David R. Henderson  

Are You Asking or Telling?

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I had a smart aleck friend in high school, Jack McKay, who, when a teacher ordered us to go to the principal, whispered "Are you asking or telling?" I laughed out loud and, if I recall, got in deeper trouble. I often think of my friend Jack's line when I hear Obama and others talk about how they're asking rich people (he means "high-income people" but he, like his opponents, seems incapable of making that distinction) to pay more taxes.

Is he asking or telling? Of course he's not asking. He's telling. He can ask Congress to legislate new taxes but once that legislation is in place, the IRS doesn't "ask" us. It requires us to pay.

Words matter. As psychiatrist Thomas Szasz put it:

The struggle for definition is veritably the struggle for life itself. In the typical Western two men fight desperately for the possession of a gun that has been thrown to the ground: whoever reaches the weapon first shoots and lives; his adversary is shot and dies. In ordinary life, the struggle is not for guns but for words; whoever first defines the situation is the victor; his adversary, the victim.

It's important to be careful in your use of language. That's why I always, for example, use the term "U.S. government" when I mean "U.S. government" and don't, as so many people do, use the term "we" or "us" when I mean "U.S. government." See my articles "Who is 'We'?" and "Who is 'We', Part Two."

That's why it's upsetting to see my allies use the same language. I note two recent instances.

First, in a recent article, "Why London is Yawning Over the Olympics," Reason writer Shikha Dalmia writes:

No doubt the Brits are in a bad mood because they are being asked to foot the bill for the games during a time of austerity, when England's economy is doing a double dip.

They aren't upset because they're being "asked" to foot the bill. They would know how t reply if asked and would likely be only mildly upset by having to take the time to say no. They're upset because they know they'll be taxed, that is, required, to foot the bill. I know and like Shikha and her work. But how hard would it have been for her to substitute the word "required" for "asked?" Now, if she tells me that Reason required (not asked) her to use the word "asked," then my beef is with Reason. I'm betting they didn't.

Second, I was at Hoover last week taping a show for PBS with two other economists, Walter Williams and John Taylor. Walter and I were disagreeing about immigration laws. Walter said he didn't know anyone who would object to Immigration officials saying, when you arrive in the country, "Can I see your passport?" I replied to Walter that Immigration officials don't say "Can I?" They give orders. The good news is that I think, by his facial expression, that Walter got it. You can disagree honestly about immigration requirements. I would bet that most of my libertarian friends would want that basic level of government control. But then we should call it what it is. They're not "asking."

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COMMENTS (25 to date)
dunbrokin writes:

I should take you to task then for using the word 'tax' :) ....you should use the word 'stealing' instead.

Greg G writes:

When people talk about the idea that "we" are "asking" for a particular government policy they are referring to the fact that the question is put to a democratic process the outcome of which is uncertain.

NOBODY is under the impression that there is fully unanimous consent to any government policy. Nor is anyone under the impression that compliance with the law is not required. To suggest otherwise is to construct the silliest possible strawman.

Our language has single and plural pronouns. It does not have pronouns that indicate unanimity. There is no substitute for a little common sense in determining whether or not unanimity is implied.

Language is entirely arbitrary and conventional. Anytime you find yourself arguing that most other people are using the language wrong you are losing the argument. You can, and should, avoid using words that you feel are likely to be interpreted differently than you intend them.

Andrew writes:

If my grandma had different "parts" she would be my grandpa.

An institution that "asks" is an institution that cannot be called government. Asking isn't the reason government exists.

Anyone that believes this is simply semantics should question their relationship with their grandparents.

Glen Smith writes:

When you hear the POTUS whining for the "high-income" individuals to pay more taxes, you should think about investing in the financial firms (they are the ones who will actually write the new laws around what capabilities they already have). Since they are the ones who will make almost all of the money that any new tax plan might generate (and will likely make money even if the new tax plan reduces revenue for the Government).

Thomas DeMeo writes:

I think Greg G answered the question perfectly.

Andrew- If you think that equating an election to "asking" is a foolish semantic argument, perhaps you should explain why. It seems like a reasonable explanation to me.

