Archives for category: Linguistics

Dr. Jordan Peterson came into fame and infamy for refusing to comply with a Canadian law forcing him to use the “preferred pronouns” of self-designated “gender non-binaries.”

Recently, he was challenged by linguist John McWhorter on this issue, mainly on the tangential matter of psychological insight. McWhorter’s point was that while he admitted that some students who desired a peculiar manner of address might indeed be trying to push a power play upon him, he could not be sure, and it was just easier to comply with their requests, no matter how bizarre.

Well, prudence was not Peterson’s issue with the law, and, were I in such a position, it would not be mine, either. Besides, there is an issue even more basic than politics. Easier? How is changing the basic, most in-grained features of one’s language “easier”?

But there is one sense in which McWhorter is right, it is easy to comply. Because the whole thing is in most cases a non-issue. And I am surprised that a linguist of McWhorter’s brilliance would not make a point of it. One does not address another by a “gendered” pronoun, in today’s Engish. One uses “you.”

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What all this talk about preferred pronouns is really about, as near as I can make out, is how we address others “behind their backs,” so to speak.

“I’m asked, often,” says Professor McWhorter, “to call people, singularly, ‘they.’”

In the third person.

So, what these gender-obsessed youngsters are really fretting about is not how they are addressed, but how they are referred to — in conversation in groups where they are being referenced to other people with personal and possessive pronouns.

Peterson is surely in the right that this sort of thing should be negotiated. People who cannot handle social negotiations of this sort may understandably yearn to cry to Big Brother to enforce the exact terms, but if they are bucking a long tradition, they need to stop being such . . . juveniles. And conjure up from deep within themselves a little tolerance.

And maybe even respect for the past. And biology. And . . .

After all, is it not the people who wish to change others’ behavior, and tradition of long standing, who must prove the most? The burden of persuasion usually falls upon the radicals. It is they who must be expected to be the more tolerant and forgiving. (Amusingly, in the collective, their non-gendered pronoun falls trippingly off the tongue as well as the typing fingertips — for there is no gendering of “they/them/their/theirs.”)

That they are not tolerant, in this issue, but demanding, instead, is a sign that they are pampered, “privileged” whiners with little to recommend them as civilized beings.

And, as for me . . .

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N. B. The first graphic “meme,” above, is from my second memegenerator.net account: Wirkman. (Not my first, Lucian.) The second graphic meme refers to a philosophy central in the early science fiction novels of F. Paul Wilson, which featured prominently in his LaNague Federation books such as Healer (1976) and An Enemy of the State (1980). “KYFHO” stands for “Keep Your Fucking Hands Off.”

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What we now know for sure: feminism is crazed lunacy.

But when did we know it?

IMG_2080This varies from person to person, I guess. I have not called myself a “feminist” since my 20s, but for most of those subsequent decades, I tried not to come off as too extreme in my opposition. Why? Probably for the reason most skeptics of feminism have not: the term is associated with sexual equality, which I just call “individual rights” — and I did not want to erode that notion in any way. But as the years have gone on — leading inevitably to my death, to the death of the human race, and (I gather) to the heat death of the universe — it has become clear that today’s feminists are not interested in sexual equality. They talk, instead, about “gender,” cannot keep a somewhat nebulous concept even they straight (oops: my heteronormativity is showing! I should have said “queer”). And their relentless attacks on white heterosexual men, and their demands to give special favors to “the oppressed classes” of women and POCs and LBGT+ers, show their lack of interest in equality of rights before the law, and a nasty itch for compensatory preferences and class-figured “equality of outcomes.”

Which is why they seem so dangerous.

But crazed lunacy? That can be seen in their lack of empathy and broad-mindedness, in seeing other people’s point of view. The grand example? “Manspreading.”

This is a term that grew out of the grand feminist epithet, “Mansplaining.” Now, this concept did not bug me, for it merely meant the habit of some men to explain to women their own experience.

Though male tendencies to do this do seem to spring from the dimorphism of our brains — men are stronger systematizers, so we tend to turn, say, emotional complaints into logical problems, and women, less tolerant of systematically modeled explanations, tend to object to that — you would have to be something of a mome not to see how this could be reasonably interpreted as disrespectful and logically odd (not a contradiction, necessarily, but logically odd, as P. H. Nowell-Smith used the term). So, “mansplaining” did not bother me too much.

Initially.

