Scott Sumner  

Words have fuzzy meanings--that's good

What I Fail to Realize... Common Arguments Against Immig...

Raise your hand if you are a libertarian. Now raise your hand if you think Fidel Castro is a communist. I see exactly the same number of hands in the air.

Raise your hand if you are a libertarian. Now raise your hand if you think Gary Johnson is a libertarian. I don't see the same number of hands in the air.

Why do we think Castro is a communist? Surely not because his policy views are identical to some standard communist manifesto, say the works of Marx and Engels. For instance, Castro favors allowing some private business activity. Castro does not favor having the state wither away. Rather we view him as a communist for two reasons:

1. He has lots of communist attributes, with some exceptions.
2. We hate communism.

When insulting someone with the term 'communist', we just need to be close. (I'd guess a few people have called Hillary Clinton a communist, but most think that's going too far.)

Why do some of us libertarians (not me) deny that Johnson is a libertarian? Because these two facts hold true:

1. Gary Johnson holds many libertarian views, with some exceptions.
2. We libertarians like libertarianism.

Thus we hold our own kind to a higher standard. You won't find many conservative Christian fundamentalists who believe that radical Shiite terrorists are not "really Muslims", just because they are not Sunnis, but you'd probably find quite a few who think Unitarians or Mormons are not "really Christian."

I don't like this asymmetry. We should be comfortable with fuzzy definitions because they are useful. If we insist on very strict definitions, then almost no one will fit precisely the definition, out in the real world. It will be hard to develop a language to discuss political science, sociology, and related fields. Fuzzy definitions are useful. But so are adjectives, such as "moderate" libertarian, or "pragmatic" libertarian. It matters not whether you think Johnson "deserves" this or that label, all that matters is if the label helps to convey information about what Johnson is like. The term 'libertarian' is not a title to be awarded, like an Olympic gold medal; it's a tool to be used in conversation.

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COMMENTS (22 to date)

Economists sometimes mean something more specific by "cost" than a layman means by the same word. Nothing wrong with that.

I agree that words of natural language have fuzzy meanings. Indeed, in the context in which a receiving mind seeks to discover a meaning for what has been said, fuzziness gives words their usefulness. The speaker does not have to be exact. In fact we can (almost) never be entirely exact. But wherever some specialization has developed, the words used among specialists need to have narrowed meanings.

After I started the Free Nation Foundation, I needed to sort libertarians between those who might be helpful to that project and those whose major motive was to educate 51% of their neighbors. I came up with a special label: "free-nation libertarian".

We do not need to pretend that our words used in one conversation, with actual libertarians, will be useful in another conversation, with average Americans.

Philo writes:

Why would you think, as you seem to, that almost all your readers self-identify as libertarians?I

bill writes:

Excellent post. Thanks.

David R. Henderson writes:

Actually, Scott, the number of readers of this post who think Fidel is a communist will exceed the number who are libertarians. But your point is a good one.

Phil writes:

Richard Hammer makes an extremely important point. Acceptance of fuzzy meanings may be appropriate if the message is intended for a broad audience, but when the message is intended for a more narrow audience, such fuzziness is a hindrance to communication and understanding. As such, it is appropriate to hold "our kind" to a more narrow definition.

Test: discuss "liability" with two people, an accountant and a lawyer.

Greg G writes:

Excellent post Scott.

I think Wittgenstein described this best when he said that a "family resemblance" was the thing that different usages of the same word by different people had in common.

The more people choose to use jargon that is limited to smaller communities, the more they limit their own ability to speak to people outside those communities.

So when libertarians choose to say that taxation = theft they make it a little easier for themselves to communicate with people who already hold that view but a lot harder for them to communicate with the larger number who don't.

Scott Sumner writes:

Richard, Good points.

Philo (and David), No, I do not assume that most are libertarians. I worded that poorly. I meant of those who are libertarians, how many also view Castro as a communist.

Greg, Yes, this is all in Wittgenstein.

Gordon writes:

I've found that pretty much any large group which is defined by a central interest or a core set of principles gives rise to those in that group who come up with an ideological purity test. For example, some gamers (i.e. those who are passionate about video games) have tried to define who is and is not a legitimate gamer. And there are Star Trek fans who try to define who is and is not a legitimate fan. I suspect it comes from a need for these people to define themselves as the elite (and thus the ideological gatekeepers) of those groups.

Hazel Meade writes:

Why do some of us libertarians (not me) deny that Johnson is a libertarian?

