Not too long ago, when George W. Bush was President and Republicans controlled both houses of Congress, some despairing liberals turned to George Lakoff for help. Lakoff is a linguist at the University of California, Berkeley, who specializes in the conceptual structures underlying language. A progressive himself, and the author of several books about political language, he claimed that conservatives were winning politically because they had managed to define the terms of the policy debates; even those who did not accept the conservative position had implicitly bought into a conceptual framework that made it difficult to state their opposition effectively.
To illustrate his point, Lakoff often used the example of Bush’s call for tax relief.
The phrase "Tax relief"… got picked up by the newspapers as if it were a neutral term, which it is not. First, you have the frame for "relief." For there to be relief, there has to be an affliction, an afflicted party, somebody who administers the relief, and an act in which you are relieved of the affliction. The reliever is the hero, and anybody who tries to stop [him] is the bad guy….
Liberals who wanted to increase taxes to pay for government programs, he said, would not win the debate merely by citing the specific benefits of new programs. They also needed to put the concept of taxes into a different framework, to reconceive them not as an imposition but as the dues you pay to be an American, to be a responsible member of a country that offers an immense array of services and support.
We have regressed to an earlier stage of political development.
However tendentious that analysis may be, Lakoff’s underlying premise is correct. It matters how we conceptualize political issues. The concepts we use in conscious thought and speech are cognitive tools that integrate a wide range of observations and prior conclusions, and are linked with related concepts into frameworks with which we interpret the world. The cognitive material we integrate in learning a concept, including the connections with related concepts, is largely implicit, below the level of conscious awareness, but it nevertheless affects the content of our concepts. When this implicit content changes, a concept can change its meaning.
In the United States and Europe, for example, the birth of the welfare state in the early 20th century was enabled, in part, by a change in the way people understood the concepts of freedom and rights. The classical liberals of the Enlightenment understood freedom as the absence of coercive interference in choosing one’s actions. The classical rights to life, liberty, and property protected the individual against assaults on his life, constraints on his liberty, and the theft or expropriation of his property. In the course of the 19th century, however, intellectuals reconceived freedom as the ability to realize one’s potential, which requires access to certain goods such as food, shelter, education, and insurance against disease. Because the concepts of freedom and rights are connected, this change in the understanding of freedom led these intellectuals to speak of rights to these goods—rights to have them supplied by society if one could not acquire them through his own efforts.
Thanks to Ayn Rand
and other libertarian thinkers, the difference between these two conceptions of rights is now widely familiar, and those who support the cause of a truly free society understand that they must oppose any notion of a right to goods provided by others. But there are many other concepts and conceptual frameworks that will also need to change if the cause of a free society is to succeed.
One of the most important cases is the concept of what is public as opposed to private.
Public vs. Private
At root, the term “public” refers to the people of a society as a whole. On that basis, we distinguish between public and private along many dimensions of life in society, but all of them are variants of two basic distinctions.
The first is the distinction between the public sector and the private sector, i.e., between government—as an institution that has authority over all members of a society, and, in a democratic republic, is open to participation by all members—and the realm of voluntary association among particular individuals and groups. Thus public debt is government debt, as opposed to debt owed by individuals or corporations. Public employees are government workers, public schools are schools operated and funded by government, public works are roads and other infrastructure maintained by government, etc. This is the strictly political sense of the concept “public.”
The second public/private distinction is between those aspects of our lives that are open to the public in general and those we share “by invitation only.” A dinner party in your home is a private affair, but a restaurant is open to the public. A letter or email is a private communication, as opposed to what you publish—i.e., make public—in a letter to the editor or a comment in an online forum. The stock of a private corporation is held by a specific set of owners, whereas stock in a public company can be bought or sold on exchanges open to anyone. These are examples of what we might call the social meaning of the concept “public,” since they involve our relationships with other members of society but do not inherently involve government.
The political and social concepts of “public” are obviously related, and both are valid. They are required by the fact that we exist as individuals but live in organized societies. Yet it is essential to distinguish them.
Many concepts and conceptual frameworks will need to change if the cause of a free society is to succeed.
Separating the two concepts of “public” was an historic achievement of the classical liberals of the Enlightenment, including the Founding Fathers of the United States. In earlier societies, any aspect of an individual’s life that was public in the social sense was open to political control, from marriage to commerce to religious ceremony. In ancient Rome, res publica—“the public things,” from which our term “republic” is derived—included everything outside the domestic sphere of the family and was subject to law and politics. It was the classical liberals who finally grasped that government is an institution with a specific nature (its power to enforce its edicts coercively), with a specific and limited function (to protect individual rights and adjudicate disputes about rights). They did not deny that many other aspects of life in society, from religion to commerce to culture, were matters of public concern. It is just that those public issues are not the business of the particular institution that is government.
