Unsticking Sticky Words

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142 Responses

  1. greginak says:

    Good post. I read the BHL post last night and found it seriously wanting. I think you express why that is. The other thing about using a word like fascism is even if there might be a very specific definition, that almost nobody uses, instead of the commonly used understanding and references is that it is used so selectivity. Even if we take fascism as solely high gov/business cooperation, which might mean the ACA could be described that way, then when else do we use the word fascism. Do the people who use the term fascism also use it regarding the defense industry, Ag/Farm supports, funding private schools, private space exploration companies and i could probably think of another 20 examples if i tried. Each one of those situations might also fit as high gov/business cooperation but do those people also call those fascism. If it works in one situation then why not use it in the others. The answer is because calling the ACA fascism is not about a pedantic definition which ignores all sorts other major meanings but about throwing a loaded, sticky handful of poo.

    They are even farther off on slavery since they ignore all sorts of things tax payers can do and rights they have that slaves don’t. Obviously tax payers have freedom of exit, have a voice in voting for the laws that apply to them, have strategies for minimizing their taxes and still have immense freedoms which aren’t affected by having to pay taxes.Report

    • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to greginak says:

      I’ll agree with Greg here, good post. We’ve talked here before about words where the meaning is sticky, or where the term is used so broadly and incorrectly that it is beginning to lose it’s value (e.g. terrorism/terrorist, etc.).


      We may have freedom of exit, but depending on your income/wealth levels, it can be an exceptionally difficult process if you want to be able to leave with the bulk of your wealth intact.Report

      • greginak in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        @mrs I agree that exit isn’t always easy or without possibly without significant cost. It is not something which should be done lightly. However, even with the costs, there is simply a huge difference between someone who can leave a place although there may be costs and a slave who can’t leave and is owned. The BHL post was trying to shave down the definition to find some way to still use the word slavery. At some point such large differences are more then just differences in quantity of some degree of slaveness but serious qualitative differences that make them different things.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:


        Fair point.Report

  2. FYI: The following parts of the OP are technically quotations from Mr. Long’s blog post:

    When critics of Obamacare call it “fascist,” for example, they are regularly accused of absurdly likening Obamacare to the Nazis’ campaigns of mass slaughter. Yet “fascism” is a word with a meaning, and the kind of expansive business/government partnership represented by Obamacare seems to fit that meaning fairly well.

    To be sure, the critics of Obamacare use the term “fascism” because it has a negative connotation, and it is the extreme forms of fascism that have played the largest role in giving it that connotation. But the point of using the term, as I see it, is not to give the misleading impression that Obamacare is equivalent to more extreme forms of fascism in the scale of its badness, but simply to point out that they’re bad for similar reasons. (Of course some idiots do seem to regard Obama and Hitler as equivalent in degree of evil, but they’re a different problem.)


    When libertarians call taxation or conscription forms of slavery, their claims are often dismissed, on the grounds that taxation or conscription are hardly comparable in thoroughgoing awfulness to antebellum American slavery. But while this is certainly true, it is also true that antebellum American slavery represents one of the worst forms of slavery that has ever existed. Compare, for example, the much milder form of slavery that prevailed in medieval Scandinavia. In the 13th-century Icelandic Gisli’s Saga, we’re told that Gisli’s slave Kol owns a sword (!) which his master must ask permission to borrow (!!). This was obviously a less thoroughgoing form of slavery than the one that reigned in Dixie. Given the many and varying degrees of awfulness that slavery can take, treating all comparisons to slavery as comparisons specifically to antebellum American slavery is historically myopic.


  3. Burt Likko says:

    I’m immensely pleased with the sentiment of this post and its punchline. Particular words are often used in a manner intended to emotionally polarize the audience rather than to actually illuminate the subject under discussion. Like charcoal, they generate plenty of heat, but very little light. “Obamacare is fascism” is certainly a sterling example of this use of the language. Then again, my favorite essay of all time, ever, in any language, is about exactly this phenomenon, more timely now than it was sixty-eight years ago when first published.

    Props to you, @gabriel-conroy .Report

  4. Saul DeGraw says:

    Great post. I have some theories on this.

    1. Words can develop specific meanings when used by experts, well-versed hobbyists (aka as political weirdos like everyone here), people in certain movements like social justice, etc as compared to the lay definition of the word. Libertarian leaning people are using fascism to mean something specific when most people just think of it as the political doctrine of Mussolini. They don’t know the tenants of fascist thought.

    2. Even if using words in a technically correct manner, stickiness might demand some showing of judicious restraint. Maybe you can make a technically correct argument that conscription is slavery and Obamacare is fascism. This technically correct argument is still going to be horribly offensive to many, many people. It might be very satisfying for some to make the accusation but it also going to make them sound like an entitled person especially if it is a white guy doing the attack.

    3. Terms like fascism, check your privilege, socialism should not be hills to die on but people want to die on them again and again and again. Americans seems addicted to hyperbole and inflamed rhetoric. I suspect we are all partially trollish all the time.

    4. I suspect that socialism is a much scarier word to people over 50 something than it is to someone in my generation. My first decade alive was the last decade of the Eastern Bloc. I remember the Berlin Wall coming down when I was in fourth grade or so. But socialism does not make me shack with fear. I don’t think of the USSR but the social democracies of Western Europe. There is a bit of crying wolf syndrome as well. Overusing a term dilutes power. Maybe public schools are technically socialism but we had public schools for a long long time and I don’t even think the most ardent Cold Warrior during the actual Cold War would have called for their dismantling because Socialism. Yet Americans seem to be the people who can’t declare the end of any fight.Report

    • @saul-degraw

      Good thoughts.

      Regarding #1, that reminds me of a time when I told my father that “wherefore,” as in “Wherefore art thou Romeo” means “why” and not “where.” My father got really angry when I said that.

      Regarding #2, I agree, but I still hedge, as I did in the OP, on conscription. I think conscription, being involuntary servitude, really does bear a close enough family resemblance to something we can call slavery. Of course, there are a lot of ways that conscription, as it’s been practiced in the US, isn’t like most forms of historical slavery. There’s usually the promise that it will end someday, say, after the conflict or tour of duty. There’s might some (probably meager) form of compensation. There might be leave opportunities and perhaps GI bill or similar benefits for service. Still, the idea behind conscription is forcing people to do something they don’t want to do, and often at risk to their own life.

      Regarding #3, agreed.

      Regarding #4: I was going to include “socialism,” but my example was from another blog author and my own post was already getting too long. But I actually think socialism is a better term in when it comes to sussing out stickiness. Some people–not necessarily libertarians, but often non-liberals and non-leftists–use “socialism” to refer what I and you (I suspect) would call Marxist-Leninism-with-a-pinch-of-Mao-Zedong-Thought and not any one of the varied meanings the word could command. In such cases, as long as they’re being clear, I don’t necessarily have a problem with them using the word that way. But often they’re not explicit or clear.Report

      • Francis in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

        Re: conscription as slavery.

        Here in the US, at least, only the elected government has the power to conscript. So before it can occur, conscription must obtain the vote of the House, Senate, President and possibly the Supreme Court. That’s a lot of veto point vulnerable to lobbying, compared to the slave owner.

        Foggy memory informs me, for example, that some House Democrat filed a conscription bill during the Iraq war where it got precisely one vote.

        And the conscripts (and their families and friends) do not lose their right to vote during the period of conscription. So even if it was a good idea at one time, politicians change their minds or be replaced.

        Slavery, in the US, was a power of one individual over another; conscription is the power of state over its young adults. Yes, there are features in common (like being taken away from your family and put in grave danger for minimal pay). But the differences really do outweigh the similarities.Report

      • Saul DeGraw in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

        It just seems to me that any program which is basically welfare or kind of nice gets attacked as socialism except social security and medicare. I’d expand it to any program supported by Democratic types.

        I think this variant of far-right politics has existed since the New Deal or at least since Eisenhower made peace with the New Deal for the GOP. Socialism is almost like a Pavlonian reaction.Report

      • Well, conscription isn’t chattel slavery by any means, nor is it a permanent underclass status as we would see in systems of so-called “kinship slavery” that used to obtain in some parts of the world. And in addition to conscripts keeping their right to vote, you could also add provisions for conscientious objectors.