3. Because there are some non-libertarians going around masquerading as libertarians for undetermined reasons.

Please note that I'm not using narrow-definition libertarianism here. I'm talking about the sort of people who claim to be libertarian, but whose top priorities are things like immigration (they're against it) and terrorism (they're against Muslims).

There are a fair number of people wandering around the libertarian corners of the internet claiming to be "libertarian" who don't really espouse libertarian philosophical beliefs in any meaningful way.

Indeed some of these people are even against "free trade" - they think there's something bad about letting in people and products that "harm" the wages of lower-class American workers. They don't particularly care about issues like drug prohibition, or criminal justice reform either, and aren't terribly sympathetic to Black Lives Matter.

Their core issues seems to be guns and anti-discrimination statues (they don't want to cater gay weddings).

Basically, they're standard issue Republicans whose libertarianism only extends to the right to own guns and the right to discriminate against non-white, non-straight people.

it's THOSE people who are saying Johnson's not libertarian because they want to justify voting for Donald Trump instead.

Daniel Klein writes:

I like your post, Scott, but I'm not inclined to agree that it is a good thing that words have fuzzy meanings.

There is a breadth in the signification of north, as, from Fairfax, both Dulles airport and Buffalo, NY are north. But does that mean that the meaning of north is fuzzy?

And there is multiplicity of meaning to many words, such as conservative, but does that -- polysemy -- make the meaning of the word conservative fuzzy? And, if so, is that a particularly good thing?

I think your point is that it is good to let libertarian have a broad signification. I agree with you in that. It is like north -- directional from the status quo, on a by-and-large basis.

mbka writes:


I think we can't quite avoid the fuzziness of words, whether we'd like it or not. Wittgenstein has been mentioned. He famously said that words get defined by how people use them (see also "If lions could talk, we wouldn't understand them" - the same words couldn't convey meanings of an existence foreign to humans).

I like General Semantics as an antidote to confusing myself with words. It went out of fashion a long time ago but I got a lot of mileage out of "The map is not the territory" etc. Models reflect reality but do not perfectly map it. You can always build an infinity of plausible models for a given reality, and no words describe any reality to the full extent. People change, our opinions yesterday change to our opinions today. etc.

General Semantics developed a nice exercise worth doing: "E-prime". Here, you use ordinary English but w/o the verb "to be" in any form. The point of the exercise consists in forcing you to abandon labeling. You can't say anymore that one thing or person "is" a quality or a member of a group. You now must use more precision to express what the person did, said, wore, in what circumstances, etc. It shows how often we use identity, categorization, and labels, as shortcuts above some kind of specific description.

Of course any kind of identity based politics or advertising, becomes near impossible in E-prime. Imagine campaigning w/o labeling Hillary or Donald or Barack as something. Or Mexicans, Muslims, Democrats, Republicans. Once you take the "is" out of "A xx -> B" you get much saner speech but demagoguery becomes a chore.

I wrote the above in E-prime btw. This to show that text in this format still sounds normal. Just more circumscribed.

Robert writes:


Great Post. Certainly Gary Johnson is generally a libertarian. How great it would be if all our relatives were at the Gary Johnson level.


The Oregon bakers paid a $140k fine for not baking a cake for whom they didn't want to bake a cake. Would we be comfortable forcing an orthodox Muslim to bake a Nazi-themed cake, or a Sunni or Shiite from baking one another cakes? Would we be willing to lock these people up, take their homes, and have men with guns show up? That's the sort of thing that can happen when governments take $140k from someone.

This example of Gary Johnson's non-libertarianism kind of irks me. Also, I am passionate about "good" immigration. Of course most of our ancestors immigrated here. I love diversity, people from everywhere. However, government-funded immigration is destroying freedoms our forefathers died to provide, let alone the Western concept of limited government.

No-government is ideal. No-borders is ideal. However, the government paying and encouraging hordes of migrants to stream into the treasury and vote for increased socialism is bad. Encouraging it is not desirably libertarian. Almost no matter what segment of immigrants you isolate (age, number of children, education, years here, etc.), they are much more likely to consume welfare than the same segment of citizens. See:

62% of illegal immigrant families are on welfare. A higher percentage are of ones with children. Refugees have even higher usage rates. I could not show up in Switzerland or Mexico and ask for this deal. Switzerland and Mexico have at least this minimal fiduciary regard for Swiss and Mexican taxpayers. Thus, if I vote, and barring significant new information, I will vote for Trump on libertarian grounds

J Mann writes:

Good post, Scott.