Then the word began to be used to condemn men for explaining anything to women — including their own male experiences! The outrageous overreach of this occurs when feminist women accuse of Men’s Rights Activists of mansplaining, just for defending their own individual rights and sexually differentiated experiences.

Which leads us to the moment when it became obvious to me that feminism had run off the rails completely: when young feminists concocted men’s dread crime of spreading their legs in public.

Manspreading, or man-sitting, is the practice of men sitting in public transport with legs wide apart, thereby covering more than one seat. Both this posture and the use of the neologism”manspreading” have occasioned some internet criticism and debates in the US, UK, Turkey, and Canada. The public debate began when an anti-manspreading campaign started on the social media website Tumblr in 2013; the term appeared a year later. OxfordDictionaries.com added the word “manspreading” in August 2015. Use of the term has been criticized as “a caricature of feminism” and the practice has been juxtaposed with examples of women taking up excessive space in public spaces with bags.

Now, this Wikipedia entry ably indicates its absurdity even in this first paragraph of the encyclopedia entry. It is the reductio ad absurdum of feminism — but advanced by self-identified feminists. And the habit of taking up more than one seat is something I have witnessed, and often, in America — when corpulent women bulge onto additional seats and into the aisle. Not a pretty picture. But “fat spreading” is not something that went viral. Manspreading did.

Why? Because young women have been trained by the feminist tradition to nag at men as a right and a . . . privilege. For being women. The superior sex.

Er, gender.

It is ridiculous in this case because it is exactly the opposite of mansplaining: it is womansplaining — women explaining to men the nature of men’s own bodies.

I remember reading one of the first articles on the subject. The young woman feminist said [something to the effect of] “come on, guys, your balls are not that big.”

Well, one hates to bring up personal experience in such matters. But I can assure the reader, I never boast about testicular massiveness. Nevertheless, I could explain to you, at length, about testicular pain. Merely from keeping my legs together. It is a thing. I believe it gets worse with age. Men spread their legs because they do not wish to incur sharp and persistent pain.

But the young feminists apparently never even asked men what they were doing. The men, of course, may not have noticed what they were doing. And perhaps men, so ready (usually) to please women, have eagerly tried to comply.

I wonder how many men now experience enduring agony in their genitals merely to please these women.

But I won’t do it, and I completely sympathize with those men who despise any woman who complains about manspreading.

Early in the aughts, when public discussion of the penis was everywhere, I predicted that soon “cunt” would become common in everyday speech. The pejorative use of the term for objectionable women aptly affixes to any woman who marshals the term as a critique of icky male habits.

Now, the context: Girls are taught to keep their legs together. And for good reason. Opening a woman’s legs provides easier access to her femalia, into which the penis was designed (so to speak) by nature to penetrate. It is the reasonable life plan of a woman to restrict access to this much desired hot spot, and so keeping one’s legs together became part of heteronormative practice, for heteronormativity doubles down on the basic evolutionary strategies of the sexes, protecting women from most men while enabling them to secure the cooperation of a limited set of men (usually one) in exchange for access to the Delta of Venus.

And, because the female of our species lack descending sex organs of a rather obviously fragile nature held on by the thinnest of tissues, but with all-too many nerve endings . . . their characteristic habit of keeping legs tightly closed, when sitting, is easy for them.

The suspicion we non-feminists have had for a long, long time is that feminists have been trying to turn men into women. This issue is the prime example.

Experience and standards that are apt for females get applied, dogmatically, to men — even when inapt and wildly inappropriate.

And it may be inappropriate indeed. I am no anatomist, or diagnostician, but I suspect that men who have been keeping their legs together at the behest of female expectations may have contributed to the startling decline in testosterone levels in the modern male population. But this is just conjecture. Regardless of medical consequences other than discomfort and pain, men closing or crossing their legs was once seen as effeminate for good reasons.

So, this is now the paradigmatic issue upon which I define feminism: the application to men and boys the standards appropriate for, and experience derived from, women and girls.

As epitomized on Broadly, a few days ago, with “100 Easy Ways to Make Women’s Lives More Bearable.” The tenth demand is most objectionable:

10. CLOSE YOUR LEGS ON PUBLIC TRANSIT, OH MY GOD.

All-caps, even. As if her point had one quantum of wisdom to it.

It does not.

It may be time to stop thinking so much “of the women.” Frankly, Dani Beckett (perpetrator of the above indecent inanity), I am not interested in “making women’s lives more bearable”: feminists can stop complaining about trivialities (their feminist etiquette breached by male extremity splays) and stop expecting the world to revolve around them. Take your female privilege and stuff it.

