Are You Asking or Telling?
By David Henderson
I had a smart aleck friend in high school, Jack McKay, who, when a teacher ordered us to go to the principal, whispered “Are you asking or telling?” I laughed out loud and, if I recall, got in deeper trouble. I often think of my friend Jack’s line when I hear Obama and others talk about how they’re asking rich people (he means “high-income people” but he, like his opponents, seems incapable of making that distinction) to pay more taxes.
Is he asking or telling? Of course he’s not asking. He’s telling. He can ask Congress to legislate new taxes but once that legislation is in place, the IRS doesn’t “ask” us. It requires us to pay.
Words matter. As psychiatrist Thomas Szasz put it:
The struggle for definition is veritably the struggle for life itself. In the typical Western two men fight desperately for the possession of a gun that has been thrown to the ground: whoever reaches the weapon first shoots and lives; his adversary is shot and dies. In ordinary life, the struggle is not for guns but for words; whoever first defines the situation is the victor; his adversary, the victim.
It’s important to be careful in your use of language. That’s why I always, for example, use the term “U.S. government” when I mean “U.S. government” and don’t, as so many people do, use the term “we” or “us” when I mean “U.S. government.” See my articles “Who is ‘We’?” and “Who is ‘We’, Part Two.”
That’s why it’s upsetting to see my allies use the same language. I note two recent instances.
First, in a recent article, “Why London is Yawning Over the Olympics,” Reason writer Shikha Dalmia writes:
No doubt the Brits are in a bad mood because they are being asked to foot the bill for the games during a time of austerity, when England’s economy is doing a double dip.
They aren’t upset because they’re being “asked” to foot the bill. They would know how t reply if asked and would likely be only mildly upset by having to take the time to say no. They’re upset because they know they’ll be taxed, that is, required, to foot the bill. I know and like Shikha and her work. But how hard would it have been for her to substitute the word “required” for “asked?” Now, if she tells me that Reason required (not asked) her to use the word “asked,” then my beef is with Reason. I’m betting they didn’t.
Second, I was at Hoover last week taping a show for PBS with two other economists, Walter Williams and John Taylor. Walter and I were disagreeing about immigration laws. Walter said he didn’t know anyone who would object to Immigration officials saying, when you arrive in the country, “Can I see your passport?” I replied to Walter that Immigration officials don’t say “Can I?” They give orders. The good news is that I think, by his facial expression, that Walter got it. You can disagree honestly about immigration requirements. I would bet that most of my libertarian friends would want that basic level of government control. But then we should call it what it is. They’re not “asking.”