George Orwell, in his 1946 “Politics and the English Language,” wrote that “in our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.” But perhaps even more insightful was his statement that “the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”
Both those statements describe our political situation at least as much today as when he wrote them. The current attacks on free markets and liberty and the “solution” of ever-more government control illustrate how the abuse of language has made such foolish thoughts increasingly prevalent.
Free Markets Have Been Misrepresented
The problem of linguistic misrepresentation makes it worthwhile to reconsider how serious defenders of liberty can deal with the problem. One important source of valuable insights is Leonard Read’s “Finding Words for Common Sense” in his 1969 The Coming Aristocracy on its 50th anniversary.
"The freedom thesis is like a foreign language to most persons!"
"The free market, private ownership, willing exchange, limited government way of life, with its moral and spiritual antecedents…seems 'far out' only because it is at odds with prevailing popular sentiments, which, preponderantly, are socialistic."
"Teachers and students of liberty…are faced with a word problem: the language of liberty is strange to ears long attuned to the notions, cliches, and plausibilities of statism, interventionism, socialism."
"Assuming…that the ways of freedom make sense, ours then is the task of finding words for common sense. And I am unaware of any term that better illustrates our dilemma than 'the free market.' We have one concept in mind, but frequently a different idea comes through to the reader or hearer. The image that 'free market' conjures up is rarely a faithful reproduction of the intention."
"The free market…has only been approximated, never realized. Thus, to understand our meaning, those aspects of the economy which have never been free must be imagined as free. And here is where we run into communication troubles: not many people can make the leap to imaginary situations; they can draw only on experience. This explains, in part, why so many take our term, free market, to mean no more than private enterprise, as if the two were one and the same. The failure to make the distinction leads to ideological confusion and educational mischief."
"The free market is that which prevails when all exchanges are free of coercion; it is willing exchange only, that is, freedom in transactions."
"But what, precisely, is coercion?...The free market’s antithesis."
"Generally, coercion is thought of as force, with no distinction as to the kind of force. What we have in mind as the antithesis of the free market is aggressive force which can best be understood by contrasting it with defensive force."
"Aggression is always an initiated action; defense is exclusively a secondary action, never coming into play except as a life-saving, rights-preserving, peace-keeping action. Aggression is a malignancy, antithetical to free market existence; defensive force, on the other hand—dormant until antagonized—is an ally and the armor of freedom."
"When one can imagine a situation in which no aggressive force exists or, if it does, where it is promptly suppressed by defensive force, then one envisions creativity flowing freely and uninhibited from all citizens—the free market! With this ideal in mind, it is easy to observe the countless current practices that exemplify what the free market is not."
"Piracy is an enterprise and is definitely private. But observe that piracy’s distinguishing feature is aggressive force. Now, as aggression lessens in any private operation the enterprise moves from the piratical state toward the ideal: the free market…being private is not the feature that controls the position of an enterprise on the piracy-free market spectrum. Aggressive force is the distinctive feature. Any enterprise, be it destructive or constructive, can be and often is private. Thus, the mere fact that an enterprise is privately initiated lends it no special virtue, economic or otherwise."
"Indeed, where the aggressive forces are dominant, private enterprises may be as far from free market in their operation as is the TVA or the Post Office!"
"The free market can properly function only as aggressive force is diminished. Government, theoretically at least, is society’s agency of defense, its role being to rid society of aggressive force in its numerous manifestations: fraud, violence, predation, misrepresentation. Yet, today, government itself is by far the outstanding practitioner of aggressive force: for instance, the forcible extortion of your income and mine."
One of the difficulties of defending liberty has always been that those who wish to restrict others’ liberty hide what is involved behind linguistic smokescreens. And when people see through those, the malleability of language has allowed new iterations of statism to masquerade as means to the good society.
Linguistic misdirection has made foolish thoughts about social organization more politically palatable while at the same time making it harder to communicate the benefits that are only achievable through liberty. But Leonard Read knew that liberty was so superior to any possible alternative that if both what it entailed and what its absence entailed could just be made clear enough—if we could just find clear enough words for common sense—it would have a fighting chance to turn back the tide of foolishness.
Leonard Read focused on voluntary exchange backed solely by defensive force to help cut through the tangle of verbal confusion and distortion about social organization. If people could see that a system of solely voluntary exchange would not violate anyone’s rights and would only harm those who wish to gain some government-backed privilege that amounts to piracy at others’ expense, such claims would be quickly dismissed rather than given credence. That would allow a vast expansion of the market miracles generated by people left free to arrange their affairs voluntarily. With the assaults and abetting misrepresentations having only grown in the past half-century, Read’s careful thinking is even more important today.