On a kinder note: I suggest re-introducing into our culture that now-forbidden power, common sense.

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It has become commonplace: the hallmark of today’s self-identified Left is to play encomiast* to diversity while brooking scant diversity of opinion. Indeed, difference of opinion now fills them with scorn and rage.

What do we call their error here?

They have ready terms for people who hate or discriminate against others on the basis of race or sex: racism and sexism, respectively.

They have ready terms for people who hate or discriminate against gays, trans people or foreigners: homophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia.

So, what do we call their hatred for people with different philosophies, who diverge on matters of facts and values?

Shall we dub them with an “ism” or a “phobia”?

If it is to be the latter, may I suggest xenologophobia?**

I have many ideas for the ism variant, but I suspect I should merely ask others for the exact term that has been fixed upon by professionals. (Call this a bleg.)

Nevertheless, I proceed. And I note that it would be especially satisfactory to base the epithet on the philosophical nature of the error.

How? Well . . . racism and sexism, for example, are not just about hatred or “discrimination.” The error in these attitudes, if we drill down to principle, limns the nature of the prejudice: racism is the “making too much of race” by imputing some generalizations about a race to individuals of that race regardless of merit.

Even were the modal Swede socialist-minded, it would be an error to assume that every Swede you meet is a socialist, no matter how statistically relevant the identification with Swedes and socialism. This would be racism, were Swedes considered a race. (Otherwise we could call the error Swedism? I mean, ethnism?)

Similarly with sexism. “Sexism is judging people by their sex,” wrote the coiner of the term, “when sex doesn’t matter.”

Leftist ideologues who will not debate their opponents respectfully, who exclude non-leftists from the community of scholars on criterion of lockstep ideological agreement, put too much stock in their ideas, and have abandoned liberality, tolerance. We could simply and rightly call them illiberals. But that doesn’t quite get to the heart of the matter.

They negatively judge people by their ideas when ideas don’t really matter . . . by ideologies when ideologies shouldn’t matter. But we can’t call these illiberals “ideaists” (“idealism” already having been nabbed for other purposes). Too clumsy.

But hey: we do not need the -ism or -ist, really; there are other suffix options: think of Christianity. Isn’t there an -ity suffix, or something similar?

How about idiots?

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* Encomiast, remember, was defined by Ambrose Bierce as “a special, but not particular kind of liar.”

** If they fear even going halfway to meet people they disagree with, for fear of endlessly parsing disagreement, we could call them Zenologophobes.

Caught a few moments of Scott Adams, on Periscope last night. He explained why calling terrorists such as yesterday’s New York pedestrian killer “cowards” is “not very good persuasion.” Mayor Bill de Blasio just did that, as GWB had in mid-September 2001.

Adams is of course right. “Coward” is inapposite. It makes no inroads into the belief system of would-be terrorists, surely the rhetorical target. As I explained, years ago, in defense of Bill “Politically Incorrect” Maher’s infamous ridicule of Bush’s “faceless cowards” designation, the cowardice charge is weak-minded and pathetic.

A better insult — better even than Trump’s “losers” epithet — would attack the terrorists’ faith and efficacy.

Adams suggests “burning in hell.”

A spin on that might be:

“Damned raisin-eaters.”

You see why, right?

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A local theater is advertising a special night for fans of an upcoming movie. In the deal “concessions” are included.

What a bizarre use of the word. The theater managers seem to think concessions means food and drink.

Though it is not specifically so listed in my dictionary (nearest at hand), I am fairly certain that the etymology runs like this:

In certain venues, the owner/manager would subcontract out the food and drink, as in a caterer — or in the case I grew up with (and with which most folks would find familiar) the school would cede, on game nights, the “refreshments stand” to be run by a school club, for the profit of the club as a fundraiser.

Thus the word concession refers to “a right to undertake and profit by a specified activity a concession to drill for oil : a lease of a portion of premises for a particular purpose; also : the portion leased or the activities carried on. . . .”

In my high school’s case, the band would be granted a concession to profit selling goodies for one event, the home-ec club the next, and so on. Concession thus serves as a term of art within the business ambit of management and volunteers of a kind of service at an event and location.

It does not have any legitimate place in consumer lingo. It makes no logical sense, at least, to apply the word like this, to extend the meaning in this way.