Socal Bill writes:

Any idea when that PBS special with you 3 smart guys will be shown? Would like to see it.

Tom West writes:

An interesting point about use of language and the linguistic appearance of choice (ask vs. require).

However, while there is no doubt that the phrasing of an order as a request is used to make the order more acceptable, it should be noted that this usage is common *everywhere* in the myriad of orders we receive every day - from home to workplace.

The reason for this, of course, is that it makes things more pleasant for both the orderer and the orderee. (As I starkly saw in one workplace I had the misfortune of visiting for a few days many years ago.)

Thus I doubt that anyone really wants to see all orders phrased as orders. In the end this is not a matter of linguistic honesty, it's a matter of using specific language to engender resentment of what the government requires of its citizens.

As such, I understand the fight, but I prefer to make the motivation for this linguistic struggle clear.

Greg G writes:

@ Tom West

Excellent points Tom. It is also worth pointing out that whether it applies to governments, parents or employers there is another good reason it is entirely appropriate to use the more polite form of ask rather than order.

Even when we are requiring compliance, whether it is voluntary or not, we really are asking for, and hoping for, voluntary compliance.

Of course (as you point out) if what you want is more resistance then it makes perfect sense to prefer to emphasize the compulsory aspect. People are free to choose the usages that they want and it's no mystery why people make the choices they do.

Ken writes:

Language is entirely arbitrary and conventional.

How can anything be both arbitrary and conventional?

Anytime you find yourself arguing that most other people are using the language wrong you are losing the argument.


You can, and should, avoid using words that you feel are likely to be interpreted differently than you intend them.

So language isn't arbitrary? Words have actual meanings and should be used based on those meanings?

Greg G writes:

@ Ken

Different languages use a spectacular variety of different words to refer to any given thing or action. That is the sense in which language is arbitrary.

Even within a given language the usages of any one word vary (as this thread shows quite vividly). Despite this variance, usage tends to cluster around easily identifiable similarities based on which usages are most popular. These patterns change over time. (David wants to change the pattern.) This is the sense in which language is conventional.

You should read Wittgenstein on this topic. He described the patterns that identify word meanings as a "family resemblance."

Do you really not think that some of the differences between linguistic and cultural conventions are arbitrary?

egd writes:

Except the immigration officer does "ask" to see your passport.

You don't have to provide it, but they don't have to let you into the country either.

Some might object that taxation is the same - you're free to go to jail if you don't want to pay taxes - but I think there's a marked difference between being excluded from a country and imprisonment. If nothing else, your cell is certainly bigger.

Floccina writes:

I hate it when people say, people should have healthcare when they really mean that is that people should have health insurance (which BTW is mostly prepaid healthcare and not insurance at all).

Foobarista writes:

The word "ask" implies the possibility of legitimate refusal without undue consequence.

Politicians "ask" for higher taxes in exactly the same way the local mob enforcer "asks" for money or free stuff from your shop.

Andrew writes:

Elections do make government. Force makes government. Mr. Henderson is clearly stating that governments CANNOT "ask" by definition of what they are. All "requests" by government IMPLY that compliance in mandatory. If I can never say no, how could you possible be asking?

You only need to look to the Chick-Fil-A story for proof of this.

"It would be a shame if something happened to your pretty little restaurant."

The Alderman in Chicago and the mayors of Boston and San Francisco are clearly threatening the franchisees of Chick-Fil-A if their CEO doesn't comply with their standard of "appropriate" thought.

Greg G writes:

OK so will this crusade to stop thinking of groups of individuals as collectives be taken to its logical conclusion or will it remain a transparent form of special pleading?

Will we stop thinking of "politicians" and "government" as faceless monoliths?

Will we recognize that different governments can vary quite spectacularly precisely because the people that make them up vary quite spectacularly?

Probably not.

Ken writes:

Do you really not think that some of the differences between linguistic and cultural conventions are arbitrary?

You didn't say the differences between linguistic and cultural conventions are arbitrary, but no, I don't think so. Words and language structures, as well as cultural conventions, were selected for for actual reasons, not arbitrarily, i.e., randomly or whimsically chosen.

