Scratching-Head-2

Words, What Do They Mean?

in Economics/Philosophy by
   

Among the various sects of libertarianism, one has been receiving a certain amount of undue attention: “left”-libertarianism. As an anarcho-capitalist, I have my disagreements with left-libertarians, and am curious as to why they are generating the amount of interest they are. One reason for this may be their mode of communication. Attempting to decipher much of the libertarian left’s vocabulary is akin to reading a horoscope. Their success may, in large part, be credited to their refusal to pin down definitions. Without unambiguous definitions, one may simply apply his own interpretations thereby rendering the content far more relatable (much like a horoscope).  Left-libertarians tend to be more highly specialized than the average progressive, owing to their relatively greater interest in esoteric subjects.  There’s something that ties the libertarian left’s usage of obscure language to the postmodernist movement¹. The basic foundation of postmodernism comes from Kant. Then, building on Kant, you have Hegel and Marx, which in recent decades has been successful with ties to “deconstructionism” in literary criticism from Foucault, Derrida, and Ricoeur. The basic idea of this school of thought is that there is no objective truth, or we can never discover it if it exists, and there is no method of discovering objective truth since each individual is tied to their own views, feelings, social status, and so forth.

If an individual claims there are no objective truths, this can mean one of two things: If it means “I have empirically verified the absence of objective truth in the universe,” any “can’t prove a negative” argument holds and the claim is invalid. You can’t infer anything from the data, or falsify a proposition, because you can’t isolate the variables. X happens, then Y happens – you can’t establish causality that way unless you can isolate X and Y from all other variables. If it means “it is a priori true that there is no objective truth,” then that individual has committed a performative contradiction² by claiming a priori knowledge-that is, objective knowledge—of objective truth, thus this statement could never be valid.

This tendency of the libertarian left is illustrated well in a 2014 interview with Cathy Reisenwitz, a popular left-libertarian personalityReisenwitz makes the claim [E]xperiments are the only way to verify what we think we know about the world.” Setting aside the problems she runs into if she meant this in the realm of economics³, she runs into a plethora of others. Some propositions do not require experimentation to determine their validity; certain axioms do not, and indeed could not, depend on the results of empirical testing. Using, say, cognitive ability, we know certain things to be objectively true such as A=A or even 2+2=4, which is logically true. Reisenwitz’s above statement implies that tautologies don’t exist, or that she rejects the law of identity. Let’s also not forget fields of study where experimentation is impossible, such as astronomy, economics, or history (“Was Abraham Lincoln ever president? Who knows? To the lab!”).

Further, how does Reisenwitz verify her claim that experimentation is the only way (“the only way” is also a ridiculous statement as it’s not even agreed on within the scientific community, and only serves to dismiss outright new possible applications of other approaches) to verify what we know? She’s asserting it as a fact that she knows about the world, which means she is claiming she can verify it experimentally. A quick heuristic for statements of this class is to apply them to themselves, for instance:

“We can’t know anything.”

This is itself a knowledge claim.

“All facts are subjective.”

Then they are not facts.

“Heuristic” is basically “rule of thumb.” It’s just a quick way of looking at a statement of that kind to see if nonsense comes out. Like the classic “this statement is a lie.” If it is true, it is false, if it is false, it is true.

More generally, the validity of science, the scientific method, and so on (of which this statement is a cousin) is underpinned by philosophical rules, or “axioms.” Axioms are the only class of statement that are not also conclusions. Such statements can’t be validated experimentally, because the concepts of “validity” and “experimentation” depend on axioms in the first place (the axiom of identity, law of excluded middle, among others). Axioms are essential to philosophy and science, otherwise you have an infinite regress.  Interestingly, claims like this one are always (in my experience) accompanied by undisclosed or totally invalid chains of logical reasoning.

In the analysis of literature, as Rothbard points out, “the most elemental procedure of literary criticism (that is, trying to figure out what a given author meant to say) becomes impossible.”

He continues

“Communication between writer and reader similarly becomes hopeless; furthermore, not only can no reader ever figure out what an author meant to say, but even the author does not know or understand what he himself meant to say, so fragmented, confused, and driven is each particular individual.”

Rothbard concludes

If we cannot understand the meaning of any texts, then why are we bothering with trying to understand or to take seriously the works or doctrines of authors who aggressively proclaim their own incomprehensibility?”

 

When people start using arcane terms to explain concepts, watch out, but left-libertarians abhor clear definitions of terms that expose their propositions to criticisms. If you peruse left-libertarian thought you will come across this trait. For instance, in Libertarian Anticapitalism Charles W. Johnson attempts to define “capitalism”. He defines it as

 

“[t]he commercialization of everyday life — that is, a condition in which social interactions are very largely mediated through, or reshaped by, overtly commercial motives, and most or all important social and economic institutions are run primarily on a businesslike, for-profit basis.”