But since kids deal with “concessions” in school, when they grow up and find themselves managing movie theaters, they infer that “concessions” is a reasonable name for a refreshments stand wherein goodies are sold. But it makes no sense in the movie theater for the simple reason that the stand is run by the management, not by a contracting third party, a “concessionaire.”

Thus the language changes, with semantic drift, by the inattention and slovenliness of the speakers. And copywriters.

(This has been a very low-level pet peeve of mine for decades, I . . . concede!)

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img_0050Yesterday, in my first assay into the definition of “mass shooting,” I stopped short of the real oddity of the term, which I was surprised to find nearly everywhere online — the all-too-common assertion that such shootings happen every day in America.

Every day? Really?

When you drill down, you discover that the term has been wrenched away from its original purpose to describe scenarios where one or two or a handful of persons massacre strangers in public, to include gangland turf war murders and much more.

So, what are the definitions? Well, there is some fluidity to the meanings, of course. But we can get some mostly reliable ideas about what these terms of art mean in rigorous usage. The concept of “mass murder” is now defined like this:

The FBI defines mass murder as murdering four or more persons during an event with no “cooling-off period” between the murders. A mass murder typically occurs in a single location where one or more people kill several others. Many acts of mass murder end with the perpetrator(s) dying by suicide or suicide by cop.

Princeton’s Wordnet puts a number of words together:

slaughter, massacre, mass murder, carnage, butchery (noun)
the savage and excessive killing of many people

“Excessive” strikes me as begging an uncomfortable question about what the right number of people to be killed might be.

Now, “mass shooting” is a subset of mass murder, obviously:

mass shooting is an incident involving multiple victims of firearms-related violence. The United States’ Congressional Research Service acknowledges that there is not a broadly accepted definition, and defines a “public mass shooting” as one in which four or more people selected indiscriminately, not including the perpetrator, are killed, echoing the FBI definition of the term “mass murder.” Another unofficial definition of a mass shooting is an event involving the shooting (not necessarily resulting in death) of four or more people with no cooling-off period. Related terms include school shooting and massacre.

Several of the constituent terms in these definitions are contestable, expecially the concept of “indiscriminate selection.” Really? On some level, most mass shooting victim groups are targeted for very clear reasons. The Pulse nightclub shooting, for instance. It was not accidental or random: a gay nightclub was the perfect target for a radicalized Muslim lowlife. Same with the Dylan Roof’s attack upon a church, whose racism was a key factor. Or the more recent case of a black Muslim who shot up Christians at a white church.

In all of these cases, the groups were selected for their representative nature, as embodying the focus for some grievance.

Of course, what we are seeing is preference on one level (the group, with definitions of groups as all-important) and indifference on another (the individuals, indiscriminately selected). A similar distinction must be made in the pure theory of choice, where preference is the usual rule of choice, but indifferent selection can occur among things of equal value to the chooser. (The latter concept explains why Buridan’s ass is more of a joke than a real philosophical puzzle. Even asses assess options using indifferent selection to avoid preference paradoxes.)

A better definition seems to come from a study covered by CNN in late 2016:

Between 1966 and 2012, there were 90 mass shootings in the United States. Mass shootings are defined for the study as having four or more victims and don’t include gang killings or slayings that involve the death of multiple family members. These shootings include the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando in June 2016 — the worst mass shooting in US history — and others in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, both in 2012.

Note that in under half a century there were 90 such events, about two per year. Currently, however, major newspapers are claiming that there is a mass shooting every day. Take the infamous fake news outlet, The New York Times:

More than one a day.

That is how often, on average, shootings that left four or more people wounded or dead occurred in the United States this year, according to compilations of episodes derived from news reports.

So ask yourself: if the secular trend for murder and gun violence is down, how can mass shootings be up? Have interpersonal shootings gone down so much that they offset the dramatic growth in mass shootings?

IMG_4096Seems unlikely. The key is the nature of the study the Times cites: “compilations of episodes derived from news reports.” They are not throwing out family killings and gang and drug-war related shootings. They are counting everything above a mere three victims.

This is probably to sell papers. If crime is generally down, how can you pitch panic?

So the Times and other mainstream media sources try to make things look like they are worse than they are.

Now, I do not want to suggest that gang warfare killings in, say, Chicago are not a real problem. They are. Indeed, they tell us a great many things relevant to crime fighting and gun control as political topics. But they are are far afield from terroristic, vindictive, and spree murder events. Including them may make a jump in the rate of mass shootings per day to skyrocket from 2/365 to 1/1, but this is hardly responsible journalism.

