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Coming to Terms with Rhetoric

I am, as they say these days, bummed.  The reason is that I had to miss last evening the 2013 edition of the always-fun CEI annual dinner – this year featuring one of the few politicians who I hold in rather high regard, in addition to the great Deirdre McCloskey (deserving recipient of CEI’s 2013 Julian Simon Award).

The reason I missed CEI’s dinner is because I was committed to attending another – and equally fun – dinner, just up Pennsylvania Avenue from where the CEI folk and friends celebrated.  That dinner was a Fund for American Studies soiree at which my colleague, Walter Williams, was deservedly honored with TFAS’s David R. Jones Lifetime Achievement Award.  Congratulations Walter!


Earlier in the day, though, I did get to spend some time with Deirdre, commenting at a Cato Institute lunchtime event on the manuscript of her forthcoming volume, The Treasured Bourgeoise.  If and when Cato makes a video of that event available, I’ll post it here at the Cafe: Deirdre’s remarks are always worthwhile.

I’ll spare you the full contents of my comments, but will share with you some words and phrases that are common today, at least in American English, and that are relevant to Deirdre’s important message that rhetoric is hugely influential – much more influential than most economists understand.

In nearly all contexts, words and phrases inevitably convey not only information (such as, as Deirdre would say, “telephone numbers”), but also ideas – notions – interpretations – perspectives – biases – prejudices – spins -approval or disapproval – informal theories – attitudes and judgments – unconscious conclusions.  And much of all this that is conveyed by our words and phrases goes unnoticed.  This fact is neither good nor bad; it’s simply part of the human condition.

Take the term “natural resources” (which I’ve written about before; for example, here).  This phrase suggests that some things of value to human beings occur naturally – without any human effort or creativity.  But that suggestion is wrong.  Nothing is naturally a resource; nature alone invests nothing with resourcefulness; ultimately, resources – all resources – are created by human beings.  Nature creates raw materials, but never creates resources.  Raw materials and human artifacts are made into resources only if, and only when, and only insofar as, human creativity figures out a way (or ways) to employ those materials and artifacts in ways that satisfy genuine human desires.

The point, here, is that the term “natural resources” can be misleading about the role of nature in creating human bounty.  Nature exists, to be sure; but human bounty is created by human creativity; nature in matters economic is not the prime mover.  Nature’s role in determining who is and who isn’t materially wealthy is much smaller than we are sometimes led to believe when focusing on “natural resources.”

Here are other terms whose biases I dislike because I believe them to promote a misapprehension of reality:

lawmakers – when used to describe legislators

law – when used as a synonym for legislation or administrative decrees

public servants – when used to describe government officials

the will of the people – when used to describe the outcomes of democratic elections

consumer advocates – when used to describe political activists who insist that the state restrict consumer choice or the range of ways in which businesses may compete for consumer patronage

causes of poverty – when used to analyze why wealth, or insufficient amounts of wealth, have yet to be caused for some group of people or in some countries; the implication of this especially misleading term is that it is poverty that has causes rather than, as is really the case, wealth that has causes.

What are some of your ‘favorite’ bias-filled terms?