The Left is winning the language wars
30 July 2022
Once upon a time, we – or most of us, at least – knew what words meant. Needless to say, from society’s point of view, this was very useful – we were all working from the same page.
If someone had used the term economic rationalism, the typical response would have been to query the need for repetition. Yep, economics is about making trade-offs and who would sign up to irrationalism? What happened, in fact, was that economic rationalism became a term of derision, the message being that economics is a heartless discipline that should be ignored by both politicians and concerned persons.
While the term economic rationalism has luckily gone out of fashion, the connotation lives on. Social justice was another term that became wildly fashionable a while back. I’m not sure who is against social justice, but hands up all those who know what social justice actually means. The main point is that social justice is just a short-hand term for everything that progressives regard as important and woe betide anyone who disagrees.
There are plenty of murky, even meaningless, words and terms that have been captured by the Left to throw stones at those who disagree with them. To describe economics as neoliberal makes no sense at all. But it is a way of casting economics as a callous discipline based on absurd assumptions. The fact that right-minded economists don’t ever describe themselves as neoliberal is irrelevant to activists pushing greater government intervention.
Extraordinarily long-serving economics editor at the Sydney Morning Herald, Ross Gittins – succession planning is clearly not the long suit of the editors – is always at pains to distance himself from neo-liberalism. As he puts it, ‘economics has many useful insights to offer the community. It must be rescued from neoliberalism because neoliberalism is simply bad economics.’ We can’t be sure why it’s bad economics because we don’t know what neoliberalism is – well apart from it being bad.
Austerity is another term purloined by the Left to attack any politician who attempts to cut government spending. Actually, make that cut the growth of government spending. Where once austerity might have been interpreted as responsible behaviour, particularly after a period of excess, these days it is another abridged term for merciless pruning of government expenditure.
Recall those 365 economists who wrote to the Times in 1981 complaining about Maggie Thatcher’s economic policies. They were confident that the fiscal and monetary tightening that was being implemented ‘will deepen the depression (sic)’. They even went as far as to suggest that Thatcher’s 1981 budget would ‘threaten social and political stability’. As events panned out, inflation came under control and unemployment began to trend down. Oops for the ‘experts’ (another misused term).
The Australian Labor party also has form in terms of misrepresenting austerity and spending cuts. At recent elections (but not 2022), Labor would claim that the Coalition had plans to cut spending on education, health and other areas. Who could forget the vacuous Tanya Plibersek making this claim when in fact federal government spending on education under the Coalition had increased and was forecast to increase further?
The trick was for Labor to foreshadow ridiculously rapid increases in spending and judge Coalition plans against this fabrication. Of course, there were always fine words attached to Labor’s plans like removing the impact of socio-economic background on educational outcomes. Yeah, right! But the point is that Labor was able to misuse language to score political points. Arguably, this tactic forced Tony Abbott to agree, during the 2013 election campaign, that there would be no cuts to education, health or the ABC (!) under a Coalition government.
Nimby – not in my backyard – is another term that has been snaffled by the Left to push for any of their preferred developments while denigrating those who oppose them. The objective is to delegitimise any preferences that locals have in order to achieve ‘progressive’ objectives. (Yes, there’s another word that’s misused – progressive.)
The Grattan Institute has long promoted high-rise developments in inner and middle suburbs as a means of providing housing for a rapidly growing population, the latter mainly the result of very high rates of immigration. For people living in those suburbs who object to these developments – gosh, doesn’t everyone want a 30-storey apartment building next to their freestanding house? – the argument is that they should be ignored as selfish, privileged buffoons.
Because Nimby-ism is bad, so the Left’s argument goes, governments should be able to ignore the preferences of locals and simply force through new developments. It’s like China’s modus operandi, when you think about it. Nimby arguments are reaching a crescendo in some regional areas. Proposals to build massive transmission lines across farms or close to cities or towns are understandably causing disquiet among locals.
Recently, there was a well-attended protest in Ballarat objecting to the construction of huge pylons in western Victoria. This has put local federal member, Labor’s Catherine King, in something of a quandary, particularly as she is also minister for infrastructure. Weirdly, two state shadow ministers from the Victorian Liberal party turned up too, notwithstanding their party’s bizarre embrace of net zero by 2050 and a 50 per cent cut in the state’s emissions by 2030. Who ever said politicians needed to be consistent?
There is also a great deal of disquiet about a solar farm proposed for the outskirts of Goulburn, with many locals unhappy that a large chunk of the Gundary Plain should be used for this purpose. Apart from the loss of land, there is anxiety about glare from the panels and the ambient heat effect. Energy behemoth, BP, is a partner in the project.
The broader point about the promotion of renewable energy is that those living in regional areas are expected to bear the external costs of developments with any objections being written off as mere Nimby-ism.
So language matters. But the sensible centre-right has been totally outgunned and has completely lost the contest.
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