And there is no great mystery behind this. In addition to selling papers, it is obviously in service to an ideological agenda orthogonal to the truth.

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What’s the difference between classical liberalism, anarchism, and libertarianism?

answered on Quora:

Most of the answers given [on Quora] so far concentrate on the terms liberalism and libertarianism. I discuss these two terms, and the two main varieties of anarchism, too, on a blog post I recently wrote: “Grand Theft L-Word.”

IMG_2863So I will summarize: Classical liberalism is today’s term for 18th and 19th century liberalism. Most scholarly people, and most who all themselves libertarians, understand this. But many people today, perhaps not so well read, think “classical liberalism” is FDR’s ideology. This is an error. But carelessness and ignorance are the leading causes of lexical drift, so maybe that will become an accepted truth some day. But, as of now, the truth is, “liberal” was taken away from individualists by collectivists, and the remnant started using the designator “libertarian.” It, however, had already been taken up by anarchists of a variety of stripes, so things get complicated.

IMG_4661Anarchism is the term for a variety of anti-statist philosophies all of which oppose political governance through The State. But those on the ideological Left think that the reason to oppose the State is because it props up private property and trade, and does so with its laws and institutions. But individualist anarchists opposed the State because they see monopoly political governance as a chief opponent of private property, and a perverter of trade — and they want a rule of law, and think such a thing can emerge without the institutions of defense and adjudication to claim or practice any kind of territorial sovereignty. Individualist anarchists insist that all alliances among individuals and institutions be built on explicit contract, not fake “social contracts” that are nothing more than the result of bluster, duress.

The modern terms for individualist anarchism are “anarcho-capitalism” and (more confusingly) “libertarian anarchism.”

None of these terms are incontestible. It is worth noting that the first coherent exponent of the individualist anarchist position, Gustave de Molinari, a Belgian economist of the French Harmony School, never referred to his system of “competitive government” (see “The Production of Security,” 1849) as anarchistic. He considered himself a liberal, and argued extensively with socialists of all varieties, including those many incoherent advocates of “anarchism.” A better term for the Molinarian proposal was devised late in the century: panarchism. But it has never caught on.

img_4664In the late 19th century, many of the more radical classical liberals had abandoned Liberalism for “individualism.” See the writings of Auberon Herbert (who coined a term for his variant, “voluntaryism”), J. H. Levy, and Wordsworth Donisthorpe. A mere generation later H. L. Mencken used that term to defend a simple market-based republicanism in Men versus the Man. More radical forms of individualism were revived by Albert Jay Nock, Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, and Ayn Rand in the decades after, and at mid-century this group in America took “libertarian” from the anarchists. And then these anarchists manqué reinvented the Molinarian idea, and things got even more confusing.

In the 1960s, a simple newsletter called Innovator had begun its life as Liberal Innovator. Other samizdat journals abounded in this decade, and by 1972, the Libertarian Party had been formed by Ayn Rand fans who had given up on Nixon’s heavily statist Republican administration.

The Libertarian Party has always harbored both so-called anarchists and “minarchists” — advocates of a strictly limited minimal (“nightwatchman”) state — and, increasingly in recent years, hordes of vague “constitutional republicans.”

Amidst this confusion, I sometimes clarify by recalling an 1830s political movement, Loco-Focoism. Since I am agnostic about the ultimate legal and political status of an ideal free society, I often call myself a “LocoFoco agnarchist,” the latter term a droll coinage of an erstwhile colleague of mine, the Reason writer Jesse Walker.

“Neoliberalism,” an ugly term for libertarianism, classical liberalism, or just pro-market conservatism and globalism, is a pejorative often used by Europeans and leftists. I know of no libertarian who can stand the term. The fact that it is used by witless leftists of the Naomi Klein variety helps explain that.

It is worth noting that Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce coined a simpler term for the anti-fascist, anti-statist liberal revival: liberism.

It has not yet caught on. It seems that Croce was not a supporter of laissez-faire, though, so the propriety of appropriating it for modern individualist liberalism is open to question.

And now you should be able to see the rationale for my preferred term for all these terms for private property, rule of law, free trade individualists: “individualist liberalism.”

It hasn’t exactly caught on either.