        That said, the many veto points you (rightfully) enumerate haven’t stopped many of the efforts at conscription from becoming federal policy at certain times in US history.

        Also, when we think about whether we can meaningfully call conscription “slavery,” maybe it’s best to see how useful it is for us to do so. You–and apparently Saul–seem to agree that it’s at best a distraction or an overreach and at worst a marker of entitlement.

        As for the comparison being a distraction, maybe you’re right. And if it’s too much of a distraction, maybe as a tactical matter the comparison shouldn’t be made.

        But I’d disagree about it being a marker of entitlement. If someone doesn’t want to risk his or her life, why should I claim that honoring their wishes is succumbing to their sense of “entitlement”? I’m assuming here the claim is rooted simply in the fact that they don’t want to be compelled to serve. Obviously, if one says, “I’m wealthy” or “I’m a college student” or “I’m white” and believes that should exempt them….then maybe the entitlement charge applies. But even then, I can hardly blame someone for using the tools available to them for getting out of doing something dangerous they don’t want to do. Such is the problem with conscription: it’s degrading and it forces the unwilling to acquiesce or to scurry into a favored niche to avoid falling under it’s command.Report

      • Saul DeGraw in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:


        Do libertarians care about the draft/conscription as slavery if a war is supported by the population? I.e. Was the draft during WWII more morally acceptable than the draft during Vietnam? Or do libertarians generally see themselves as Taft-isolationists?Report

      • Roger in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

        I can only answer personally. When the mongol horde has surrounded the city I believe it is of value to conscript all able bodied fighters. This would be “black”. Fighting to influence political leadership in Southeast Asia I would call “white”. Lots of grey in between.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:


        I can’t speak for libertarianism at large, but my general feeling is that conscription is heavily frowned upon and would only be even remotely legitimate if the US was directly invaded.

        So WWII would have more support for a draft (due to Pearl Harbor & Hitler’s seeming appetite for conquest) than Korea, Vietnam, or any middle east conflict, since these countries only posed a threat to the US in the fevered dreams of Hawks.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

        Also, a volunteer service has an additional benefit. Should your politically driven military adventurism be unpopular, you will likely find it harder & harder to find troops to field.Report

      • Kolohe in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

        Chattel slavery in North America required *a lot* of government support to make it work, from local sheriffs checking the paperwork of any persons of color they saw in town or on the roads, to the US Congress passing the Fugitive Slave Act and (separately) the Supreme Court ruling on Dred Scott. I mean, it was called the Underground Railroad because it was all technically illegal.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

        @Kolohe, chattel slavery also took a lot of government work to reverse. It took an entire war and three amendments to the Constitution plus several laws based nearly a century latter. Just because government was involved in the maintenance of slavery, it does not mean that slavery would collapse absent government support.Report

      • @saul-degraw

        Not being a libertarian myself, I can’t speak for them. I do sign on to @roger ‘s comment.

        But to more directly answer your question, I don’t know if libertarians would condemn conscription as slavery per se.Report

      • @leeesq

        I think it depends, though. With Reconstruction and afterward, it was as much an example of different levels of government pitted against each other, with two levels (the local and the state) mostly in the hands of people who wanted to perpetuate something like slavery, and one level (the federal) that sometimes wanted to deconstruct slavery, that sometimes was indifferent, and that sometimes worked in cahoots with the local. Added to the local governments, we can also point to the Klan, which exercised a certain claim to violence that appears very independent of what we think of as the classical “state.” In other words, the Klan and other vigilantes were working as a shadow government of sorts.

        I suppose, however, that if I insist too much on “shadow governments,” then maybe I’m going too far and claiming everything is government when in fact not everything was. So that’s a point in favor of your argument.Report

      • Kolohe in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

        Chattel slavery, as practiced in 1850s North America, would have collapsed without government support.

        The problem was there were over a half-dozen state governments wholly invested in the maintenance of slavery (and a few more on the fence), and so yes, another government laid the smack down on those governments via the entire war and Reconstruction. And as you say, later on, when those state governments put in Jim Crow, that same government laid another smack down (eventually) (on those and other state and local governments) from the 60s to this day.

        There can be slavery in the shadows, and does indeed exist today (aka ‘trafficking in persons’) but it can never be the overt economic backbone that it was in antebellum North America (and ancient Rome and Greece and lotsa other places) without the State providing support – in the same way there can’t be so-called ‘property rights’ without state support.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:


        Why would citizenry support for a war matter? Citizenry support for chattel slavery wouldn’t, or for any other violation of fundamental rights.

        As well, citizen support can be broad but shallow. Should we force people to sacrifice their lives for a passing whim of those who aren’t themselves taking that risk?

        While there is a collective action problem at the heart of national defense, I’d argue that as a general rule, if the government can’t get enough volunteers to fight, it might need to rethink its commitment to war, its relationship to its citizens, or both.Report

    • scott the mediocre in reply to Saul DeGraw says:


      You gave me a chuckle there with “tenants” of fascist thought. I wonder if they are rent controlled, or at least rent stabilized 🙂

      More seriously, I don’t understand what you mean by paragraph 3, sentence 1. What does it mean to die on the hill of a particular term or phrase? To argue to the death over whether a given usage is/is not appropriate or justified?

      • Brandon Berg in reply to scott the mediocre says:

        Couldn’t you link to a definition from a less disruptive source?Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to scott the mediocre says:

        What the phrase means is that your fighting to the death over something thats very marginal to your overall cause and making a molehill into a mountain rather than give up the ghost.

        One of the latest obsessions among liberals is the idea of trigger warnings. This basically means that college courses should have to disclose potentially traumatic content to their students like X book contains scenes of graphic rape or something like that. The liberal advocates of trigger warnings believe that they are a proper way to be respectful and gentle towards people that experienced traumatic experiences. The liberal opponents thing that they are silly because real life doesn’t come with trigger warnings, they don’t do anything to really advance the liberal agenda, and they come across as being too much like a Limbaugh parody of liberalism. The liberal advocates refuse to back down, meaning they are choosing trigger warnings as a hill to die on.Report

      • Kim in reply to scott the mediocre says:

        ooooh. you are really tempting me to post some footage without a trigger warning.
        Give ya nightmares it would.Report

      • scott the mediocre in reply to scott the mediocre says:

        Saul, I know what “to die on the hill of X” means in general. I was trying to get from that to what you meant by, for example from your list, “die on the hill of ‘check your privilege'”. What would somebody dying on the hill of that some particular usage of that phrase look like? I’m guessing that you meant somebody committing all their resources to, as the case may be, either attacking or defending the appropriateness of some particular, specific use of “check your privilege”, to the point where the resources the upon a hill dying individual expends are vastly more than the original point, whatever it was, might be worth. Is that what you meant? If not, what did you mean?

  5. Vikram Bath says:

    One of the tricks academics are supposed to use (but don’t actually) to avoid this problem is to replace the problematic word with its definition wherever it appears in the argument and reevaluate the whole thing. Yudkowsky calls it “tabooing your words”: http://lesswrong.com/lw/nu/taboo_your_words/

    A lot of dramatic claims become defanged by this method.Report

  6. veronica dire says:

    Well, linguists these days have ideas like prototype theory, which suggests that terms get their meaning not according to some abstract set of properties, but instead according to similarity to iconic instances. Thus something is a game insofar as it is like other things we call games, the iconic examples of which are probably card games, maybe checkers.

    As an example, consider how we’ll call those “ergonomic chair” things “chairs,” even though they more properly fit the definition of a “stool.”

    There are many examples. They are easy to produce.

    Note that prototype theory certainly has flaws and is not the final word on meaning — which no doubt is as complex as all of human cognition — but it seems a huge step forward in understanding how we use language.

