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Charlie Sykes: Sykes Writes

The Importance of Language

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The president and his allies on the left are suggesting that success is arbitrary and that the successful owe they good fortune to the efforts of others. This is, of course, crucial to any ideology that aims to spread the wealth around. This is what I wrote about the use of redistributive rhetoric in "A Nation of Moochers" :


Language has played a crucial role in advancing this notion that success and achievement are arbitrary and largely a result of chance and good luck. Consider all of the euphemisms that describe successful individuals as “fortunate,” or “privileged”, or simply, “the haves.” The nomenclature is specifically designed to diminish the sense of deserving of those who are better off by blurring any recognition that their status might be a reward for achievement, innovation, risk taking, or hard work.

Admittedly the term “privileged” might fairly describe a third generation heir or Hollywood celebrity frittering away their life on Ibiza, but it distorts the reality of much of how wealth is created. Even the entrepreneur from a good family and other “morally arbitrary” natural advantages  lives with the very real possibility that everything he has worked for will be lost; that the bank will call in his note, crushing his ability to make a payroll; or that a tax hike or new regulation will erase his narrow margin of profitability. In what sense, after all, is a small businessman who runs a start-up metal fabrication company, “privileged”. By carrying the risk? The debt? By submitting his livelihood and family income to the vagaries of the marketplace and competition?

But this is precisely why the insistence that inequality is “morally arbitrary” is crucial to the politics of redistribution of income. There would be a very different tenor to the debate over “spreading around the wealth,” if we substituted the words “achievers,” “doers,” and “makers,” for the “fortunate,” the “privileged,” and the “haves.” Language matters: it is not a coincidence that progressives have taken to calling the recipients of government aid the “less fortunate,” the “underprivileged,” and “victims.” Language shapes the debate when an advocate says that “we should raise taxes so the privileged can share their good fortune with the underprivileged.”

Imagine instead if a politician making his or her case this way: ‘We need to raise taxes so that achievers are forced to share their rewards with society’s moochers.”

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