Words and meaning (good theft and bad)
By Scott Sumner
Many people like to attack ideas by linking them up with words that have ambiguous meaning, but either very positive or very negative connotations. Then they use the word as a sort of crude cudgel, to bash their opponent. This is a particularly reprehensible way of arguing, and shows a poverty of imagination. I’ll start with terrorism, and then move on to science and theft.
I sometimes hear people say that the bombing of Hiroshima was an act of terrorism, which killed many more people than 9/11. Of course the term ‘terrorism’ is not well-defined, recall the old joke that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. But I do find the claim to be plausible. After all, we killed many thousands of innocent Japanese civilians with the goal of terrorizing the Japanese into meeting our political demands. But here’s what I object to. The people that make this claim often believe they have thereby advanced the argument that bombing Hiroshima was a bad idea. But they have not done so. Was it good terrorism or bad terrorism? Did ending the war quickly save many more Japanese civilian lives on the mainland (recall the horrific civilian casualty total in the attack on the relative small island of Okinawa.) I don’t wish to debate the issue, and indeed I don’t know the correct answer. All I know is that taking a word with an ambiguous meaning and negative connotation and attaching it to a policy you don’t like doesn’t advance the argument one iota.
Adam Ozimek almost invariably has thoughtful posts, and this one on the question of whether economics is a science is no exception. There is much that one could say on this topic. The meaning of science has changed radically over time, and economics is unquestionably a science by the original definition. But even today the meaning is quite ambiguous. The millions of people who use the phrase “social science” presumably believe it is a science, millions of other people don’t think so. Some of the arguments against economics being a science would also seem to suggest that observational fields like astronomy are not science, as well as fields with low predictive ability like meteorology and volcanology. It’s all a big muddle. But I do think that Adam overlooked one very important point. It doesn’t matter whether economics is a science.
Unlike terrorism, science has a positive connotation. I’d say deservedly, although of course it also gave us the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, it has helped destroy much of the environment, and helped to radically reduce the population of many species (as did economics). Still, overall I like science. But I also like social science, even if it’s not a science. And I like art. Many commenters will tell me that science has done much more for mankind that social science or art. That argument seems silly to me, lacking imagination. I suppose an engine seems like the most important part of a car. But without the transmission it still wouldn’t go anywhere. Ditto for the wheels.
Life would be almost unimaginably primitive without some crude from of science. But that’s equally true of social science and art. Yes, without science we’d be back in the Stone Age, or worse (defining science broadly to include crude engineering.) But social science is equally important. Perhaps the best example is the two Koreas, which have similar cultures and similar access to scientific truth. North Korea builds 100 story buildings and atomic bombs. That’s enough science to be at least as rich as South Korea or Spain. But instead it suffers waves of mass starvation, and other horrors like concentration camps. Bad social science.
Art might seem the least important, but if it’s defined broadly to include popular art, and even Stone Age art like storytelling, music, and dance, then it’s also an essential component of the good life. Without any art at all, life would be almost unbearable, hardly worth living. So if someone tells me that meteorology is a science and accounting and law are not, my response is “so what?” Why should I care? If they have a “nah nah nah” attitude, I make a mental note not to waste time arguing with them.
The esteemed philosopher Matt Bruenig recently taunted me as follows:
Second, libertarian brains desperately crave the feeling that they are super-logical and super-rational and that other brains don’t get it. Which is funny because libertarian political philosophy is the most logically incoherent political philosophy, perhaps ever. Lastly, libertarian brains generally (Nozick excepted) fail to realize that property is theft, which it is.
Many commenters noted the irony of the fact that you can’t have theft unless you take someone else’s property. But let’s put that aside. The real problem is much deeper. Over at MoneyIllusion I responded as follows:
I’ll take the bait. I agree that property is theft. Or at least I’m willing to grant permission to Bruenig to define words however he wishes. So what next? Property is theft, where to we go from there? That’s easy, we start thinking about what sort of theft to allow, and what sort to make illegal. Let’s ban theft that reduces aggregate utility, and legalize theft that raises aggregate utility. After all, words are just words, what matters is meaning. So here’s my suggestion:
1. We ban bad theft like burglary, slavery, and intellectual property rights for business practices. [Now I would add property like the word ‘how.‘]
2. We legalize good theft like the privatization of Chinese and Cambodian communes, which prevented millions from starving to death. Or stealing from the super rich with a progressive consumption tax and giving the money to low wage workers.
I wonder how Bruenig feels about theft? Does he oppose all theft, or does he agree with utilitarian libertarians like me?
I can imagine that quite a few libertarians that read this blog will disagree with my support for moderate redistribution. And that’s fine; I may well be wrong. Government policymaking is a very complex area, and there are lots of negative side effects from redistribution. But please, do not respond to my arguments with the claim that “taxation is theft.” Yes, it’s not as silly as the “property is theft” claim, but it really doesn’t advance the debate one iota. I’ll just respond, “OK, but is it the good or the bad kind of theft?”