    So it goes for “fascism.”Report

    • @veronica-dire

      I’m not sure I follow you. It seems to me you’re explaining why fascism, even though it doesn’t have a clear definition, can nevertheless be a “thing” for linguistic purposes? Please correct me if I’m wrong. But if I’m not wrong, do you think what you describe excuses people who call Obamacare an instance of “fascism,” or do you think what you describe makes their decision to call it “fascism” even less defensible?Report

    • Mike Schilling in reply to veronica dire says:

      Well, linguists these days have ideas like prototype theory

      Brendan Eich — he’s everywhere!Report

    • Chris in reply to veronica dire says:

      In prototype theory, which is probably the dominant theory of conceptual representation (though there are strong competitors), the prototype is, in fact, an abstraction (not a specific, salient or iconic exemplar), though precisely how the prototype itself is represented is a matter of much debate. The name prototype theory is, perhaps, misleading. In perceptual category learning, for example, it is possible for the prototype to look unlike any actually observed exemplars at all (imagine, for example, that all exemplars from category A measure either a 1 or a 2 on some dimension, while all exemplars from category B measured 3 or 4; the prototypes for A and B might be 1.5 and 3.5, respectively, or 1.7 and 3.3, or whatever, depending on the distribution of 1’s and 2’s and 3’s and 4’s the learner encounters, as well as one’s theory of how the central tendency of the category is reprsented).Report

      • veronica dire in reply to Chris says:

        @chris — Honestly I get lost in the fine points, which is probably okay. To my view the important point is to look beyond the more analytical or set-theoretic notions of meaning, since people don’t actually think in terms of “essential properties” or pure denotation, acting as if they do (or even can) is misleading.

        This of course has political implications. People often want to use a term in its full measure when on the attack, but then get picky about its technical definitions when on the defense.

        Which is kinda the point of this article.Report

      • Chris in reply to Chris says:

        @veronica-dire , oh yes! I got you, and that was mostly the cognitive scientist feeling it necessary to correct something about his discipline, which I keep meaning to write about ’round here. But you’re right, the important thing to recognize is that categories are defined by similarity, and that similarity is to experienced exemplars, among which iconic examples are more salient and play a bigger role in determining our conceptual representations. (By the way, this was my first post on this blog, discussing similar topics. The studies I reference in it might be right up your alley.)Report

      • veronica dire in reply to Chris says:

        @chris — Actually I learned much that I needed to know on the subject watching a bunch of nerds argue over whether such and such was really a “role playing game.”

        Fun times.Report

      • Chris in reply to Chris says:

        Well, it is all about games, of course. That’s where the whole idea of family resemblances, which directly inspired prototype theory and similarity theories of categorization in general (there are others). One of the first things I ever published (with another author) was, in fact, a paper largely about the concept GAMES because I spent entirely too much, and not enough, of my youth reading P.I..Report

      • veronica dire in reply to Chris says:

        Heh, right. GAMES is one of the iconic examples of prototype theory.

        (There is a meta-joke hiding here.)Report

  7. Roger says:

    What a great and thought provoking piece. Thanks Gabriel.

    I have not read the linked article yet, but I agree with you that a lot of sticky words are rhetorical in nature. They are about appealing to emotions and biases rather than rationality. They are the staple of political discussion, allowing the in group to feel better about itself and to unite against the hated out group.

    The down side of this is that this is exactly the kind of words people in political groups want to use. It fits their purposes nicely. Politics is tribal.

    Please don’t read this though as a defense of sticky words. Consider it more as a condemnation of politics.Report

  8. zic says:

    Excellent commentary, @gabriel-conroy and excellent comments, all.

    I also like the term “sticky words,” because many otherwise totally awesome words have connotations so stuck to them that they lose their other (and often nuanced) meanings. “Gay,” for example; I’m proud of my gay brother, I’m also proud that he’s happy.

    The object of any piece of writing is to communicate. Using sticky words typically, however, is often an attempt to communicate loaded meanings that we somehow thinking we can weasel out of; they’re often an attempt at shutting down communication. I know I’m guilty of this occasionally; but I try to resist the temptation. (I should note that the voices here are diverse enough that I’ve grown uncomfortable being so ideologically dismissive, too. You are a good influence on me.)

    It is good to be reminded that certain kinds of words are best saved for when we really need them; their power and negative connotations, like judicial use of the f-bomb, can be just the spice needed. But restraint and respect seem merited most times, lest the jagged shoals catch us with a carelessly placed sticky word.Report

    • Gabriel Conroy in reply to zic says:


      I think the problem is that we all use loaded words to, as you say, “attempt to communicate loaded meanings that we somehow thinking we can weasel out of….” In that light, I like the post @vikram-bath links to above.Report

    • aaron david in reply to zic says:

      @zic These words can also be used to re-frame a debate. Saying “death panels” or “assault weapons” (to pick one from each side) can change the direction of a conversation/debate, force ideological opponents to run around in circles, or reintroduce concepts that one political group has taken a hold of and shut down. Academics may wish for precise definitions, but language moves all on its own, and the current popular definition is the real one.Report

      • @aaron-david

        There’s that, as well. I suppose the admonition not to use sticky words works best when the good faith of the sticky-word-users is assumed.

        For my money–and perhaps this reflects my ideological blinders–I’m inclined to believe “death panels” is usually uttered more disingenuously while “assault weapon” is usually uttered more out of ignorance. But your point remains well-taken.Report

      • aaron david in reply to aaron david says:

        @gabriel-conroy By the way, excellent article.Report

      • zic in reply to aaron david says:


        I think there are two different things going on here. One is the partisan vying for power; where the notion of opposition is baked in. The other is actual discussion, which requires regard and consideration of an opposing view.

        Death Panels, coming from the mouth of Sarah Palin, really doesn’t bother me; if anything, it reveals the levels of deceit and hyperbole she’s willing to go to. It’s an example of the first, and it’s a form of political branding.

        But ‘death panels’ in a conversation here? If any of the conservatives here responded to a discussion about ACA with ‘death panels,’ it would likely be wholly in the service of shutting down conversation. This is not the same thing as Palin’s use; an attempt to define conversation, to brand the opposition. It’s a signal of team membership and unwillingness to talk to members of the opposing team.

        So the two uses differ. I’m not ever likely to hold a serious discussion with newsmakers such as Palin; and if I did, I don’t suspect she’d be much interested in hearing my ideas and concerns except as they reflect and refine the conversation she’s trying to define.

        But I’m highly likely to hold a conversation with someone who’s notions are shaped by the likes of Palin, and ‘death panels’ would likely suggest they don’t want to hear what I’ve got to say; instead, they’re human megaphones repeating the talking points but not listening and considering to opposing views. Their conversation is defined and limited by the sticky words.

        I’m pretty sure that that same person would hear me repeating liberal talking points if I began blabbering about “global warming” or “income inequality” in response to their concerns about high taxation or complex regulation.

        Team signaling isn’t conversation, it’s flag waving and sporting event. And conversation requires some effort to set aside the knee-jerk responses and offer someone you disagree with some respect and honest consideration.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to aaron david says:

        These words can also be used to re-frame a debate

        Political scientist William Riker coined a term for that, heresthetics, as a companion term to rhetoric.Report

  9. Major Zed says:

    “serfdom” might be a better word than “slavery” to describe the relationship between US citizens and their government w.r.t. taxation and difficulty of exit. As to “fascism,” yes, surely that word is chosen for emotional overtones currently by the right and previously by the left. My pet peeve is people treating fascism and communism as polar opposites when they are more like quarrelsome siblings.Report

    • zic in reply to Major Zed says:

      “serfdom” might be a better word than “slavery” to describe the relationship between US citizens and their government w.r.t. taxation and difficulty of exit.

      Citizen, the term you’re suggesting be modified by ‘serfdom’ as opposed to ‘slavery’ is quite nice, I think. It hints at some of the responsibilities (like paying taxes, voting, etc.) that the privilege of living here entails. It seems like it would be more meaningful to explore the relationship of rights and responsibilities than constantly set the citizen/government relationship up as an adversarial relationship.Report

      • Major Zed in reply to zic says:

        If y’all lay claim to half my income, then I think an adversarial relationship is inevitable.Report

      • Gabriel Conroy in reply to zic says:

        I imagine it would still be adversarial, but it’s not like you’re not getting anything out of the deal. That’s probably cold comfort if what you’re getting out of the deal isn’t what you would’ve asked for.Report

      • zic in reply to zic says:

        Which is where the tests Vikram, above, linked too are so useful.

        Because @major-zed sees the government as laying claim to half his income; as I recall, he’s an actuary; and I’d wonder how much government made his income possible at all, from schools where he was educated to making of things that people opt to insure, creating a need for actuaries. (I don’t believe there was need for any actuaries in Plimoth or Virginia, for instance.)

