Hold to nothing too violently. Every fool stands convinced: and everyone convinced is a fool; and the faultier a man's judgment, the firmer his conviction; even with the proof on your side, it is well to make concession; for your reasons are known and your gentlemanliness is recognized; ... . Gracian #183
In these pages we have sought, so far with limited success, to make our discussions and debates semantically crisper by using well-defined terms, and editing these definitions as necessary to capture the more nuanced meanings intended. For example, many keyboards have been pounded over the years debating the definitions and the subsequent uses of socio-political labels such as socialist, communist, capitalist, liberal, progressive, conservative, conservetarian, etc. The resulting definition derbies seem always to revolve around how attribute comprehensive should the labeled thing be before its assigned label is accepted.
Most people will accept a label such as ‘socialist’ or ‘conservative’ if the person, program, or policy can claim some sufficient number of attributes to unambiguously indicate its membership in the labeled class. As an example, a policy can safely be called socialist if it expands state’s control of the means of production or mandates market-blind distribution of goods, wealth, etc. Such common usage doesn’t call for implementing all (i.e. the comprehensive set) of the attributes of socialism. In short, a useful discourse can be had if the parties either understand each other’s use of a label, or accept a working principle that doesn’t make ‘comprehensive’ the enemy of ‘sufficient’.
Debating definitions can also serve agendas, especially if you determine that your ideology must be sold carefully to broader audiences (e.g. your lightly-read constituencies). In such cases you don’t want to reveal the complete picture too soon because your audience will then balk. In these times such has been the case when collectivists of various shades want to hide behind easy-to-embrace social give-aways without going into the details of what it will take to sustain such transfer payments, or if sustainability is even possible.
So, when you believe in a future in which the state controls more than less of our property and behaviors, a future where markets are greatly curtailed or completely eliminated by state mandated distribution policies, then you don’t want to advertise that too early, even if you believe that such a system will ultimately provide the greatest good to the greatest number. In that case you will decry the socialist label being prematurely attached to policies that are at best camouflaged in half-way houses on the road to socialism. You then will argue in favor of the comprehensive definition, and dismiss any sufficient characterization of socialism that doesn’t check off all the dictionary items listed under socialism – ‘my policy doesn’t call for the elimination of all markets, therefore it is not socialism.’
With comprehensive definitions suppressing the merely sufficient, the debate’s progress will be successfully stifled until the destination is achieved at which time it will be revealed when all of its features or attributes are in place. In such a forum, one is not allowed to identify himself, say, as a conservative unless he can check off somebody’s complete list of requirements for a conservative. The same for a ‘free market’ which is then defined as one that is not allowed to have even a smidgen of regulations under which it must operate. Or the obverse, mandating the ‘free market’ label when a massively regulated market still has a bit of wiggle room left. It all depends on your agenda.
Quite often definitions are given in terms of an overarching concept that can stand on its own, but can be expanded to have one or more appended categorical components. We recently ran into one such term – ‘collusion’ – that is much in the news these days, and forms the crux of an enlarged debate that is attended by participants all wearing ideologically colored glasses. To illustrate, for the Right ‘collusion’ is seen simply as two or more parties proceeding in confidence to accomplish some end, be it innocent or evil. The latter being the addended categorical component. To pursue its current agenda, the Left can only view ‘collusion’ in terms of its categorical component of ‘evil’ firmly clamped to the overarching definition, with the attendant logic that colluding secretly or in confidence must always and necessarily be evil – no further proof is needed. (more here)
Unfortunately, such definition derbies often lap over to embrace countless faulty logics so prevalent in the comment streams of most blogs including RR’s. The preceding semantical gymnastics are usually part of a drill that starts by characterizing everything in black/white or binary terms. If you don’t explicitly condemn/embrace something, then the clear conclusion is that you must love/hate that same thing. This is the most common and ham-brained way of rejecting the cautionary wisdom that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Related to this is the so-called ‘argument from ignorance’, so popular today, wherein one ‘asserts that a proposition is true because it has not yet been proven false’. Both appeal to the same logical fallacy.
In my experience, also confirmed in these pages, it is overwhelmingly the folks on the Left who don’t want to be explicit about what they actually believe (i.e. the tenets of their credo), and consequently in a debate they sail under false colors as long as possible, and then simply quit the field when such colors no longer serve. I have yet to meet a person of the Right who, when asked, hesitates to declare the underlying tenet of his credo that gives basis for his argument on an issue. Perhaps others have had the same experience.