I posted recently about how some people try to use definitions to shortcut discussion about various issues. This is closely related to an idea Steven Pinker calls the “euphemism treadmill.” In short, this describes how people attempt to relabel ideas or concepts to improve their appeal. The process was once explained in the following way by the (very family-unfriendly) standup comedian Doug Stanhope, describing how doctors would refer to people of limited cognitive ability:

Doctors would use the term “imbecile” or “moron” …Moron and imbecile were the correct terms for a while. And what happened is we co-opted those words to call our friend when he does something incredibly stupid, to the point where it became an insult. So out of sensitivity, they changed the word to “retarded.” And what happened is we co-opted that word to call our friend when he does something incredibly stupid. So, you can keep changing the word, and if you make a new one stick, that’s what I’m going to call my friend.

Certain concepts have bad associations attached to them – and some people think that if a new label is used, the new label will remove the negative associations with the concept. But often, all that happens is the negative association attached to the concept just gets transferred to the new label, leading to a repeat of the process. This is why what was once considered polite and forward-looking terminology at one time might be considered an offensive slur some years down the road. 

What I described in my previous post were attempts to use the idea behind the euphemism treadmill in the reverse direction – attempts to use labels to transfer negative associations onto rather than away from certain concepts or ideas. Hence, if you can simply define unequal outcomes as racist, then the negative associations with racism will be transferred onto unequal outcomes. But one should be very cautious about attempting this tactic – it’s a very double-edged sword. 

Attempting this move runs the risk that the transfer won’t work the way you want – instead of the negative valence of the word being transferred to the concept, it might work out that positive associations with the concept remove the negative valence from the word. In my earlier post, I referenced a program that argues “either/or” thinking is a tenant of white supremacy culture. This is just one of a number of programs that try to label a variety of concepts as intrinsically part of white supremacy – including concepts like punctuality, being objective, the scientific method, belief in hard work, and rational thinking. These aren’t exactly things most people will find off-putting, and if you managed to convince people that “rational thinking” is somehow inherently in support of white supremacy, you run the risk they’ll conclude “well, maybe this means white supremacy isn’t such a bad thing after all.” 

I think a version of this has already happened as it relates to the term “socialism.” Many people with classical liberal sympathies have been dismayed at recent polls showing increasing support for socialism, especially among the young. However, digging a little deeper, you find that a significant portion of people who are advocating for socialism say they want policies reflective of Scandinavia, not Venezuela. This, in turn, leads more market friendly people to point out that the Scandinavian countries are not socialist countries – they are unambiguously free-market capitalist countries. Fareed Zakaria, for example, points out that making the US more like Sweden would mean having more billionaires per capita (who can pass on all their wealth because there are no inheritance or estate taxes), having a tax system where the wealthy have a much lower tax burden while the middle class and poor have a much higher tax burden, removing barriers to free trade, having much less economic regulation and fewer price controls, no minimum wage laws, school choice and vouchers, and high out-of-pocket costs for medical care. 

Of course, what the Nordic countries also have is a high level of spending on social safety nets, with a very strong welfare state (again, funded by a much less progressive tax system that places a much lower total tax burden on the wealthy). People who are saying they want socialism often mean they want this kind of social safety net. They aren’t advocating for state ownership of the means of production.

Originally, socialism referred to a system where the means of production were owned and operated by the state. In the United States in particular, communism and socialism were very negatively valanced words. This in turn made it an attractive tactic to try to shortcut arguments against policies by labeling them as “socialist,” in order to try to transfer the negative valence of that term onto the policies. Thus, even though welfare-state programs don’t involve state ownership of the means of production, one could try to attack welfare programs by attaching the socialist label to them. But this tactic has backfired. Welfare and social safety net programs are really popular among American citizens, and the repeated use of “socialism” to describe them hasn’t transferred a negative valence to the idea of social safety nets. It’s simply removed the negative valence from the term “socialism”, leading many people to say to themselves, “Well, if that’s what socialism is, then socialism doesn’t sound so bad to me.” And there’s a risk that rationally ignorant voters, seeking to support Nordic-style capitalism, might end up empowering Venezuela-style socialism.