        So I agree with @vikram-bath ‘s link; too, and thanks for pointing it out, @gabriel-conroyReport

      • Brandon Berg in reply to zic says:

        I’d wonder how much government made his income possible at all, from schools where he was educated to making of things that people opt to insure, creating a need for actuaries.

        By this logic, he owes at least 50% of his income to the government, 50% to the farmers who make the food he needs to survive, 50% to the people who built his house, 50% to his doctors, and 50% each to many, many others, each of whom plays an indispensable role in his having been able to earn that income.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to zic says:

        If Major Zed wanted to leave the US & had been dodging his taxes at every turn, sure, Uncle Sam can have a bite.

        But if he has been paying his taxes as required, I see no legitimate reason for the IRS to have one last big bite as an exit fee. This is either greedy, or an attempt to discourage his exercise of the right to exit, or both.Report

      • Roger in reply to zic says:

        Ok, let me play a Devil’s Advocate (aka Zic’s advocate).

        I certainly understand that teachers, farmers and so on got paid at the time they voluntarily exchanged their service. The ledgers are already correct.

        However, one possible argument is that the extremely wealthy (superstars?) are winners benefitting from the potential created by the social organization of large size and interdependence. If they then are free to take their winnings and leave, they can be viewed as reneging on the terms of interdependence.

        Following this logic, it could be reasonable to establish in advance that exit rights come at a cost set by a percentage of superstar winnings.

        Yes, I am a classical liberal and see the value in exit freedom. Indeed I would argue that to avoid exploitation of superstars ( an oxymoron to progressives) that there needs to be competing alternatives for which societies the individual joins. However, I think exit charges are a reasonable part of the deal.

        @mad-rocket-scientist and @brandon-berg and @major-zed please let me know what is wrong with this logic.Report

      • Brandon Berg in reply to zic says:

        Roger. We pay farmers and doctors—and pretty much everyone else besides for government—roughly in proportion to the cost of providing the services they provide for us personally. If this were how government operated, I wouldn’t have so much of a problem with it. The problem is that for many people, government’s demands go far, far beyond this, extending to a share of all that a person produces, rather than what it costs to provide the government services he consumed.

        If the government can legitimately claim half a person’s income because it provides the social order necessary to earn that income, why can’t a farmer do the same on the basis that he provides the sustenance necessary to earn that income?

        If they then are free to take their winnings and leave, they can be viewed as reneging on the terms of interdependence.

        Putting aside that said terms of interdependence are unreasonable and made under duress, what possible justification is there for including an exit charge? The citizen was already taxed on the money when he earned it; why should he be taxed again when leaving? How is he reneging?Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to zic says:

        @brandon-berg point is the one I made. Either people are taxed accordingly to support the social compact, or they are not. Regardless, it is unfair to have an exit penalty.Report

      • Roger in reply to zic says:

        @brandon-berg @mad-rocket-scientist

        I fear you guys are sidestepping the issue.

        Let me rephrase it in a more libertarian friendly way. Let’s say we divide the US in half. One half has a system with an immediate tax rate of twenty percent and no exit or death tax. The other has a tax rate of eighteen percent and a twenty percent exit/death tax on amounts over twenty million dollars. Is there any inherent superiority of one than the other?

        I am simply saying that this is a matter of choice or preference. I certainly would support making the social contract more explicit.

        An exit tax funding of public goods is not intrinsically more or less fair than an alternative system.Report

      • Brandon Berg in reply to zic says:

        To be clear, my original comment was about the justification Zic offered for greater-than-cost taxation in general, not about an exit tax in particular.

        That said, I find an wealth-based exit tax particularly problematic relative to a pure income tax for two reasons:

        1. It penalizes exit. Think of it as being on a spectrum between being able to leave whenever you want at no cost besides moving expenses on one end and a total ban on emigration on the other end. Obviously it’s closer to the former than the latter, but it still makes exit more costly, which reduces the incentives for good governance.

        2. Like all taxes on capital, it penalizes savings and distorts saving/consumption decisions in a way that favors consumption. We don’t need another prong in the war on saving.

        Actually, it penalizes the combination of saving and exit, not so much either one on its own. I would actually be more okay if it were explicitly tied to (and limited by) the receipt of government services. For example, I don’t think it would be entirely unreasonable to say that people should have to pay back the cost of their public educations regardless of whether they continue to live in the country in adulthood. This would not penalize savings or exit, since it would not be conditional on leaving the country and the amount would not be related to how much you saved.

        And, of course, the “social contract” as a justification for taxation is bogus. No one chooses what country to be born in, and changing countries is hard. Invoking an imaginary social contract to justify an exit tax is particularly rich, since you pay it when doing exactly what the social contract proponents say you have to do to opt out.Report

      • NoPublic in reply to zic says:

        The problem is that for many people, government’s demands go far, far beyond this, extending to a share of all that a person produces, rather than what it costs to provide the government services he consumed.

        [citation needed]

        Or, if you prefer “Assumes facts not in evidence”. Like externalizes in general, valuing what I’ve gained from “government services” is a very very dicey task indeed. I’m unconvinced that this assertion is based on anything other than truthiness.Report

      • zic in reply to zic says:

        To be clear, my original comment was about the justification Zic offered for greater-than-cost taxation in general, not about an exit tax in particular.

        You misunderstood, @brandon-berg — I don’t mean ‘greater-than-cost taxation,’ I mean that you fail to understand all the benefits that you’ve gotten; all the costs that you’ve accumulated. You want it to be “My schooling costs this much, I should pay that back into the system.” But that’s an overly simplistic view; you not only had the benefit of your schooling, but the benefits you school brought to your community as a community-building center. You had the benefit of the American Flags your town hung along Main St. for the Fourth of July; and the fireworks that it’s likely the town paid for that night.

        @kolohe talked elsewhere on this thread about the fabric of Western culture that we take for granted; something he realized after spending time in Afghanistan, and this is exactly what I’m getting at, there’s a tremendous amount of value that you are simply not counting.Report

      • Brandon Berg in reply to zic says:

        @nopublic I very clearly said, and this was included in the excerpt you quoted, “what it costs to provide the government services he consumed,” not what he gained from government services. As you say, the latter is very dicey indeed.

        And as I pointed out earlier in this thread, everyone’s income depends on many different absolutely or nearly essential factors. If the government can lay claim to half a person’s income on the grounds that it’s essential to his ability to earn it, so can farmers, doctors, his employer, drug manufacturers, grocers, and many, many others. Obviously that’s not possible, so something must be wrong with your logic.

        What’s wrong with the logic is that producers charge roughly in accordance with cost of provision. Only when it comes to government do people assert the right to claw back as much consumer surplus as it pleases. This is a hand-wavy rationalization designed to reach a desired conclusion, not an actual argument.Report

      • Brandon Berg in reply to zic says:

        @zic I suggest that you take a look at actual government spending numbers. Most government spending provides private goods for individuals (education, health care, transfer payments, etc.), making it possible to assign those costs to specific individuals. These costs are unrelated to income, positively correlated with income only up to a relatively low threshold, or even negatively correlated with income.

        A small but significant minority goes to infrastructure. Some of this is funded by user fees (parking fees, or utility bills where the utilities are government-run) or taxes that are reasonable proxies for usage (e.g. gas tax, car tabs).

        Most of the remainder can be considered true public expenditures. There’s room for disagreement about how such expenditures can be divvied up, but there’s no plausible accounting that justifies the wildly skewed tax distribution we actually have. To get there, you have to resort to rationales like “That’s where the money is,” “Well, I don’t want to pay for it,” and “Mmm…seed corn!”

        Hanging up flags is not a significant contributor to government expenditures.Report

      • Roger in reply to zic says:


        Thanks for playing such good defense, BB. I do agree with most of your points. Just to clarify…

        I am not suggesting we have a legitimate social contract… I am suggesting we start to make the implicit or assumed one more real. IOW, we don’t really have one now, but movement toward true voluntary contracts would be a good thing IMO. Reasonable exit or death taxes could be part of this future contract, and for good reasons.

        If the contract was explicit, exit barriers which were clearly punitive would not be agreed to. Thus they would be self negating.

        That said, I am in favor of freedom and ease of exit as being good things which are healthy for society. They keep institutions honest and reduce the opportunity to exploit (because those feeling exploited can bail).

