In Name Only

Traipsing through Dulles Airport the other day, my eyes were drawn to a series of wall poster advertisements. Each one featured a supposed “foreign aid success story”—a smiling man or woman under a very familiar phrase: “Fiscal Hawk,” “Beltway Outsider,” “Job Creator.” The fourth one, “Venture Capitalist,” broke the proverbial camel’s back for me.

What struck me was not that the message was aimed at a Beltway political audience. I have long grown accustomed to bus and street billboards advocating certain weapons systems, federal health care open enrollment or software to improve government services. Created by Oxfam America, the ads at Dulles were clearly promoting the continuation of current U.S. foreign aid policies.

Let’s leave the foreign aid battle for another day. For now, let us focus on the use of phrases and concepts that come straight from the free enterprise playbook—fiscal hawk, job creator, and venture capitalist—clearly appropriated to promote increased government spending and intervention.

Maybe we should be pleased. Maybe there is an argument to be made that the Left’s adoption of market language amounts to an implicit recognition our free market ideas resonate with the public. They resonate, we might add, because they are innate concepts—natural rights and all that.

Oxfam isn’t the only organization to make smart, selective use of free market language to advance a big government agenda. Fuels America, a coalition of agribusiness firms and biofuel advocacy groups, is currently running ads that declare, in big block letters, “There Is a Choice.” The fine print calls for maintaining the federal renewable fuel standard, which mandates the level of renewable fuel blended into transportation fuel and so decidedly diminishes consumer choice. But why let facts get in the way of good marketing?

Legislation is often named in ways that mislead the public. Take the Marketplace Fairness Act, a bill that would allow states to collect sales taxes from out-of-state businesses. Think the Founders would have something to say about “taxation without representation” being passed off as “marketplace fairness?”  Then there’s the “Dairy Freedom Act,” which provides federal insurance for participating dairy producers. Does freedom still mean what I think it means?

The marketing of cap-and-trade proposals provides a great example of Orwellian wordsmithing. Proponents call the scheme a “market-based” approach to reducing emissions, but cap-and-trade is actually a cap-and-tax system. Dressing up the proposal in the language of “trade” and “economic incentives” may fool some, but it doesn’t make it any less of a tax.

Then there’s Obamacare. “Health Insurances Exchange” has a nice market-friendly ring to it. “Exchange” sounds less like socialized medicine than a big flea market! But that doesn’t change what it is. The coverage mandates and fines … er, taxes … for non-participation are still there.

Politicians’ populist, superficial use of market rhetoric is a bittersweet thing. On one hand, it reaffirms the American people value capitalism, choice and smart spending. On the other, it disguises statist policies as market solutions.

To make things worse, politicians and pundits on the Right not only have allowed this casual dilution of market language, they’ve actively participated in it. Think about how often Republican lawmakers casually drop free enterprise buzzwords when shilling for restrictive copyright legislation, burdensome immigration rules, wasteful agriculture subsidies (or almost any subsidy, for that matter), or the latest infrastructure boondoggle.

Washington, D.C., is full of smart people who know how to bend and stretch the meanings of words until they have little relation to their original definitions. It’s a city of politicians and public relations wizards, where misleading is elevated to an art. But that’s no excuse to fold our arms and simply watch the merry-go-round, convinced we can’t stop it.

Language matters in the war of ideas. If the Left and Right are going to have real debates about the issues that matter—issues such as energy, finance, and immigration—we should stop using the same words to mean different things. We should stop conflating “capitalism” with “cronyism.” We should acknowledge closing factories in the name of clean energy does not “create jobs.” We also should acknowledge that easing immigration restrictions will not “destroy jobs.”

Vigilance is required to sift the rhetorical wheat from the chaff. Certainly, not every free market approach is equal, but we need to expose those that were never free market to begin with—except in name.