Terms To Avoid When We Mean Something Else

A few thoughts on the imprecise use of political language. This is not meant as a scolding regarding grammar, but simply to point out that what we say is often at cross-purposes with what we mean–nor am I implying that I am innocent of sometimes engaging in the same kinds of verbal imprecision.

What we say: Liberal.
What we mean: Leftist (or, if you prefer, Statist).

This is probably the most common error of terminology in politics (aside from Leftist slanders aimed at the Right).

Rather than re-invent the wheel, here’s a nice summary, courtesy of NewsRealBlog (emphasis added):

When the term “liberalism” (from the Latin word liberalis, meaning “pertaining to a free man”) first emerged in the early 1800s, it was founded on an unwavering belief in individual rights, the rule of law, limited government, private property, and laissez faire economics….

But many who call themselves “liberals” today are in fact leftists – i.e., the very antithesis of liberals. The modern Left – which traces its roots back to a faction of early-19th-century French liberals who proclaimed that capitalism and private property were agents of inevitable moral decay – is animated by a desire to topple the existing capitalist order and to replace it with a socialist regime where the utopian ideal of perfect equality will reign. Disingenuously portraying itself as an agent of enlightened commitment to “liberal” causes, today’s Left in fact rejects each of the liberal ideals enumerated in the preceding paragraph.

European usage is closer to reality than ours:

In continental Europe, liberalism usually means what is sometimes called classical liberalism, a commitment to limited government and laissez-faire economics, and more closely corresponds to the American definition of libertarianism….

What we say: Government
What we mean: Federal Government

The core concept underlying the Constitution is Federalism, as laid out in Article I, Section 8 (Enumerated Powers), and in the Tenth Amendment: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

Any conservative worth the name knows the difference between a Federal Government and a National Government. While statist judicial activism, the Seventeenth Amendment, society’s more lackadaisical attitude toward the Constitution, delegation of Congressional authority to the administrative state, and the march of time have largely erased the difference between a Federal and a National government in practice, in theory Washington, DC is still constrained by the Constitution. Or should be.

If we say “Government” when we mean the “Federal Government,” we contribute in a small way to the false and un-American idea that the States don’t really matter, and that it is the Federal Government’s task to run the country generally. And, also in a small way, we undercut the Founders’ warnings about just such a National Government.

What we say: Freedom.
What we mean: Liberty.

This one is arguable. On the one hand, the two words seem to be used interchangeably:

Liberty: The state of a free person; exemption from subjection to the will of another claiming ownership of the person or services; freedom; — opposed to slavery, serfdom, bondage, or subjection.

Freedom: The state of being free; exemption from the power and control of another; liberty; independence.

I always thought that Liberty inferred rights with corollary responsibilities, and pertained to the individual’s relationship to the state; whereas freedom simply meant an absence of restraint generally. But apparently mine is a (ahem) shall we say idiosyncratic interpretation at best.

What we say: RINO.
What we mean: CINO.

The whole “Republican In Name Only” (RINO) trope is tired and false. We’ve had “liberal” Republicans in the party for a long time now. Yes, they annoy the heck out of us conservatives, but they are still Republicans (at least until they switch parties). See also, Big Tent.

What people usually mean when they say RINO is “Conservative In Name Only” (CINO).

(And yes, I could have easily included the term “Conservative” in this list of terms to avoid, but short of calling ourselves Federalists, Constitutionalists, or the like, we’re pretty much stuck with the term for now.)

What we say: Libertarian.
What we mean: Libertine (and sometimes, Libertine Leftist).

Now, before my small-L libertarian friends get out their pitchforks, let me explain.

Libertarian is probably the most elastic and misused term in modern American politics. Here’s a tasty Ayn Rand quote:

All kinds of people today call themselves “libertarians,” especially something calling itself the New Right, which consists of hippies who are anarchists instead of leftist collectivists; but anarchists are collectivists. Capitalism is the one system that requires absolute objective law, yet libertarians combine capitalism and anarchism. That’s worse than anything the New Left has proposed. It’s a mockery of philosophy and ideology. They sling slogans and try to ride on two bandwagons. They want to be hippies, but don’t want to preach collectivism because those jobs are already taken. But anarchism is a logical outgrowth of the anti-intellectual side of collectivism. I could deal with a Marxist with a greater chance of reaching some kind of understanding, and with much greater respect. Anarchists are the scum of the intellectual world of the Left, which has given them up. So the Right picks up another leftist discard. That’s the libertarian movement.

OK, you can get out your pitchforks now. 😉

And no, I am not bagging on all libertarians, or criticizing any use of the term, but simply pointing out its sometimes lazy usage.

What we say: Nazi.
What we mean: You <insert expletive>!

Yes, Leftists are the primary offenders when it comes to calling people Nazis (which is of course ironic vis. the National Socialist German Workers’ Party), but conservatives are not entirely averse to “going there” as well. We would be well-advised to avoid the term in most instances.

What we say: Fire the offending party!
What we should say: Keep digging!

This is merely a personal preference on my part. I prefer that Leftists publicly proclaim their beliefs without reserve or reflection, rather than couch those beliefs in airy platitudes like “Hope and Change.” The more people who know what they’re all about, the less likely Leftists are to succeed in their ongoing project of “fundamental transformation” of the West.

What we say: I am angry, you <insert expletive>!
What we should say, sometimes: I am very amused! Tell me more!

See also, “Fire the offending party,” above. I want the Left to say exactly what they believe, and anything we can do to encourage them to do that–preferably calmly, and with subtle mockery–the better.



What we say: Small government.
What we mean: Limited (Federal) government.

In a nutshell:

The federal government should be as big as is necessary to carry out its enumerated duties and no bigger. Hence, limit the scope of government and you will limit its size correspondingly. Conservatives understand this relationship between Constitutional constraints and the size of government.



Additional addendum:

What we say: Muslim/Islam.
What we mean, or should: Islamist/Islamism.

Conflating Islam with Islamism (or Muslims with Islamists) only serves to enable the crazies and marginalize those who seek to reform Islam.

Daniel Pipes writes:

Non-Muslims can help a modern Islam move forward in two ways: first, by resisting all forms of Islamism—not just the brutal extremism of an Osama bin Laden, but also the stealthy, lawful, political movements such as Turkey’s AKP. Erdoğan is less ferocious than Bin Laden, but he is more effective and no less dangerous. Whoever values free speech, equality before the law, and other human rights denied or diminished by Sharia must consistently oppose any hint of Islamism.

Second, non-Muslims should support moderate and Westernizing anti-Islamists. Such figures are weak and fractured today and face a daunting task, but they do exist, and they represent the only hope for defeating the menace of global jihad and Islamic supremacism, then replacing it with an Islam that does not threaten civilization.


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