Monday, May 17, 2010

Some Words Defiined

In order for any two people to actually agree on something (or even discuss it) the words and phrases that they use must mean the same (or at least very similar) things to each of them. This can get to be very slippery for two reasons: 1) definitions change over time, or 2) the definition is the same but the context changed. For example, “all men are created equal” once allowed some men to still hold others as slaves. Likewise, the understanding of the meaning of ‘Liberal’ and ‘Conservative’ has changed from the times of our founders.

Another concern occurs when we use terms like ‘liberty’ and ‘equality’, particularly in a political context. The concern is that so many related concepts and ideas are lumped in with the idea that a short definition is not actually clear. A frequent notion when complicated or involved agreements are needed is to use an attorney. But I’ve rejected that idea ever since seeing Bill Clinton twist on “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is”; a master performance by a trained lawyer.

Since these blogs are about agreement and ideas, we’ve got to be clear on terms. I do not ask that everyone agree with these definitions (although it sure would be nice), but do ask that you consider them, and remember that they apply across these blogs.

Liberty Defined

Lincoln once remarked that “The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one.” In the 145 years since then, we haven’t got one yet. But since this purports to be a collection of my thoughts about liberty, I decided early on that I needed a clear idea of what liberty was. I always try to keep the following definition in mind:
Liberty is a condition enjoyed by the members of a society in which
every person has the absolute right to think, speak, and act with no limits other than those needed to secure the same right to every other
Having evolved and struggled with that definition, I was very pleased when late in my work I found support from Jefferson:
“Of liberty I would say that, in the whole plenitude of its extent,
it is unobstructed action according to our will. But rightful liberty is
unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add 'within the limits of the law,' because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the right of an individual.”
Liberal and Conservative, Left and Right

If at all possible I intend to avoid using these terms. Generally in politics and other fields a ‘Conservative’ is someone who supports the status-quo or a return to the recent past, while a ‘Liberal’ is one who wants to change things to match some vision they believe is better. The problem is that this always defines a shifting target. A Conservative in 1780 wanted to return to the kingdom, while a Liberal wanted the Articles of Confederation. To further confuse things, various writers add adjectives and phrases, such as ‘Classical Liberal’, ‘Neo-con’, or ‘Compassionate Conservative’.

The terms 'Left' and 'Right' are also used to describe political positions. I personally have three problems with them. First, I refuse to be classed based on the seating arrangement in the assembly of the 1848 French revolutionary government. Second, they are frequently used as an image of the two wings of an airplane. But if you don’t like the plane’s direction, which side you sit on is irrelevant. Lastly, they also give rise to other terms, like ‘Middle of the Road’. A Texas humorist defined the problem here best by his book title: “There's nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos”.

Rebublic and Democracy

These terms describe forms of government. Many activists today seek to restore us to a ‘Republic’, but that doesn’t clarify the meaning. The meaning and definition is so involved that it will serve as the subject of several later blog entries. However, at considerable risk of disagreement, the short definitions I use regularly are:

  • A republic is a government where each person as an individual is sovereign.
  • A democracy is a government where the people as a whole or a majority are sovereign.


What follows would be footnotes if this were a book, so if you’d skip them there, go ahead and skip them here. (If anybody knows a better way to do this, I’d love to hear from you).

Bill Clinton’s comment is in his video testimony of August 17, 1988 and was delivered to the grand jury in the Lewinsky affair.

Lincoln’s quote was part of a speech delivered in Baltimore in April of 1864; I took it from page 121 of volume 7 of “The Writings of Abraham Lincoln” published in 1906.

Jefferson’s quote showed up late because it wasn’t in any of the standard collections, such as Ford’s Centennial Collection of Jefferson’s Works in 12 volumes. It came from a letter to an Isaac Hall Tiffany, Esq. written on April 4, 1819. You can get a look at it of the Library of Congress website under The Jefferson Papers, Series 1, and general correspondence.

The funny book title can be found in a number of places. It was by Jim Hightower, published by Harper Collins in 1979, entitled “There's nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos”, (ISBN 0060187663). P.S. If your mind is a strange as mine you might find the book worthwhile for a plane ride.

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