These distinctions start to break down under even the most basic of criticism. For starters, what are the economic consequences of “the commercialization of everyday life“? When I go to the grocery store, is that an overt commercialization of something? Of “everyday life”? Commercialized as compared to what? If you make the “for profit” aspect the important part of “commercialization,” it’s unclear how or why you would distinguish monetary profit with a more general kind of profit; namely, psychic profit. So what is commercialization? Is it simply when people or  institutions pursue self interest or pursue self benefit? Don’t most people behave this way? All the adverbs like “largely,” “overtly,” “primarily,” etc., make it impossible to resolve any dispute as to whether a given arrangement fits the definition. Perhaps we are to assume that, like pornography, we simply “know it when we see it.” Nonetheless, I don’t see how any useful predictions could be extracted from it. It’s not even a description of anything, and it’s really not useful for economic analysis. 

We use definitions for the purpose to make words or concepts clear. Stating what a word means is the purpose of a definition. A definition should be anything that can reliably be referred to, to distinguish what the term refers to, from what it doesn’t, and can be used to resolve disputes about that question. Provided with a good definition, the listener or reader should be able to point out examples of the concept with little to no help. Consider that we wanted to define “car”. With a successful definition, the reader/listener should be able identify every car that he sees. Let’s assume the person listening or reading overlooks and misses some cars (or includes some other objects such as motorcycles), can’t tell whether an object is a car or not, then the definition is a failure. The definition by Johnson is merely an abstract and does not help any sort of discussion – I would know no more about capitalism after hearing the definition than I did before. Thus, it is committing a logical fallacy of definition.  

Scratching_Head_2_50  Words, What Do They Mean? Scratching Head 2 50

It is this approach that is changing the rhetoric and the substance of libertarianism. If left-libertarians want to identify with whatever legitimate causes or personal concerns they have, then I am all ears, but otherwise it seems imperative that we figure out what those other things are instead of using ambiguous terminology which totally just means one thing when they’re recruiting, and totally does not thereafter4.  Left-libertarians seem to confuse identity with relation. They shoehorn a variety of concepts into libertarianism because they somehow  loosely “relate” to liberty. In this way they add in all these extra commitments above and beyond non-aggression. Yet this gets us into enigmatic territory, because you can posit arbitrary relations all over the place. For example, “politeness is complementary to liberty. We couldn’t hope to maintain a free society if everyone were extremely rude to one another”. Thus, “politeness is an additional commitment libertarians must uphold“, et al. Replace “politeness” with “equality,” or some other leftist value, and you’ve basically got their argument (see Charles W. Johnson’s Libertarianism Through Thick and Thin for further confirmation).

In a similar manner, and to his credit, Nick Ford has recently written an article “14 Questions and Answers on Left-Libertarianism” in an effort to clarify the goal of left-libertarianism. In the section “What does the “left” in left-libertarian mean?” he writes:5


This form of “left” often involves an interest in solidarity, equality and liberty  for the individual and the communities they inhabit. These cultural  norms are meant to work against oppressive elements in society like capitalism (which is differentiated from markets), government and things like sexism, racism, etc.”

Does “equality” refer exclusively to rights? If so, libertarians can all agree on this since they contend private property rights (the root of all legitimate rights) apply universally to all moral agents.  Or are left-libertarian’s asserting instead that everyone should be treated equally no matter their appearance, accomplishments, attitudes, beliefs, and so on?  Of course the latter interpretation is something wholly different than the former.  The same ambiguity applies to words like “oppression” and “domination”: are left-libertarians simply using these terms as substitutes for “aggression,” or do they also include non-aggressive behavior, such as an individual exercising a racial preference when choosing whom to befriend or provide a job opportunity to, under this banner? 

The use of cryptic words such as “solidarity”, “equality”, and “oppressive” are commonplace in left-libertarian literature.  They generally have a positive connotation and allow for people to project their own interpretations onto them, while being vague enough to avert any attempt at their critique.  A left-libertarian can always assert an objector is engaging in a strawman argument by claiming a different interpretation of these terms than the one being critiqued. In other words, as a left libertarian I’d be loathe to make a proposition, and also as a left-libertarian my favorite tactic for avoiding that is to refuse to define any terms or accept any real definition. That way, any critique of my position can be dismissed – “that’s not even what I was saying“. Thus, left-libertarians often employ such terms as means of equivocation using one meaning or connotation for one purpose, and another for an additional purpose so as to reconcile what would otherwise be a contradiction (Kevin Carson also exhibits this in his articles “Who Owns the Benefit?: Free-Market as Full Communism” and Why Self-Organized Networks Will Destroy Hierarchies — A Credo). 

