What’s in a name? Rather a lot, actually. Particularly, where politics are concerned.
When it comes to language, I’m pretty conservative. I think words are used because they mean some things and not others. I think words in public discourse ought to reflect their commonly understood meaning. When you name a piece of legislation, a government department, or a policy program, it ought to be called something that accurately reflects what it does.
Unfortunately, too often in politics names are about intentions, warm fuzzies, and things no one in their right mind would disagree with. By using names based on how they make people feel, instead of how accurate they are, they cloud the honest discourse essential to democracy.
Here are some examples:
Welfare: Who could possibly be against welfare? We want better welfare for everyone we know. Unfortunately, naming social programs this way effectively cuts off discussion about whether and to what extent welfare programs are moral, effective or neither. Better name: Transfer payments to the poor.
Debt forgiveness: As the term is commonly used, only the owner of a debt can forgive it. My bank could forgive my mortgage, but I’m not counting on it. Supporters of student “debt forgiveness” imagine society as a Scrooge who sees the error of his ways and forgives everybody, then buys crutches and medical care for the Tiny Tims everywhere.
But that’s not what’s going on. Student loans, like any loan, are funded by borrowers with expectations that the debt will be repaid. That’s why the money was loaned in the first place. The shortfall must be made up in other ways, in this case by taxpayers. Better name: Debt redistribution.
War on Drugs, War on Terror: Wars are tragic, dangerous, and sometimes necessary. But as the word is commonly used, they are fought against actual people, not inanimate objects or abstract concepts. Using the word “War” in this way obscures its casualties and horrors. Even worse, drugs and terror are part of the human condition; wars against them will never end. Better names: War on drug users, war on terrorists.
Defense: Like welfare, who could possibly be against the idea of defense? Don’t you want a strong defense for your country? I certainly do. Defense in this case is absolutely the right word for a properly constituted military. But what is it about America that requires us to spend more to “defend” her than the next 10 countries combined?
Something else is going on. Personally, I like the name of the Defense Department, I just would like to see it focused on defense. As things stand now, I’d go with Department of War, Department of Regime Change, or maybe Department of Democracy Imposition on Nations That Aren’t Ready For It.
Public education: Again, who could be against educating the public? I want an educated public for sure. But when used in politics, in particular as in “public schools”, in conveys the idea that more money for the educational system means a more educated public, less money means democracy collapses, and so on. Vouchers, school choice, and the role of private and religious schools in educating the public are shouted down. Better name: Government education. Patriot Act: Worst name ever. As the word is commonly used, a patriot is someone who loves their country. Who could possibly be against that?
But this act was about something very different. Passed in response to 9-11, PATRIOT stands for Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism. It wasn’t about patriotism. Better name: The LSSGPAALORDOTWBALANE Act: Let’s Set Some Good Precedents and a Lot of Really Dangerous Ones That Will Be Around Long After Nine Eleven Act.
Are there any good examples of naming in politics? Absolutely. At the federal level, we have Departments of the Army, Air Force and Navy. Their names say exactly who they are. Locally the situation is even better, because misleading names would be laughed out of the room. Cities have Public Utilities, a public good. They have law enforcement officers whose job is to, wonder of wonders, enforce the law. They have Motor Vehicle Departments that are in charge of, you guessed it, motor vehicles. Honest naming is just one of local government’s many advantages.
Honest democracy requires honest language. What’s in a name? Find out for yourself.
Barry Fagin is senior fellow at the Independence Institute in Denver. “The Radical Center” appears every other Thursday. Fagin’s views are his alone. Readers can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.