Oddly, there's a similar but not identical effect from the other side as well. IMHO, the farther away you are from libertarian or communist, the more likely you are to just stick Johnson or Castro in your mental box for libertarians or communists, respectively.

It usually goes like this:

Friend: No one should vote libertarian. Are you saying we shouldn't have roads? That we should never create regulations for new problems?

Me: To identify as libertarian, you have have to be in favor of a smaller government with less net regulation than we have today. (I.e., a moderate libertarian).

Friend: No! Libertarians have to be radical anarchists! It says so on the tin!

Me: Than what do you call people who want somewhat smaller government and less regulation than we currently have.

Friend: Nothing! There is no word for those people, so they may not organize around their beliefs!

(They don't really say that last part).

Hazel Meade writes:


You are proving my point.
You can't deny that keeping out immigrants restricts their liberty, and the liberty of those who would employ them. You're willing to rationalize restricting their liberty on the tenuous argument that they consume more welfare on average. That's a collectivist argument. Individual immigrants have no control over the welfare policies of the US (they can't even vote), or the consumption patterns of other immigrants. The same logic could be used to deny women or blacks the right to vote (they consume more welfare on average!).

If you can't uphold the simple concept that individuals should be treated as individuals, and should be judged equally regardless of which side of an imaginary line they happened to be born on, then you aren't grasping the most basic concepts of libertarian philosophy.

But more importantly, economic freedom is a core, if not THE core libertarian principle. Trump is completely opposed to it, on trade, on eminent domain, and on the size of government. A "libertarian" that sacrifices free market principles in favor of the right to discriminate against blacks and gays and Muslims is a poor excuse for a libertarian.

What are we about? The right to trade freely and own property and enter an occupation of one's choice? The right to pursue happiness? Or the right to discriminate against other people because of their race or religion or sexual orientation?

Would you really rather be on the side of bigots than on the side of people who just want to pursue happiness?

anomdebus writes:

I tend to think there is a relatively fixed amount of epistemological weight for every word. You can increase the depth or the breadth of the definition, but it comes at the cost of the other. Depth in the case refers to how much information does the word convey. Breadth, how many different cases are described.

In my opinion, the more strict definitions end up packing too many specifications in one word. [Example] In a phone tree application, that means you either have too many options at one level ("press 42 for libertarian"), or you bury the well known words behind neologisms just to avoid changing how you use a word.

Fortunately, we have adjectives and prefixes to distinguish between flavors.

Of course, it is possible to go too much in the other direction. Instead of the singleton disqualifiers, it could be used to match on single qualifiers. I have seen little of this, in part because there hasn't been much caché in identifying as libertarian. I think it would be great if we ended up needing to beat the hangers-on away with a stick. I don't think we are there yet, though.

Scott Sumner writes:

Hazel, Interesting comment.

Daniel, The directional metaphor seems pretty good in some cases, but not all. In some cases it's not clear where the endpoint is. For instance, what is the "extreme" libertarian position on intellectual property rights, that people might be moving towards or away from?

mbka, Very interesting, I like that example of refraining from use of "to be". It reminds me of when Borges discussed a language that had no nouns.

Robert, Why not support someone who wants to cut off welfare for illegal immigrants?

J Mann, Good comment.

anomdebus, Good comment.

David Boaz writes:

Dan Klein,

"Conservative" seems like a particularly fuzzy word to me. Does it mean cautious and prudent, Burkean/traditionalist, Buckley/Reagan/free enterprise/strong defense, theocratic in Iran, communist in China...? Can it encompass the candidate most conservatives are planning to vote for?

Compared to that, "libertarian" can run from Rothbard to Gary Johnson and still be pretty rigorous.

Robert writes:

Scott: "Robert, Why not support someone who wants to cut off welfare for illegal immigrants?"

To me, the ideal is anarchy or minarchy. Voluntaryism, really, is ideal. No borders. Awesome. But in that scenario, there is not massive wealth transfer from taxpayers to the state. Moreover, one's children and great-grandchildren are not born ever-more indebted by treasury-emptying people streaming over the borders.

So sure, a purist who wants to cut off welfare for illegal immigrants sounds great. Who is that person who has a chance of getting elected this time? If the ship of state does not begin an amazing change of course yesterday or asap, there will be no chance of voting in a supporter of economic freedom, as socialists continue to increase as a portion of the population. Who will be there to vote for human liberty when the greater part of the millions arriving are immediately hooked up to wealth-transfusion systems?