What you said said was that "[l]anguage is entirely arbitrary", which isn't true either.

Foobarista writes:

GregC: legitimacy and even 'goodness' of a government may vary, but the ultimate source of state power is the same in the US as it is in North Korea: a socially sanctioned monopoly on the use of force.

No matter how much statists want us to believe, occasional elections don't turn the government into a nonprofit or charity that happens to have an army and police force.

If words don't matter, would you write a tax law that included the word "ask"? Or would you use imperative language and various dooms if the action required by the law is not taken?

Greg G writes:


I am aware that state power rests on a socially sanctioned monopoly on the use of force. I don't think that is a scandal. I think it's a vast improvement on having essential norms and contracts enforced by private violence or not enforced at all.

I never said or meant that "words don't matter." They matter a lot. But words are changing social conventions, not scientific instruments. Reading English literature from 700 years ago is a bit like reading a somewhat related foreign language.

If I was writing a tax law (not likely) I would avoid all the words that have been in contention here. I would specify the penalties for noncompliance. I probably wouldn't call the penalties "dooms."

Gian writes:

Greg G,
"state power rests on a socially sanctioned monopoly on the use of force."

This popular view is wrong or at least seriously inadequate. The end of State is justice.
The state is just another name for the 'state of law'
as distinguished from the 'state of nature'.

In a perfect state of law, you would not need weapons to defend yourself or your property.

Govt is the chief Agent of the State thus it acts to realize or pursue Justice. Now some men are bent to evil and pervert Justice, and the State is obliged to stop or deter these evil men. Doing evil is outside the law and thus something non-law i.e. force is required.
So for a State, internal use of violence is a necessary evil.

Foseti writes:

I don't understand why you think that "US government" is a good term to use.

The US government is made of up many entities. Some are permanent, some are temporary. Some are in the public eye, some are out of it. Some of these various entities are working against other entities. To claim that you're being more precise by referring to the US government as one entity is pretty strange.

Carl writes:


It is not "special pleading" to use words accurately. "We" is a word that does not name any causal agent and is less accurate in most contexts than say, "tax-payers" or "voters". The democratic process does not produce a mystical collective will, or the singular opinion of the hive-mind. Individuals have opinions, remember?

Where's the controversy?

History is a long story of acts undertaken in the name of abstract nouns such as "we" when it's quite obvious they were undertaken in the interests of a few identifable individuals.

The irony of your remark "Anytime you find yourself arguing that most other people are using the language wrong you are losing the argument" is just delicious.

Ambrose Bierce:
"I is the first letter of the alphabet, the first word of the language, the first thought of the mind, the first object of affection. In grammar it is a pronoun of the first person and singular number. Its plural is said to be We, but how there can be more than one myself is doubtless clearer to the grammarians than it is to the author of this incomparable dictionary."

Greg G writes:

Do you object to these usages?

"We hold these truths to be......"

"We the people......"

Greg G writes:


It is ALWAYS "more accurate" to provide more specifics about who is referred to than to use the very common pronoun "we." It is always more accurate to be more accurate.

That fact does not address the issue of special pleading here. David's post does not object to thinking of all groups of individuals as collectives. The principle is only applied when it serves a certain political point of view. That is what makes it special pleading.

Greg G writes:

Also, I am not arguing that David is "using the language wrong" as you suggest in trying to interpret my comment ironically. David uses words here exactly the way he intends and in a way that is easy to understand.

I am saying he is misinterpreting other people's usages and doing so in a way that is at odds with more common usage. Indeed, he acknowledges in the post that the usage he objects to is pervasive. I defend the common usage where "we" refers to the speaker and an unidentified number of other people.

Ken B writes:

@DRH: A little friendly fire. You refer to 'libertarian' friends. A nice example of the topic under discussion! Because I argue that many 'libertarians' are not in fact that big on liberaty. They are anti-government which is a different thing. Many 'libertarians' still argue against *ahem* Lend-Lease, or pretty much any foreign intervention ... Right or wrong, wise or foolish, moral or immoral, the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were fought *for* liberty.

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