The distinction between the two concepts of what is public was attacked by a long line of leftists. In Marx’s fantasy of the pure communist society, there would be no government, and thus no public sector; yet in the social sense of “public,” people’s lives would be totally public, with no private life whatever. The same hostility to private affairs is expressed in the feminist claim that “the personal is political.”
Most people in our society have not gone that far. But they have embraced a conception of government’s role that is more expansive than that of the Founding Fathers, and one reason is the erosion of the clear distinction between the two concepts of what is public.
A case in point is the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned discrimination on the basis of race, religion, or national origin in places of “public accommodation.” The intent of that legislation was to outlaw public discrimination. It banned discrimination on the part of government in such things as voting requirements and government-funded programs; and on the part of restaurants, hotels, and other establishments open to the public, exempting only private clubs and religious organizations. There is a clear difference between the obligation of government to treat its citizens equally—a requirement of the rule of law—and the freedom of a restaurant-owner to admit or refuse customers as he prefers, even if his preferences are bigoted. But the difference was papered over by the dual meaning of “public.”
Another example of this equivocation is the idea of the public interest. Virtually every expansion of government power has been supported by the claim that it is in the public interest. Like the concept of welfare rights, the concept of the public interest has been an enabler of the welfare state. It has also enabled the regulatory state that imposes restrictions and mandates over most areas of private activity. For that reason, many advocates of freedom have rejected the idea out of hand.
But there is nothing wrong with the idea in itself. Indeed, the proper understanding of government requires it. Governments are instituted among men, as the Declaration of Independence says, to secure their rights. Our rights as individuals are necessary conditions for life in society, and we therefore have a common interest as members of society—i.e., a public interest—in the proper functioning of the institution that protects them. Public officials who carry out that goal are serving the public interest, while those who bend government to serve other purposes are acting against the public interest, whether they are using public office to enrich themselves or to benefit some other private interest.
As John Adams put it,
Government is instituted for the common good; for the protection, safety, prosperity, and happiness of the people; and not for profit, honor, or private interest of any one man, family, or class of men….
His argument was directed against the British king and aristocracy, who claimed the right to special status and benefits from the state. But Adams’s point applies equally well to the way our own government distributes favors to corporations, unions, farmers, homeowners, poor people, retirees, and on and on.
These favors are rationalized by equating the political sense of “public” with the social sense, creating the expectation that all economic relationships, which are public in the social sense, are fit subjects for public oversight and control in the political sense, i.e., by government. In effect, we have regressed to an earlier stage of political development, when all areas of life outside a narrow zone of privacy were part of an undifferentiated conception of res publica.
A Conceptually Clear Future
This is not to say that the expansion of government power in the 20th century was solely the result of conceptual confusion. There were substantive philosophical premises at work. But the conceptual confusion aided and abetted the trend, and now makes it more difficult to challenge the premises. Clearing up that confusion is a necessary step on the road to a stable free society.
There are many other concepts that play a role in politics, that are currently misconceived or otherwise detached from reality, and that people need to understand if they are to support a free society. A short list would include “equality,” “power,” “coercion,” “capitalism,” and that staple of high school civics, the difference between a democracy and a republic.
Imagine the high school of the future. It would not have civics classes per se, which reflect the mission of government-run schools to prepare students to become good citizens. But the privately-owned, commercial schools of the future would presumably want to teach something about government and politics. Imagine teachers who understood and explained to their students the two meanings of “public,” the difference between liberty rights and welfare rights, and similarly for the other concepts I mentioned. Imagine that these lessons were actually learned by most students, and that public discussions of politics, from the media to town meetings, were conducted on the assumption that any educated person would understand what these concepts actually mean.
That alone would not be enough to create a free society. Perhaps it would not be enough even to sustain one already in existence. But conceptual clarity would
give people the cognitive means to understand the contrasting principles of freedom and statism. And as Ayn Rand
said, “When opposite basic principles are clearly and openly defined, it works to the advantage of the rational side” (“The Anatomy of Compromise,” Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal
David Kelley earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University in 1975, and later taught cognitive science and philosophy at Vassar College and Brandeis University. His articles on social issues and public policy have appeared in Harpers, The Sciences, Reason, Harvard Business Review, The Freeman, and elsewhere. His books include Unrugged Individualism: The Selfish Basis of Benevolence; The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand; The Evidence of the Senses; and The Art of Reasoning, one of the most widely used logic textbooks in the country. Kelley is founder and executive director of The Atlas Society.
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