The specificity of language is of extreme importance. If we cannot properly convey to others what we mean, or if our language is misinterpreted, we cannot change minds or spread ideas. Even worse, we could mistakenly win people over to a misunderstood version of our actual ideas, which they would then spread to others.
Looking at the concept of “libertarianism” as an example, there appear to be at least two generally understood definitions of libertarianism. One, the strict Rothbardian definition, sees libertarianism as solely limited to the political sphere, while the other definition (accepted by the general population) is much larger in scope.
Putting aside which definition is the “better” one, each definition will appeal more to certain people, while pushing away others. But it is troublesome that when describing your views to others, you may be using a term that you understand one way, but the people you are talking to understand in a different way.
Political concepts seem to fall victim to this more than other terms. As Bruno Leoni discusses in Freedom and the Law, what exactly do we mean by terms like “freedom” and “liberty?” When translating across languages, it is easy to define terms for physical objects simply by pointing to them. But translating abstract terms becomes much more difficult, which is why definitions become so important. When Lord Acton, John Stuart Mill, and Edmund Burke all speak of their love of liberty, we may (as with all words) use our own understanding of the term as a definition. But when these thinkers each take a moment to define their own view of liberty, we see considerable differences.
The same trouble exists with “equality.” So many people believe in equality in the modern world that to oppose it is to take a position far outside the Overton window. Defenders of equality believe in a universalism of human rights, that everyone deserves the same basic rights and liberties. Some leave it there, but others take it further. They might believe that human beings are born tabula rasa and therefore true equality lies in equality of outcome. They may believe that true equality of different groups means complete parity in all statistical measurements. They may advocate that even though people are born unequal, there must be counterbalances so the end result is equality of outcome.
This single term describes so many different beliefs. But what are we to do when one term can be understood in so many ways? It may be useful, especially in debates and written language, to begin with basic definitions of terms. It is not about deciding which definition is the more “correct” one, but instead to simply clarify that from any point beyond the definition, a term will be used in the manner defined.
With ideological terms, it might be useful to either abandon the term or consistently use an additional descriptor. Terms such as “liberal” and “conservative” have been used so broadly in so many different contexts that using them alone is unhelpful. The more conservative texts you read, the less you will understand what conservatism really is. Added descriptors are much more helpful, like neo-conservative, paleo-conservative, liberal conservative, or southern conservative. The most recent issue of The American Conservative (July/August 2020) asks on its cover “What is American Conservatism?” Surely a magazine running for that long shouldn’t have to ask what its own title means? But it does, because ideological terms can be very difficult to define, and change over time.
Liberalism has the same struggles. Many liberals are now classical liberals, neo-liberals, or libertarians. Among libertarians, there are minarchists, anarcho-capitalists, and agorists. For a short period, there was paleo-libertarianism. And how many different types of anarchism are there?
A helpful solution with foreign terms has been to preserve the original translation, rather than to translate it into new words and risk misunderstanding. Ludwig von Mises, in his book Liberalism: The Classical Tradition often references state ideologues, but he never once calls it statism. He maintains usage of the original french term étatism throughout the book. Mentioned earlier in this article was tabula rasa to refer to a specific belief, rather than blank slate (though the English term is becoming similarly understood thanks in large part to Steven Pinker).
The key point throughout this article was not to assert that one definition is correct and that another is wrong. Debates of that sort can help solidify one meaning over another, but that’s a separate topic. The key point is to remember that certain terms, especially political terms, have severely varied definitions, and that it is especially important (at the very least to not waste time) to clarify one’s own definition and to ensure that others truly know what you mean. If a movement is formed around a hard-to-define ideological term, it is easy for that movement to slip away and become something different (see conservatism and liberalism).
It also means that opponents will also identify the weakest definition and make it the focus of their criticism. Conservatives (of the more traditionalist variety) often criticize Ayn Rand’s individualism for being too self-centered and atomistic. But there are many great individualists, like Frank Chodorov and Albert Jay Nock, for whom conservative criticism would not apply. But one could hardly blame the conservatives for criticizing a popular version of individualism. If it is a view that many hold, and the one they have the greatest opposition to, they do not deserve criticism for focusing on that definition over others.
If we wish to improve our discourse and spread our ideas, we must focus on our language and follow Jordan Peterson’s Tenth Rule: “Be precise in your speech.”