When you have to commit to solid concepts, definitions, and so on, you must be prepared to dig in and argue your case.  By relying on ambiguity, you never have to admit defeat, can infinitely accuse your opponent of misconstruing your position, and can equivocate or flip flop between various meanings of words. It’s impossible to be pinned down. Our final example is in Sheldon Richman’s article Free Market Socialism. Richman argues that the free market would give leftists what they want: society owning the means of production. Using Borders as an example, he says:

 

But no individual decided to put, say, the bookseller Borders, out of business. In an important sense, we did it collectively, but not at a mass meeting with people giving speeches and voting on whether the principals of Borders should keep control of the company’s assets. Rather, the demise of Borders and the transfer of its assets to others were the outcome of many individual decisions, most of which were not consciously coordinated. It’s just that enough people had preferences inconsistent with the company’s business plan. So the people who ran Borders were out, however much they objected.

 

Richman is mistaken here. In market transactions, the individual acts and the outcome, or the side effect, is the manifestation of demand. On the other hand, when collectives “act”, the actual action (by individuals) does not occur until some sort of consensus (rarely unanimous) has been reached. The ironic thing is that they do this because they think they can engineer a solution (assuming they have good intentions) that meets society’s demands, but the side effect of the actions of free individuals can naturally accomplish this vastly better than any collective can. Through the lens of methodological individualism, we can see that the focus is on individual actors driving prices. The pricing of not only consumer’s goods, but also the capital goods and labor used to make those consumer’s goods, are determined by consumer preferences, and that it is the consumers, not “everyone”, that dictate the direction of investment and creation of wealth in society. Profits are paid to entrepreneurs who accurately predict and follow consumer preferences, and guide resources from lower valued ends to higher valued ends. While the market as a collective helps establish prices, it’s the marginal decisions of individuals that matter in the end. The marginal decisions to buy or sell, to choose between definite amounts of various goods, all occurs on an individual scale.  Richman is asserting that since “the market” put Borders out of business that we all (as part of the market) collectively own Borders (or any other business) which is socialism.

He concludes

In other words, the freed market would give traditional leftists what they say they want: a society in which free, voluntary, and peaceful cooperation ultimately controls the means of production for the good of all people.

 

Richman is displaying a contradiction between his mentioning of methodological individualism and his equivocation of implied socialism:

  • Methodological individualism, collective nouns are only viable insofar as we understand individuals do things
  • “We” collectively put Borders out of business
  • Ignore the private owners and the consumers who made that business unprofitable and instead refer to them as owning the means of production.

In other words: the market collectively closed Borders, socialism is the common ownership of the means of production, therefore the free market is socialism (collective ownership of the means of production).  Never mind that Borders was privately owned, not collectively owned. That is, I did not own a share of Borders. Richman is describing socialist ends with capitalist means. There’s something about the Left always using cabbalistic terminology so if you object to it according to one definition, they get you for it according to some other definition. When terms and concepts become this verbose, they are easily used to conflate two very different concepts in order to cast aspersions on one thing based on its superficial resemblance to another thing. It seems left-libertarians employ this tactic when dealing with any term whose definition has any wiggle room. You can describe the free market in ways that can be appealing to the left by using rhetoric that would appeal to them (and certainly free market capitalism will benefit everyone) but the harder you try to do that, the sketchier it gets. It’s worth noting the substance of what Sheldon is saying here is true, that the market does offer a means by which regular working people can have “control” over the means of production. But, as has been clearly demonstrated above, shrouding what’s essentially Mises’s “consumer sovereignty” argument in leftist terminology only serves to confuse the issue. It might be a useful way to try to explain the market to hard leftists, but at best it doesn’t improve or add anything to the argument, at worst it’s counterproductive and obfuscating. It becomes even worse if one takes Sheldon’s argument and tries to extend it to justify other socialist measures. That’s a problem without a doubt. By now you may see the common thread: left-libertarians consistently employ vague terminology which serves to smuggle but also confuse and obfuscate, rather than clarify, libertarian philosophy.

The libertarian left’s major problem is their lack of denotative definition. They rely entirely on connotation or how a word feels. If you’re in tune with them, it feels more or less the same to you as it does to them (as you can see in the above example from Richman and Johnson), and you get to enjoy conflicting or contradictory usages because they all just know what you mean. In this case, left-libertarians don’t have to use an explicit definition, they just slightly leave the term out there implicitly defined as “any type of arrangement the terms of which may or may not go against my sensibilities“. 