Consider the rate at which immigrants support welfare and vote for the more-socialist major party, and procreate in higher numbers. These are simple demographics. The US falling like Rome, for the same sorts of reasons, is not desirable.

While I dream of a voluntaryist libertarian paradise, I'd rather not see what vestiges we have of Western-civilizations freedoms and wealth stripped away. Stop the flood of welfare state benefits, then I'm cool with immigrants. In the meantime, legal or illegal, immigrants shouldn't be permitted to drain (let alone encourage) the treasury. When my great-great-grandfather arrived at Ellis Island (to work 12 hr/7 days in a Pennsylvannia coal mine) in 1901, immigrants had to demonstrate they wouldn't be a burden on the (teeny) welfare state of the day. They had to prove assets (cash), if not a job, poor as they were. They also did not have the opportunity to collect enormous benefits whilst voting for several flavors of socialists.

Hazel: you can call it collectivist, but the immigrants are being weaponized by Democrats (and others) to stream over and begin dismantling what remaining wealth and freedoms they encounter. Sure some immigrants are net contributors (a minority, statistically), but do you hold it against Mexico and Switzerland that they attempt to maintain both their treasury and culture from immigrants? Pre-1964-65 most AMerican immigrants came from Europe.

Do you believe all other cultures protect women's rights, gay rights, and property rights (minimally as they do) as well as the US? If not, do consider any protection of border for cultural reasons worthwhile? Perhaps the Vatical should double its population with Syrians, many who are illiterate in their own language. Would that be a morally-neutral, culturally neutral, prudent policy?

I thought this thread was generally about ways of describing people in a political context, with several mentions of Gary Johnson. I interpreted it as relating to attitudes about whether one might vote for one candidate in the present US Presidential election. I chimed in on that basis. Were it a thread on statist solutions versus nonstate-voluntaryist-anarchy, then I'd go with the latter.

Thomas B writes:


I think that anarchism is a beautiful fantasy. So is communism (of a different sort). Both are fatally flawed, because they rely on human beings who are idealized, who do not exist in the real world.

Communism fails because rulers are not angels (they are neither omniscient, nor perfectly selfless), and the population is self-interested, and no amount of "ought" is going to change either.

Anarchism fails because humans are self-interested, some humans are psychopaths, and many humans are eager to follow a psychopath in dominating others and stealing from them, or even abusing them "just because". No amount of "ought" is going to change any of that.

If you set up a beautiful anarchist state, some group of thugs is going to start running a protection racket and picking on people - and, realistically, who's going to stop them? The private security guards? Heck, the problem is likely to BE a group that started as private security guards.

We have government because, inevitably, there will be a group capable of driving all violent opposition out of its territory, and imposing its will on the population.

So far, that's not optional. The question, though, is what will its policies be? The libertarian argues that both the people AND THE GOVERNMENT will be better off if those policies allow a high degree of autonomy to the people.

How much is "high"? We don't really know. In all likelihood, the optimum for the people is higher than the optimum for the government. The evidence of history has been that states most willing/able to offer liberty have been the most successful, but governments are made of humans who seek power, so there's an internal conflict there. In any case, government isn't going away (if it did, another would take its place). The libertarian's goal is to enlighten government's self interest, to steer the state toward expanded liberty for the people.

A libertarian accepts the reality, the inevitability of government: indeed, that's what distinguishes the libertarian from the anarchist.

Scott Sumner writes:

Robert, I agree that a generous welfare state is not really compatible with completely open borders.

Your analogy is off. Fundamentalist Christians tend to define Christianity as those individuals who will be saved when God judges the world. They do not think that God is just going to save whoever the popular understanding of the term "Christian" applies to. That's their standard. So, infighting about who is really Christian is logically consistent. The same individuals see Islam as false, so the infighting in Islam is not relevant in their understanding of who is Muslim.

Plus, a major omission on your part, you will find plenty of Christian fundamentalists claiming the peaceful Muslims aren't real Muslims.

Joshua Lyle writes:

Actually, Scott, quite a few Unitarians aren't Christians at all, although the Unitarianism is Christian in origin. For example, see the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans.

The joke goes that when the Unitarians made peace with atheism, the dogma went from "we believe in one god" to "we believe in one god, at most", and then when the pagans joined up it became "we believe in one god, more or less".

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