        As a general rule of thumb, I thus agree with you and @mad-rocket-scientist that exit taxes are used today as exit barriers and thus are on net counterproductive.

        Good discussion.Report

    • @major-zed

      Regarding Serfdom: I see it a little differently. I think “serfdom” can describe a taxation regime that is so regressive or so confiscatory from which there is not only much difficulty of exit, but formal policies designed to criminalize exit. Perhaps my definition is too narrow for us to reach common ground on that score, but I think that serfdom is pretty sticky, although perhaps not so much as “slavery.” However, I’d say there’s a resemblance between the two: not just because eastern European serfdom is often seen as corresponding to American slavery (at least inasmuch as it’s a form of institutionalized unfreedom), but also because our closest example in the US is the crop-lien system, criminal breach of contract laws, and efforts in the deep-south to prevent blacks from migrating North–all examples of Jim Crow era unfreedom.

      Concerning fascism and communism: I’m probably at least half guilty of that. I tend to think of fascism as less revolutionary than communism, at least in practice, and more willing to bribe/coerce the holders of economic power and leaders of civil society to go along. I see communism, at least in Russia and China, as something more like year zero-ism, an attempt to remake the world in the image of the proletarian society.

      I think where they are similar, however (and this is where I agree with you), is that in practice, they end up creating, or they trend toward creating, something you and I would probably recognize as “totaliatianism.” Not a good thing, at any rate.Report

    • Saul DeGraw in reply to Major Zed says:


      “My pet peeve is people treating fascism and communism as polar opposites when they are more like quarrelsome siblings.”

      Just like the Koch Brothers!!!

      More seriously the far-right and far-left do have more common than they realize or want to be true.Report

      • Kim in reply to Saul DeGraw says:

        They also have a lot less in common than they believe to be true.
        The horror stories about the reactionary Right (and I’ll include the Kochs
        in that) are NOT COMPARABLE to the horror stories about the far left.

        [This may be a function of competence, actually. If both the Kochs and Greenpeace want to kill you — who makes you wet your pants?]Report

    • Creon Critic in reply to Major Zed says:

      No, serfdom doesn’t work either. US citizens are not bound to the land. In fact, US citizens are free to renounce their citizenship. And that process, nationality renunciation, isn’t difficult (though statelessness is difficult).


      What one may not do however, is (absent mutually agreed extenuating circumstances) free ride on the contributions of others and declare a tax holiday for oneself. The privileges of citizenship come with responsibilities. As has been noted upthread, using such expansive definitions, putting modern-day American citizenship in the serfdom category, changes the colors of other common responsibilities. According to this broader definition of serfdom are people on jury duty serfs?

      If the US had Berlin Wall style border guards, shooting people in the back as they try to flee the country, stopping the right to exit, then the case for “slavery” or “serfdom” would be far stronger. But as it stands, you get a vote, you get to run for office, and you get to try and convince your fellow citizens that 50% of your salary is too much in taxation. Fellow citizens are free to think otherwise, and if you are really upset by it, you can conscientiously object (and face the consequences) or you can leave. Peter Thiel has a whole libertopia, seasteading idea. I wish libertarians well on their floating man-made islands in the ocean.Report

      • Jesse Ewiak in reply to Creon Critic says:

        +1 to all of this. If you have the means and ability to move to another country when the vast majority of people couldn’t afford moving across a city, the idea you’re a “serf” is hilarious.Report

      • Brandon Berg in reply to Creon Critic says:

        What one may not do however, is (absent mutually agreed extenuating circumstances) free ride on the contributions of others and declare a tax holiday for oneself.

        This is pretty rich, given that your political philosophy largely revolves around making it easier for people to free ride on the contributions of others.Report

      • j r in reply to Creon Critic says:

        No, serfdom doesn’t work either. US citizens are not bound to the land. In fact, US citizens are free to renounce their citizenship. And that process, nationality renunciation, isn’t difficult (though statelessness is difficult).

        You should have read down further on that page to which you linked:

        Persons who wish to renounce U.S. citizenship should be aware of the fact that renunciation of U.S. citizenship may have no effect whatsoever on his or her U.S. tax or military service obligations (contact the Internal Revenue Service or U.S. Selective Service for more information).

        Sure, you can renounce your citizenship, but Uncle Sam can stay lay claim to everything you owed before you renounced. The United States is one of only two countries in the world that taxes foreign earnings. That’s a bit much, no? How many more drones does this country need to buy?

        I don’t happen to think that citizens are serfs, or that taxation is theft, or that sovereign debt is slavery. I don’t like to define by analogy. Words have meanings and we are better off sticking to those meanings instead of trying to make exaggerated claims by way of some bogus associative property of political philosophy.

        All that being said, the progressive response is entirely underwhelming and tends to spend too much time and energy trying to point out the folly of a certain type of libertarian rather than addressing the underlying concern. Taxes are not theft, but the fact that taxes are collected by inherently coercive means does matter. The fact that you get a vote doesn’t magically make some of the absurd things that the government does less absurd. And the fact that fellow citizens agree to unjust actions doesn’t make them any less unjust.

        The real conversation to be having is the one about what the properly constructed relation between the individual and the state looks like. Everything else is just ideological window dressing.Report

      • Damon in reply to Creon Critic says:

        I guess “difficult” is in the eye of the beholder. There are “in person” interviews required, which means you have to schedule appointments, and each consular office/embassy seems to have differing rules/procedures on how they handle this process, fees to be paid, two types of ways to give up citizenship: relinquishment or renunciation, you may have to address the issue of statelessness, and ofc, you have to pay the IRS. And you know that the State Department has to APPROVE of your paperwork? And if you’re making any active efforts to mitigate you final tax bills, that could add additional time to the process.Report

      • zic in reply to Creon Critic says:

        This is pretty rich, given that your political philosophy largely revolves around making it easier for people to free ride on the contributions of others.

        There’s something in there about making it possible for those who can to stop free riding on others. And there’s something in there about recognizing how those who’ve managed to contribute depended on free rides and fail to recognize that obligation.Report

      • @brandon-berg
        I didn’t think that was particularly controversial thing to say. No, you (general you not specifically you) do not get to declare a tax holiday for yourself, and no, that fact does not make you a serf.

        I think the political philosophy I’m most sympathetic to recognizes that an individual will be both a net contributor and a net recipient during different periods in their lives. Children and young people by and large, net recipients. Working age adults, by and large, net contributors. But exogenous shocks happen that can turn formerly able-bodied, capable net contributors into net recipients.

        The calculation, contributor or recipient, is complicated by the fact that you (again, general you not specifically you) need the help of a diverse range of people doing a diverse range of things to accomplish your goals. Overall, a thicker conceptualization of community (interdependence, and the individual) than libertarians tend towards.

        Otherwise, every lottery winner (or high paid individual) could buy citizenship in some tax haven, renounce their US citizenship and skip out on the attendant taxes. As with taxation, it would be a significant loophole in military service obligations as well if you could escape your agreement by renouncing citizenship.

        I do not claim to be a tax expert, but I think the US takes into consideration foreign taxes you pay when taxing foreign earnings. I would also note that you don’t lose the protection of the US government by being abroad. You have access to consular services, the US will evacuate you from emergency situations, etc.

        taxes are collected by inherently coercive means does matter.

        I don’t see a practical alternative. I can’t think of any major country that has a voluntaristic taxation system, I believe all the developed countries have a pay your taxes or suffer the consequences (fines, penalties, imprisonment) system.Report

      • Roger in reply to Creon Critic says:

        I just want to say that I valued the perspectives and balance projected by both @zic and @creon-critic in the above comments.

        I too agree that citizenship (membership in most complex social orgs) comes with both benefits and duties/obligations.

        Free riding is a threat to any social organization. So is exploitation and taking advantage of producers. So is bullying (telling others what to do). All of these are destructive patterns which cause the network to become less effective or fail.

        On the other hand, failure to support members in times of hardship is a weakness too. So is failing to capitalize on the contributions of the best producers. So too is failure to command in situations where command is the best course.

        Balance. Complex interdependence. Cooperation.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Creon Critic says:


        A difficulty even I have with what you offer here is that citizenship — at least as we practice it here in the US — isn’t voluntary. Most people are born as citizens and assume both the benefits and the obligations through no choice or action of their own. And while a certain fairness can be argued in saying, “You were net-positive with regards to benefits:obligations as a child (which is probably true for most of us) and thus you owe a certain debt,” there is also something highly problematic about anyone assuming a debt for someone else.Report

      • Roger in reply to Creon Critic says:

        And Kazzy becomes a libertarian!