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Readers of The Figures of Earth: A Comedy of Appearances, have probably wondered, as I have for nearly four decades, about the lore surrounding the word “geas,” apparently meaning a binding pledge or promise, which appears in the book repeatedly.

IMG_3989The word suggests the chivalrous approach to life that James Branch Cabell contrasts with the poetic and gallant attitudes.

The word popped into my head again today, and upon this occasion of memory I looked it up using Google’s ngram viewer.

The most interesting use I found, preceding Cabell, is by William Sharp writing as Fiona Macleod in 1899. The book is The Dominion of Dreams, and the word can be found in the chapter titled “Honey of the Wild Bees.”

“Geas,” we discover, is singular; “geasan” is the plural. (In The Grimoire, from 1990, we are told the plural is “geasa.”)

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Look for the volume on Google Books. The Dominion of Dreams actually appears more than relevant to Cabell’s work — the title indicates that clearly enough — even disregarding this particular strange word’s meaning and etymology, there illumined.

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The debate over whether “capitalism” should be used by libertarians and other supporters of free markets waxes rather than wanes. Last week,* Sheldon Richman published “Is Capitalism Something Good?” on Freeman Online. And I can see why Stephan Kinsella calls this an “extremely frustrating” debate. We never get very far.

My favorite of Richman’s points is lexical:

At the semantic level, capitalism is an unfortunate word when applied to the free market. It suggests a privileged status for capital over other factors of production, which is not the case in a free market. A capitalist is not a believer in capitalism but rather an owner of capital. One can be a socialist capitalist, that is, one who owns capital while favoring a system called socialism.

In my younger days of argumentation, people would sometimes accuse me of being a capitalist. Well, in those younger days I was broke. I had no savings. I had nothing to invest, and invested in nothing but my own mind. So I would correct them: “Hey, I’m near the poverty line. No enjoy-capitalismcapitalists down here! Besides, I support laissez-faire because it regulates businesses: It enforces a rule of law that disallows businesses from demanding I pay for their goods if I don’t want their goods, or pay more than I would under competition, which laissez faire also enforces. I am not a capitalist, because I insist that we keep capitalists in their place.”

This is the basic truth about the word: A “capitalist” was first known not as a defender of any system, but as one who had money to invest, or investments that returned money. It is logically odd, then, to use the word “capitalism” to identify a system whose supporters  could very well be not capitalists!

I’m not quite in the same place as I was in those days, and don’t take that rhetorical tack as often. I have a long history of being leery of the word. I cannot remember Herbert Spencer, whose general approach I admire, making a pitch for “capitalism” as a system. (His witty acquaintance Henry Makepeace Thackeray first used that term in this fashion. He was no anti-capitalist, but he was an ironist, and I won’t wager on what the precise meaning of his intent.) But Ayn Rand, notoriously, did. She published a book under her name entitled Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. When Spencer and Rand appear at odds, I long ago learned to side with Spencer.

But there are some things to be said in favor of “capitalism.” For one, it is known. It is less cumbersome than, say, “free enterprise,” a phrase that traditionalists conservatives have abused for years, as a synonym for the Main Street variety of crony capitalism.

I recently argued** for an open, inclusive use of the term capitalism. Capitalism describes any system with private means of production and a labor market. Existing forms of capitalism are, in most every case, dirigistic — that is, subject to multiple and dominating government controls. But the less government direct, micromanaging control you have, and the more the whole system rests upon a rule of law, the more it exhibits the libertarian ideal of laissez faire. Yes, another French term . . . but it’s a lot better known than dirigisme.

The sad truth of the situation is that dirigisme is the letter and spirit of modern law far more than laissez faire is.

So we can continue to use the term “capitalism” as long as we are clear about its modifier, dirigistic or laissez-faire.

However, let’s be frank: All terms have been contested and are therefore contestable. Every term has its problems of connotation as well denotation. “Laissez Faire” suffered under Herbert Spencer’s able attack as “That Miserable Laissez Faire.” We all know what’s happened to “liberalism.” And “Libertarianism” has been caught in a tug-of-war between, uh, pro-capitalists and anti-capitalists for a long time.

Such it is in ideological debate — and yes, every one of us who espouses some policy or some regime or another is an ideologue. None of us are above that (despite Marx’s attempt to squelch the term low in the echelon of epistemics).

For the same reason, we must use the words in circulation, no matter how tainted they may be. We have only a limited ability to influence their meaning. The meanings are “out there,” in the realm of intersubjectivity, if not objectivity, where truth is said to reside.