There’s a difference between talking and communicating. If you have your own private interchangeable definitions of key terms, you’re not communicating. If there are disputes about those definitions, some sort of understanding has to be reached before any communication surrounding them can occur. And some definitions are more analytically useful than others. Some seem deliberately designed to frustrate analysis. I prefer the ones that facilitate it. It’s not a quiz to see if an individual knows “the definition”, it’s about understanding what an individual means.

Left-libertarians often protest that their attempts to politely explain certain concepts (“commercialization,” “domination,” “exploitation,” “solidarity,” “oppression,” “social justice,” etc.)  to their opponents typically prove fruitless. This, as I have illustrated, is likely due to the inability of the listener/reader to extract an actual proposition from any expression of uniquely left-libertarian terms/concepts without being accused of engaging in a straw man argument.  The operative terms used by left-libertarians are fluid and obscure – as such it becomes virtually impossible to ascertain the essence of their philosophy- certainly nobody seems willing to commit to a definition of the concept and then stick to it, which is kind of problematic for theories like the ones they advocate. 

In contrast, left-libertarians argue that concepts worth anyone’s time cannot be simply presented. It is true, simplicity is not the single requirement for a good argument. In fact, often times positions are much better if they’re nuanced and complex. However, there’s a huge problem if your ideas become so totally complicated and dubious that you’re unable to clearly explain anything, and arguments degenerate into social science terminology word salad. To one degree or another, this been a problem for the left generally.  The use of the tactic itself does appear to be almost exclusive to the Left as a whole, but unlike progressive liberals, left-libertarians apply it to a broader array of terms and arguments. They develop a corpus of incomprehensible sophistry that’s so vague that it becomes a blank check. The components of left-libertarian arguments can be, and often are, infinitely shifted and manipulated so that they can avoid having to concede anything—just keep adding layers of complexity.

Nevertheless, if my criticisms are flawed, I’m clearly struggling in vain to discover an actual proposition of those theories. I’ve gotten it wrong (every single time, ever), in which case instead of  being accused of a strawman or referencing biblical length text left-libertarians might try, “Oh, but you seem to have misunderstood the claims of the theory”, and then tell me what they are actually supposed to be. Occasionally a few left-libertarians have tried to do me this favor, which I appreciate, but always, always couched in ambiguous terms whose meanings change throughout the conversation such that I have still, in all my life, never been told in useful terms just what these concepts mean.

Perhaps the reader may infer a lack of optimism in ever understanding these left-libertarianism concepts from the preceding analysis. Such an inference is indeed accurate. However this does not mean I’m disingenuous about wanting to be filled in, I want to understand these concepts just like I want to meet an extra-terrestrial life form, which I think probably doesn’t exist, so you’re not going to catch me acting like I’m trying to achieve either goal.

So if a left-libertarian wants to try to tell the rest of what these theories actually say and mean in words they’re prepared to unambiguously define, I’m all ears. I just don’t think any of them will because I don’t think any of them can.

  1. See: The Vacuity of Postmodernist Methodology by Nicholas Shackel. Abstract:
    Many of the philosophical doctrines purveyed by postmodernists
    have been roundly refuted, yet people continue to be taken in by the
    dishonest devices used in proselytizing for postmodernism. I exhibit, name
    and analyse five favourite rhetorical manoeuvres: Troll’s Truisms, Motte
    and Bailey Doctrines, Equivocating Fulcra, the Postmodernist Fox-trot and
    Rankly Relativising Fields. Anyone familiar with postmodernist writing will 
    recognise their pervasive hold on the dialectic of postmodernism,
    and come to judge that dialectic as it ought to be judged.
  2. The Performative Contradiction is committed when you make a serious, literal claim that contradicts the validity of the means you used to make it, i.e. contradicts your performance of the claim. In other words, there is a conflict between your presuppositions and your conclusions.
  3. Economics is a series of propositions based on axiomatic principles derived from logical deductions, not experimentation. See: Economic Science and the Austrian Method by Hans-Hermann Hoppe.
  4. See Motte and Bailey Doctrines
  5. Thanks to Christopher Chase Rachels, author of A Spontaneous Order: The Capitalist Case For A Stateless Society, on this part.
  6. Thanks to Blaine Kelley, Rocco Stanzione, Kyle Bennett, Will Porter, and Alex Franklin.

Jeff Peterson II is a anarcho-capitalist and a student of the Austrian School of Economics via Mises Academy. When he is not studying economics, philosophy, or critiquing the Left, he is either working for Intercontinental Hotels Group as a site specialist or helping run a family business.