        I agree with the dilemma. The incomplete solution — or baby step in the right direction– is to allow parents to choose among competing institutional benefits and responsibilities where practical.* Over time we need to move slowly toward making the social contract more voluntary, fair and explicit.

        In the end, even absent choice, every society is in effect an experiment. Some will do better than others according to the diverse values of humans. We can learn from success and failure and in theory improve institutions over time. I would say the past 400 years or so has been all things considered a testament to this theory. Life is incomparably better now than in 1610 by most of our values, and we owe much of this to good improving institutions.

        We need to spend more time studying the potential for progress rather than denying its possibility.

        * I am well aware that it is often NOT practicalReport

      • Kazzy in reply to Creon Critic says:


        Heh, well, I’ve always had certain libertarian leanings.

        Along these same lines, what do you think of the practice of taxing minors? One of prime motivations behind our nation’s founding was objection to taxation without representation. Well, minors can’t vote. They are not represented in the government. And while their parents can vote, those votes are not weighted any differently than non-parents, making them invalid to use as representation-by-proxy. I remember being very frustrated when my paycheck as a teenager had tax taken out of it for this very reason. I probably got most, if not all, of that money back when tax filing season came around, but I’m sure there exist minors who make enough money that they do pay real income tax.

        Abandoning taxes on minors isn’t without its flaws. You’d probably still have to institute sales tax and other consumption taxes lest parents send their 7-year-olds into the grocery store alone to save the dough. And you’d probably still want to tax employers on the wages to avoid incentivizing the hiring of minors in a way that quickly becomes unseemly.

        This does risk further exacerbating the net positive benefit/responsibility and presumed debt.Report

      • Roger in reply to Creon Critic says:

        I have no strong feelings on the taxing of minors. I would lean toward a system which is simple and transparent and which minimizes political influence and favors.

        My ideal system is closer to “send us twenty five percent of your income less the standard deduction of twenty five thousand per person.” Full stop. This would certainly free teens from the tax.Report

      • Roger in reply to Creon Critic says:

        As a side benefit it would allow us to “screw the Kochs.” Gotta admire it for that!Report

      • Kim in reply to Creon Critic says:

        With most regulations on how long and how much minors can work, you’re pretty much looking at movie stars, or (possibly?) small businessmen. And sex workers, who are already Majorly illegal.

        8 years of work without being able to vote seems pretty bad, though. I’d be willing to let emancipated minors (or some other legal designation, whereby kids were allowed to work and control themselves) vote — with the caveat that they can at any point go back into the “non-voting system” (where Child Services finds them a home, etc. etc.).Report

      • Roger in reply to Creon Critic says:

        Which reminds me. Can we all agree “KOCHS” and “CEOs” are also two sticky words that progressives use? The former almost works as some kind of omnisexual mating call among progressives.

        I think we should start a drinking game where we take a shot of tequila every time a progressive brings them up for no apparent reason.Report

      • Kim in reply to Creon Critic says:

        With Capital gains counted as income?
        –certainly movie star kids would still be paying that. Debatably, kids getting an advance on a contract would be paying it as well.Report

      • Kim in reply to Creon Critic says:

        Maybe MA brought the Kochs up without reason.
        I generally tend not to, although you might disagree.

        I do not think talking about the Teaparty as astroturf
        is bringing them up without reason…

        But I think I’m quite a few degrees of freedom closer
        to them than you are, and I’m certain my views on them
        have been shaped by their treatment of people I know
        quite well.

        Still not the worst people on the planet though!
        I do have stories…Report

      • I think we should start a drinking game where we take a shot of tequila every time a progressive brings them up for no apparent reason.

        Wherein @roger endorses alcohol poisoning 🙂Report

      • Roger in reply to Creon Critic says:

        Are there actually some balanced, mature links of what these guys have done that makes them poster children for progressive evil? Please no Elias type, “conservatives are poo poo heads” stuff. Exactly what is it that makes them modern day Hitlers?Report

      • @roger
        The way you ask the question, “evil”, “modern day Hitlers”, is a bit loaded.

        The way I’d put it is, there’s a genuine dispute about the size and scope of government. The Kochs are stand ins for a particularly politically active, wealthy set on one side of the dispute. Also, I’d say if you plough tens of millions of dollars into political campaigns and political ads, expect pushback from the opposite side.

        To fill out the picture a bit more, I don’t think the right treats George Soros with kid gloves – it didn’t take much googling to discover “Top 10 Reasons George Soros is Dangerous”.

        (Just to be clear, I’m just illustrating how I view this. I’m not advocating for Koch targeting or Soros targeting. Personally, I tend to have a high bar for when a discussion should switch over from “We’re talking about policy X or policy Y” to “We’re talking about individual X” – also I’m not sure about how constructive targeting particular individuals is.)Report

      • I’m not particularly a fan of Koch-baiting. I don’t particularly like or have a lot of respect for the guys, but they’re just two people. And if I recall correctly, I almost never have even mentioned them, although I’m probably not one of the “progressive” types around here. And around these parts, if only briefly, the Kochs weren’t too kindly looked upon by the libertarians here. I’m referring to their decision to sue for control of Cato. That was a specific controversy implicating the brothers, and not simply a “let’s get the Kochs” moment. Still, they don’t strike me as the good guys.

        As for CEO-baiting. I’m not too big into criticizing CEO’s as CEO’s.Report

      • Saul DeGraw in reply to Creon Critic says:


        Every side has their political boogeymen. The Koch Brothers have spent millions upon millions of dollars in campaigns supporting Republican politicians and causes. This is going to generate push back from the opposition. It will also make you a good subject for fundraising time.

        Both Sides Do It. How often has Sarah Palin raised the specter of Saul Alinsky. The problem is like all other cognitive dissonances is that people think that their bogeymen are really dangerous but those of the other side are bewildering.Report

      • Roger in reply to Creon Critic says:

        I agree completely, guys. You would think they could find a better figurehead though than someone who did fund raising. No?

        The Alinsky thing isn’t really the same. He means nothing to the average Joe republican — just the more intellectual types who have read him and realize he is a modern day amoral Machiavellian type.

        Speaking of Machiavelli, I got such a kick out of De Vinci’s Demons when I figured out the young kid Nico was portraying the teen Machiavelli. I am easily amused though.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Creon Critic says:

        Driving around, I was listening to Fresh Aire (BSDI!) and they were talking to a guy who had just written a book about the Kochs and he pointed out that National Review wrote a scathing piece on the Kochs in the 70’s because of their Libertarian leanings.

        So that happened.Report

      • Damon in reply to Creon Critic says:

        @Creon Critic

        “I can’t think of any major country that has a voluntaristic taxation system, I believe all the developed countries have a pay your taxes or suffer the consequences (fines, penalties, imprisonment) system.”

        Damn straight. Now shout it out loud to the idiots in america who think our tax system is ‘voluntary’.Report

      • Saul DeGraw in reply to Creon Critic says:


        I disagree with your distinction. It is Sarah Palin who keeps on talking about Saul Alinsky unless you are telling us that Sarah Palin is the Intellectual star of the Republican Party.

        This is the cognitive dissonance I was talking about. You are still soft-peddling the Koch Brothers while trying to say but this long dead community and union organizer is still really dangerous and a threat to everything you hold sacred.Report

      • Roger in reply to Creon Critic says:


        I could of course be wrong. Like I said though I agree that both parties find an “objectifiable” figurehead to represent the other side. They then use it as a tribal signal.

        My point and question was why don’t they find someone who did something more nefarious? I am in absolutely no way defending them. I had absolutely no knowledge one way another who the fish they were. In my little mental space my knowledge of them was “some wealthy guys with libertarian or conservative leanings .”

        When I tried to figure out what the hullabaloo was all about I get, answers that they basically bat for the other team. Wow! Spit spit! Cross self to protect against the evil eye. *

        I jest, but I exaggerate to make the point. It is kind of funny. Kind of sad.

