzwords by some faction or another, and which in consequence make everyone else squirm. Words and phrases like community, relationship, deeply caring, compassionate society, which have now become all but meaningless. It is not only leftists who are to blame; disciples of Hayek and von Mises, for example, are apt to overuse the metaphor of "spontaneous order", as opposed to collective planning, though it may be argued that the rise of the central state is not a whit less spontaneous or natural than the actual functioning of the market. However that may be, excessive reliance upon such buzzwords turns people off it's the mark of the crank. We need to avoid creating the kind of cliché that becomes meaningless by repetition, or saying such things as "law and order" when we only mean "law" or "order" simpliciter. Easier said than done, of course.
One more thing. There are also hurrah-words we need to debunk, words like democracy and society. These are easier to deal with than the boo-words, because although people mishear them, they don't entirely block them out. Scepticism about democracy is thus easier to generate than approval for any alternative. The negative side of our arguments is easier to present than the positive. Unfortunately, we still need the positive side to make them stick and there we come up against the boo-words again.
To sum up. People refuse to be persuaded of the merits of the free market because they don't want to be persuaded. They don't want to be persuaded because that would mean admitting to themselves just how wrong they've been and just how culpable they are. They avoid admitting their errors by reacting emotionally instead of listening and thinking, and by predictable evasions. There are specific words that allow people to stop listening; these are boo-words; examples are capitalism, libertarianism and anarchy. If we want people to listen to our arguments, think about them, and ultimately to be persuaded by them, we must try to avoid these boo-words. We had best not mention capitalism, though we may freely talk about voluntary exchange or the free market; and praising anarchy will only bring confusion. Perhaps one day these boo-words will be rehabilitated; that day is not yet. In the meantime, a careful choice of words is mandated, so that emotional capital shall no longer block the emergence of the free market and the triumph of <boo-words deleted>.
© Paul Birch, 5th Feb. 1998.