So, the term “capitalism” is not one that I’d fight much over. “Liberal,” on the other hand, is a great term to defend. I like to call modern so-called liberals by a much more apt term: Prodigal.

But most people don’t know what that means, either. And that’s mainly because most people are sloppy users of language who can write whole sermons on a contested word without once looking it up.

A prodigal is someone who spends too much, too extravagantly. Prodigality is the excess of which “liberality” is the virtue. Which fits an observation of Leonard Read’s from about the time I was born: A liberal, today, is liberal only in the sense that he’s liberal in spending other people’s money. Similarly, a progressive, today, notoriously believes in no form of progress other than the growth of the state.

It’s the prodigal advocates of dirigisme that we must oppose, today. I’m not sure giving them the word capitalism is the way to wrest victory from their rapacious desire to take, take, take from the liberalism of yore.

In fact, there’s not much I’d give them. Not even their pretense to good intentions.

But, if we do end up defending the word “capitalism” now and then, let’s not univocally ever defend capitalists, as such. Not any more than we defend wage laborers or entrepreneurs or professionals. Any person from any group, no matter how good, can stray to the point of demanding special favors from governments, bailouts and subsidies and the like. Besides, I’ve known a number of asshole capitalists, not a few who did not bother placing themselves above the practice of petty fraud as modus operandi. Shun them, even if (insofar as they cannot be caught in their frauds) one grants them their rights to trade and, in general, live their asshole lives.

Now that I think of it, one could generally hate capitalists, but love the system.*** Laissez faire is a form of regulation, a check upon business power. The rule of law, in which rights to liberty receive general protection, is an amazing defense against rapaciousness. Indeed, that’s probably the reason why most people oppose it. They want to act rapaciously while pretending to act nobly.

Ah, anti-capitalist capitalism! Not, I gather, a great motive force for progress or political reform or revolution. But there’s a t-shirt slogan in there somewhere.

twv

* This article first appeared on The Libertarian Standard on April 20, 2010. A very few words have been changed or elided in this reprint, and one new link placed.

** This “recent” argument was reprinted yesterday at this location.

*** The sheer number of possibile takes on “capitalism” is the result of a general confusion over the meaning of the word, Daniel Kian Mc Kiernan explained a year after I wrote the above. I will have to address his points in a future essay. One of the reasons to unearth and repost these blog entries is to provide an excuse to consider Mc Kiernan’s perspective.

A number of writers from across the political spectrum have been writing about the word “capitalism” recently.* What does it mean? Do we have what it signifies? Does talking about such a seemingly vague thing increase our understanding?

enjoy-capitalismJohn Stossel argues that we don’t live under capitalism, unless you modify the word to mean “crony capitalism.” His essay “Let’s Take the ‘Crony’ Out of ‘Crony Capitalism’” makes a very familiar case:

The word “capitalism” is used in two contradictory ways. Sometimes it’s used to mean the free market, or laissez faire. Other times it’s used to mean today’s government-guided economy. Logically, “capitalism” can’t be both things. Either markets are free or government controls them. We can’t have it both ways.

The truth is that we don’t have a free market — government regulation and management are pervasive — so it’s misleading to say that “capitalism” caused today’s problems. The free market is innocent.

But it’s fair to say that crony capitalism created the economic mess.

This is all very well and good. Accurate in its own way. But I am not sure we should give in to either libertarians who want to defend free markets or statists who want to bury them in red tape. “Capitalism” isn’t a word that means just one thing, just as “democracy” isn’t a word that means just one thing. One usage isn’t obviously better than another. Thackeray’s coinage serves more than one master.

I support laissez-faire. It’s a great and noble — and ultra-civilized — policy. But laissez-faire isn’t the only form of capitalism. Indeed, the dominant form has always been some form of dirigisme, or piecemeal state control of market activity.

So, I suggest letting everybody use the word “capitalism” in a broad sense, as an economic system featuring a large degree of private property both at the consumer and producer levels, wide market interaction in both consumer and producer goods, and fully developed labor markets.

It nevertheless remains the case that laissez-faire is more capitalistic than dirigisme. For, the more state control of markets, the more limitations on private property — particularly with command-and-control regulation, rather than rule-of-law oversight — capitalism morphs into socialism. The more government you have, the less the capitalist element dominates.