        You miss my point on Alinsky completely. Yes Sarah is a political insider with extensive knowledge on players on both sides. Saying that I am sure conservatives have yucky figureheads that they detest. Perhaps that lady who pretended she was an Indian? Beats me. I have as much respect for conservative ideology as I do progressive.

        Let me restate it. Politics destroys the mind and makes people tribal idiots. On all sides. This is one example of it.

        * I actually do still consider the possibility that they actually do have a bad reputation and nobody has linked me to it yet.Report

  10. Shazbot3 says:

    “recognize the sticky reference I’m making to BSDI’ism from certain commenters that plague this blog from time to time.”

    Does that mean I am a plague? Or am I the one pointing out the plague. I think it means I am the plague because of an argument I am making.Report

  11. Road Scholar says:

    Good meta post, @gabriel-conroy . Two words that I see as sticky that come up in certain conversations here are “coerce” (coercion, coerced), and “exploit” (exploited, exploitation, etc.) from libertarians and liberals respectively. They both have fairly banal meanings as well as more emotionally colored usages.Report

    • @road-scholar

      I agree with both those examples, and to a certain degree, those are better than mine because calling something “fascist” or “slavery” is usually already at least an inch or two beyond the pale, while “coercion” and “exploitation” are used more regularly.

      Perhaps because my social circle has more leftists than libertarians, I encounter “exploitation” more frequently and it bothers me more than my encounters with the term “coercion.” I remember some Marxist-leaning friends of mine go on and on about the “exploitation” in society, with all the baggage of oppression and subjugation that word connotes, and when I pointed out that a lot of people seemed to benefit from the way things are, the same Marxists will fall back on the technical definition and say they were only talking about the expropriation of “surplus value.”Report

      • Roger in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

        @gabriel-conroy, @road-scholar

        I love the word exploitation, but define it 180 degrees from a Marxist. (Who, paraphrasing the greatest of the Marxs (Groucho) use it as a synonym for offering someone a job).

        To me it is a perfect term to describe involuntary win/lose interactions. Theft, rape, fraud, privilege seeking, and so on. The essential ingredient is it involves an action which is zero or negative sum, thus it depends upon either coercion or deception.

        What term would you suggest I use instead?Report

      • Chris in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

        Material benefits are only one type of benefits, and presumably not the only type society should be directed toward.Report

      • @roger

        I might recommend “coercion” or “deception,” even though the first word is one of the “sticky” ones of this sub-thread. So I really don’t have much of a suggestion.

        I know you use the zero-sum calculus vs. positive sum calculus in a lot of your comments here at OT. If I’m not mistaken,one of your arguments against unions–or at least some unions–is that they create a zero-sum mentality in a situation that works better if we approach it with a positive-sum mentality. (Please correct me if I’m wrong.)

        But I do have a question, and it sounds ridiculous and self-evidently contradictory, but I swear it’s sincere:

        Can one interaction be both positive sum and negative/zero sum? Perhaps the answer is no if we stick to hard-and-fast definitions (positive sum being the complement to zero/negative sum). But perhaps a given interaction can be positive sum in some ways and negative/zero sum in others. (None of this, however, answers your question of what term would be better.)Report

      • Roger in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:


        I agree with your summary, comments and suggestions. At the minimum I need to reinforce my use of the term with a definition. Exploitation equals harming a person against their will.

        The weakness of “coercion” is that it does not apply very well to privilege/rent seeking. Rent seekers often do not see the harm of their actions, and or they view it as an essential part of the game. The union example is a perfect one. Nobody wants to start a debate here on this topic, but I do see the structure of unions often depending upon a type of exploitation. They form a cartel, forcibly excluding non members for their enrichment at the expense of other potential workers and society in general.

        As for your last paragraph, I would answer an emphatic “yes.” Zero sum interactions can be channeled in constructive, positive sum ways. A football game. A spelling bee. A competition to sell coffee at the best price and quality. A race to come up with the best scientific explanation of quantum gravity. These are all examples of what I would call constructive competition, games with a zero sum dimension yet positive externalities.Report

      • @roger

        As for your last paragraph, I would answer an emphatic “yes.” Zero sum interactions can be channeled in constructive, positive sum ways. A football game. A spelling bee. A competition to sell coffee at the best price and quality. A race to come up with the best scientific explanation of quantum gravity. These are all examples of what I would call constructive competition, games with a zero sum dimension yet positive externalities.

        Well, I was trying to be all mopey and pessimistic, finding a touch of gray zero-sumness in the silver cloud of putatively positive-sum interactions. But yes, I see your point. And with any luck, I will get by. I will survive.Report

      • Road Scholar in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

        @roger , having your own private definition for a word is part of the problem. The google machine reveals a number of definitions, but the best general one I found is “to employ something to one’s own greatest personal advantage”. If you think of exploiting your own talents or resources then it’s just something that we all do every day just to get through life. And this is the usage and meaning that libertarians typically deploy against a liberal’s charge that something (e.g., a sweatshop) is exploitative. To the liberal, the moral issue arises when the “something” being employed to maximal advantage is another person. Frankly, it makes a mockery of your win-win, win-lose distinction when win-win can be defined down to include (win-really-big)-(lose-not-as-terribly).

        The other issue I have with your private definition is that it requires the person taking advantage to also create the advantage. So, by your definition, Alex exploits Brian if and only if Alex personally coerces or deceives Brian. That (conveniently, IMO) excludes the case where Brian is coerced by a third party, Charlie, or experiences pressure from an impersonal source such as poverty. See, to my mind, the morally relevant fact establishing the pre-conditions leading to exploitation isn’t necessarily Alex’s personal actions causing the situation, although that’s even worse of course, but rather Brian’s subjective experience distress, desperation, or other extremis. Exploitation, of the bad sort, is Alex getting a better deal than ordinary due to Brian’s extremis, regardless of source. Furthermore, you’ve effectively rendered exploitation, per se, meaningless since the real crime committed by Alex is the personal act of coercion, fraud, etc. that results in Brian’s vulnerability.Report

      • Roger in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:


        Thanks for the feedback. Like I said, I wanted to hear better alternatives. I agree it is best to avoid private or unusual definitions and plan to act on this advice. Mucho gracias.

        Some other points…

        Can you clarify how win big/lose a little can be defined down to win/win? I am really not following you.

        I do not assume my term requires the beneficiary to be the one doing the coercion. Actually I think in modern society an intermediary is often used.

        Yes my term conveniently leaves out coercion by natural or impersonal sources. Poverty, starvation, sickness, entropic decay and such are the natural state of affairs. It is the default condition of not taking proper action for all living things. It is itself an act of X (whatever we call it) to burden another coercively with the responsibility of taking action on one’s behalf. Does that make sense?

        To apply it to your example, the fact that a human can starve does not burden a fellow human with having to pay a higher wage. This does not imply though that we should not take actions to build safety nets against starvation, nor even that we should not agree that each of us will accept a responsibility to look out for our fellow man.

        I am just saying that absent such an agreement, implicit or explicit, failure to do so does not constitute (exploitation/coercion/harm).Report

  12. Patrick says:

    There’s one particular problem with fascism or communism or socialism as applied to individual policies; those schools of political thought really aren’t about individual policies at all, they’re an entirely different framework of political thought from republican democracy.

    It’s kind of disingenuous to call a political policy in the U.S. “fascist” or “socialist”. Obamacare may be an instance of government-private actor coerced cooperation, but it’s an instance (it’s not even a particularly fascist implementation just on the merits of the instance, either… fascists wouldn’t be offering to cover half the implementation with welfare and government subsidies)

    They also wouldn’t have votes on it in the first place, right?Report

    • Brandon Berg in reply to Patrick says:

      fascists wouldn’t be offering to cover half the implementation with welfare and government subsidies

      Why do you say this?Report

    • Gabriel Conroy in reply to Patrick says:

      Just to play Devil’s advocate, I’m not sure fascists wouldn’t try to bribe the populace and the holders of economic power with welfare subsidies and other subsidies. But my knowledge of fascist regimes, including the big G, is pretty weak.

      As for votes, I can see a fascist-lite regime holding show-votes or plebiscites on certain policies in order to claim a veneer of popular support. That said, the vote on the ACA wasn’t a show vote, it was a messy, sometimes parliamentary questionable (i.e., when Congress considered doing the “deem and pass” ploy) attempt to get a policy, any policy through.Report

  13. Damon says:

    Roderick makes some good points:
    “it rests on the same principles.” and “People tend to hear the accusation “your ideas are racist [or sexist, or etc.]” as equivalent to “you are a racist – and therefore a bad person.” I’ve run into that many times, mainly from the left, but that’s probably because I live in an area heavily populated by those types. I’ve never understood why people cannot separate out that that there is a continuum. Example: torture. It’s all bad, but there are degrees of bad and trying to pin down someone as to what level of badness they consider acceptable is what I’m trying to get from them.

    It’s also why I try to use different words than fascist. They don’t allow for the conveyance of nuance. People default into “you are insulting me” mode. There’s no way that Obamacare is fascist. Statist, yes, corporatist yes, but not fascist.

    And as to slavery, I follow the simple concept that “either a person rules himself exclusively, or someone else rules him completely or in part, and the latter is called ‘slavery’”. It’s very clarifying. When applied to possessions, it’s an eye opener.Report

    • Jesse Ewiak in reply to Damon says:

      “And as to slavery, I follow the simple concept that “either a person rules himself exclusively, or someone else rules him completely or in part, and the latter is called ‘slavery’”.”

      Insert joke about marriage here.Report

    • Kim in reply to Damon says:

      Yeah, I’m going to agree with Damon here:
      Use the Right Words.
      Compare conscription to Indentured Servitude
      and Obamacare to Corporatist/Statist.

      These are FAR less dogwhistly. If there is a better
      analogy that you’re Not Making, the odds of your
      audience judging you to be not in good faith are
      much higher.

      Think a little, find the less poisonous words.

      [I’d have to google Statist, to make sure I
      knew the exact terminology. But that’s far
      far better than having your audience
      froth at the mouth.]Report

    • Gabriel Conroy in reply to Damon says:


      I don’t know what to think about Long’s discussion of “racist” and “sexist,” but I do agree his points are stronger there but that they also tend to contradict (a little bit) his earlier claim that “slavery” and “fascist” can be appropriate terms in some circumstances. That’s all assuming I read his OP correctly.

      For this:

      And as to slavery, I follow the simple concept that “either a person rules himself exclusively, or someone else rules him completely or in part, and the latter is called ‘slavery’”. It’s very clarifying. When applied to possessions, it’s an eye opener.

      I think this is a good example of what @vikram-bath talks about above. If people, instead of saying “slavery,” said instead “a situation in which someone does not rule him/herself exclusively but is ruled completely or in part by someone else,” then the idea is much more clear and without the obfuscating baggage. Of course, it’s also much more wordy and cumbersome to say.Report

      • LWA in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

        I am wondering under what circumstances a person could possibly ever “rule him/herself exclusively”.

        Has this ever happened, or can anyone help with a description of such a world?

        Because if the definition is so expansive as to constitute “rule in part”, then everyone always and everywhere is a slave.Report

      • @lwa

        Maybe we could tweak it, then, and not rely on “exclusively” as much as we do in the original formulation. Perhaps we could develop some criteria for individual autonomy and self-ownership that while not absolute, are close enough to fit the bill for “exclusively.” I’m not sure what those criteria would be, however.

        All that said, I agree. If we insist on “exclusively” too much, then almost everything is “slavery” and the latter term loses its meaning. Which, I believe, is one reason why Vikarm’s exercise is to useful: it highlights points in our reasoning that are otherwise obfuscated by the “taboo” words.Report

    • Damon in reply to Damon says:

      I’d say that the “frontier” post Revolution would be about as close as you could get. Yep, about the only way you couldn’t be considered a “slave” is if you didn’t pay the majority of most taxes. That was my point.

      Any criteria that derives less than 100% sorta defeats the purpose, doesn’t it? And allows for a slippery slope. The point of this absolute is to focus the mind to clarity on what your true station in life is. You are cow to be milked.Report

      • Gabriel Conroy in reply to Damon says:


        I’d say that the “frontier” post Revolution would be about as close as you could get. Yep, about the only way you couldn’t be considered a “slave” is if you didn’t pay the majority of most taxes. That was my point.

        I would dispute that. The occupants of the “frontier” post-Revolution were still partly ruled over. I imagine most of them had militia duty. I know some of them had slaves (which means some of them were slaves and therefore not “self-owned”). The western Pennsylvania corn and whiskey manufacturers had to pay one of the first federal excise taxes. Land surveys and courts to establish property ownership were necessary and implemented. Also, pretty early on, anyone wanting to get land and settle it had to follow the rules of the Northwest ordinance. There was never a point in which there was absolute self-ownership.

        Which brings me to this:

        Any criteria that derives less than 100% sorta defeats the purpose, doesn’t it? And allows for a slippery slope. The point of this absolute is to focus the mind to clarity on what your true station in life is. You are cow to be milked.

        I’m not following. If it is true that any mark against one’s self-ownership = slavery and that therefore we are all “slaves,” we still have to account for the different statuses of the “slaves” and perhaps invent new words: “taxation slaves” for those who pay taxes but don’t wish to; “wage slaves” for those who feel compelled to work for wages but believe it’s an oppressive system; “family slaves” for youngsters who have not yet obtained the right age to declare their majority; and of course “chattel slaves” for the antebellum plantation-style slavery for which the term is most commonly reserved in the US.Report

      • Damon in reply to Damon says:

        @ Gabriel Conroy

        As I said, the “frontier” was probably AS CLOSE as you could get, baring some outlaw lifestyle, aka Robin Hood. Also remember, that the long arm of the law was much more limited back then.

        My point about absolutes and the slippery slope was twofold. In comment to your statement “Perhaps we could develop some criteria for individual autonomy and self-ownership that while not absolute, are close enough to fit the bill for “exclusively”, you can expect to see continued erosions of that individual autonomy just like you see today. Resetting the marker just delays the inevitable.

        Second, the concept of the absolute focuses the mind to each person’s status within a society. Disregarding minors as “family slaves”, everyone who works a job, “owns” a car/house, etc. buys a product (for the most part) is a required to pay some gov’t entity money, otherwise those transactions cannot be accomplished. The gov’t is first in any line of creditors. Reference the recent NPR articles about poor folks who can’t paid legal fines being thrown into jail, and then being invoiced for room and board in the those jails. It’s defacto debtors prisions.Report

      • Gabriel Conroy in reply to Damon says:


        Thanks for clarifying. I’m still not sure I understand completely, and perhaps I’m too hung up on the absolute and the “exclusiveness.” But at least I have a better idea of where you’re coming from.Report

  14. Chris says:

    Great post, Gabriel.Report

  15. Mad Rocket Scientist says:

    Only because I saw an example today, here is another sticky word I really wish people (police & media mostly) would stop using.


    Dictionary definition – A collection of weapons
    As used – OMG! The police found enough weapons to outfit a militia or small army!

    Example of “As Used” found here.

    For those who are not interested in following the link, the police found an “arsenal” of weapons in a Brooklyn apartment, enough to arm a small army or militia (or so they claim, as they fend of a case of the vapors). The picture & included description show melee weapons (all obvious crap pieces from BudK or the like – I could make better stuff in my garage with materials from a junkyard):
    9 swords
    5 pocket knives
    a machete
    a blackjack
    a tonfa
    a pair of nunchucks

    and guns:
    2 revolvers
    3 semi-auto handguns
    a bb/pellet air pistol
    two bb/pellet air rifles
    a 9mm rifle.

    This “arsenal” was in an apartment shared by four men.

    While it does technically fit the definition of an “arsenal”, as it is a collection, this is hardly an arsenal of sufficient quantity or quality to outfit anything more than a LARP gaming session. My rural WI Boy Scout Troop was better equipped than this when we went camping or target shooting.

    I seriously hope the HYPD NYPD never raids my home, my “arsenal” could cause strokes or aneurysms (& I’ve sold of a lot of what I had in my youth).Report

  16. Citizen says:

    I test pretty far into the libertarian camp although i don’t claim the label.

    Fascism is not only the mixing of statism with corporatism, there typically has to be present a violent policy enforcement. I think this is were the sticky starts to adhere.

    As jr commented above:
    ?”The real conversation to be having is the one about what the properly constructed relation between the individual and the state looks like. Everything else is just ideological window dressing.”

    NKVD does not make a healthy state-individual relationship.Report