To put this more straightforwardly, capitalism is defined by the features that laissez-faire unreservedly supports: private property, freedom of contract, markets in capital goods, and contract labor. So, though dirisgistic capitalism is indeed capitalism, laissez-faire capitalism is “more capitalistic,” by the standards of its very definition.

There is one sense that this understanding, however, is not true. That’s the sense in which dirigistic capitalism serves capitalists, that is, people with money. It is a truism of government that it rarely serves all, equally. And it is also a truism that money talks in politics. So, dirigistic capitalism amounts to little more than plutocracy.

This sad truth comes as a shock to those who hail from the left. Those leftists who propose to make capitalism more dirigistic often merely serve as useful idiots for the very rich. Businesses have a long history supporting mercantalist policies, policies that so-called “progressives” thought “regulated business.” Instead, regulations most often help business cartelize, even monopolize, their positions. Getting the upper hand is something many businessmen attempt, and attempt through government.

Such operations have taken many forms, from anti-trust (which actually makes businesses less competitive) through micromanaging regulation to outright subsidy.

It can be quite amusing to watch a standard-brand leftist make all the arguments necessary for businesses to trump their market competition. The trump being, of course, government.

This was most entertainingly seen in the recent bailouts, where it was a whole class of bankers and intermediaries who were aided, not the general run of market participants. Indeed, bankers’ jobs and intermediaries’ jobs were made secure, and their fortunes restored, while the economy lurched out of control and into double-digit unemployment. Such is the logic of dirigisme: Not very logical.

Very political, though.

The great rule of capitalism is that everybody’s worth differs in differing contexts. Laissez-faire is a form of regulating capitalism by the rule of law, trying to set a political limit on the value of human beings. In laissez-faire, the political value of people are equalized by their equal rights to liberty and free contract. But under dirigistic capitalism, the fluctuating value of human beings is re-introduced into the political system because rights no longer regulate human interaction, micromanaging policy-makers do. So everything goes up for grabs.

Under dirigisme you get the general exploitation of the politically weak by the politically powerful — two classes that continually shift, according to the deals and machinations of politicians. You get what Anthony de Jasay calls “the churning state.”

I have no special love for the term “capitalism,” and see no great and overriding reason to shore it up. I just want people to be able to talk to each other about the realities of the current (and past) social world. Capitalism obviously exists in some form today. But it is obviously not laissez-faire capitalism. What we are blessed with and suffer under is dirigistic capitalism.

Two French terms. Why not?

It should be remembered, though, that dirigisme is the ancient, traditional state practice. It flows naturally out of the limited-access society’s basic deal: Tough guys provide order, and in “exchange” we — each of us — gets a fairly stable, quasi-guaranteed place in that state, however lowly.

The idea of laissez-faire, though perennial, is much newer, and quite revolutionary. It is deeply associated with the idea of a rule of law, and its main feature, on the personal level, is personal freedom, the ability to choose what you do in life.

It is always amusing to me how advocates of dirigistic capitalism so readily devolve into advocates of ancient political notions of status. Both centrist Republicans and Democrats tend to move in that direction, and leftists, in particular, keep reviving ancient notions of class and “my station and its duties.”

The great thing about laissez-faire is that it allows us that opportunity to throw off the shackles of time and chance and programming, it conjures up the ability to remake oneself, correct course. This allows for a great amount of progress and flexibility. But stability? Nothing can be guaranteed.

Those who want guarantees of place and position, they tend to hate the freedom in laissez-faire. They don’t want government to “let others act” within the confines of a rule of law, they want more regulation.

Ah, regulation!

The lifeblood of dirigisme. The command structure of socialism. The inheritance of the conquerors who established the first states. At one with military orders, the darling of bureaucracies, the goal of most politicians. It is coercion instantiated in its most paradigmatic act.

The paradigmatic acts of laissez-faire, on the other hand? First, the trade; and, second, being held responsible for one’s own actions.

But I’m more than willing to admit that “capitalism” fits a broader history than the ideal of laissez-faire. So the word must be modified. “Dirisgistic” will do. I offer it to those reasonable people — see, for instance, Stephan Kinsella in his recent essay “Capitalism, Socialism, and Libertarianism” — who wish to keep their terms straight and move beyond semantic disagreement to substantive argument.

And perhaps more French words could be found for the varying degrees of control that have characterized American market life.

twv

* This essay was originally posted April 16, 2010, on The Lesson Applied, by Wirkman Virkkala. A very few changes have been made to the original text.