Defining your terms

I’m going a little more philosophical than I usually do here, but I have been attending some, for lack of a better term, “political” events recently, and they got me to thinking.
I am (I think) in a fortunate position that I don’t belong to a political party and don’t have strong political allegiances. I like the work that is done by our two local MPs, and I think they represent our community well, but that has little to do with the Party they belong to. I suspect Diana Dilworth would have also been a great representative, given the opportunity to do that. I also think we have two (sorry Mr. Forseth) very good candidates for MLA in the upcoming elections here in New West (although I have yet to challenge each of them on their weaknesses… and that’s between me and them and the ballot).
I have said it before, the issues I care the most about right now (environmental sustainability, municipal infrastructure and transportation, social responsibility, science-based policy development) are issues that every party should address in their platforms, and issues no single party “owns”. I also believe in pre-Chrétien/Harper representative democracy, where the local elected official represents the region to the  House of Commons, not where the local official stands only to bring missives from the PMO to their electorate. So I am kind of a socially-progressive, economically-moderate, environmentalist, policy-wonk rationalist Preston Manning style democrat, if that makes any sense.
With that extended caveat, I want to address two terms I have been hearing a lot recently. They were prominent during the recent USelection, and seem to be featured in assigned talking points for the upcoming BC Election. Both are so poorly defined as to be meaningless, and I cringe whenever I hear them used in discussion. So I am going to throw them out there right now and now you will hear them in every speech you hear between now and May. I may set up a drinking game around them.
They are “Free Enterprise” and “Socialism”.
Some people would have you believe that these are two separate things: two ends of a spectrum so far distant that we must choose which we to abolish and which we must embrace to summon forth a new land of prosperity. I call bullshit on the whole lot of it, starting with the lack of definition of the terms.
They both have definitions, of course, but the definitions you might find in the dictionary are far from the way they are bring applied in rhetoric in 2012.
As the BC Liberals and BC Conservatives clamour over each other to prove themselves the more “Free Enterprise” party, I’m not even sure what that means, and who (other than the Marxist-Leninist Party, I guess) is against “Free Enterprise”. We all believe that businesses should be free to operate within a fair and accountable regulatory regime. We also agree that business operates best when there are regulations around how they operate. As an extreme example, no-one wants a “Heroin-R-Us” store to open up next door, or for weapons to be sold in unregulated booths on street corners. Less extreme examples are the (relatively tight) regulations that protected Canada’s banks from making the risky bets that caused the recent global economic collapse.
“Free Enterprise” does not mean a complete lack or regulations. Actually, there can be no such thing as business unless there is something called “property”, and “property” is defined by the law – we need laws for business to prosper. What we don’t need are unfair or non-transparent laws.
Every Party (again, I might except the Marxist-Leninists and their pals the Libertarians) wants to have well regulated business regime where entrepreneurs can prosper and employ people. To not want that is not rational. We only differ about the process to get there.
“Socialist” has the opposite problem: every Party (again, possibly excepting Libertarians, who limit their socialist leanings to the armed forces) is socialist. I look out at that shiny new $3.3 Billion Port Mann bridge, at the $2 Billion South Fraser Perimeter Road under it, at every single school I pass on my bike ride to work, at the bike lane I ride that bike on, the cop pulling me over for running a stop sign on my bike and the court system where I could defend myself and I see socialism. They are all examples of citizens being forced through law and taxation to pool their “heard earned” money to set up a state-run enterprise for the greater good.
There is no front-line party now arguing that socialism will end under their rule: none are talking about dismantling the public school system, ending the collecting of royalties for natural resource extraction, privatizing the hospitals and fire departments, or turning the police department and the armed forces over to Haliburton. If someone runs “against the socialists” that is someone you should fear – they want to disassemble the very structure of society that separates Canadafrom place without a functioning government, like (alas) Mali.
But that’s not what they mean. They define “socialism” as some sort of vague combination of taxes and labour unions. I know that “Special interests groups” are involved as well, but I’m not sure if that includes the Chamber of Commerce.
Or maybe I just don’t get politics.

So as we enter the election season, (yes, it will be a painfully long campaign leading up to May 2013, such if fixed election dates) I hope that more people, when a candidate uses a term like “Free Enterprise”, “Socialist”, or even “Special Interest Group” or “Big Business”, you ask them to define their terms*. You might be thinking something different than they are.

*My favourite retort when someone asks “Do you believe in God?” is “You will have to define at least two of those words”. It usually allows me to avoid a conversation that will satisfy no-one. .    

One comment on “Defining your terms

  1. In the US, “socialism” is a term used by demagogues who want to re-animate the specter of the Soviet Union (technically they were state-owned capitalism). I remember some Republican called a Democrat a “card carrying socialist”, and the Republican won the election (and Michael Dukakis did not). Coincidence?

    The argument always falls to how much the government should do, and how much should be left to private enterprise.

    There are people in New West that use the term “socialist” like George Bush did. To them, it means waiting for a hand-out, unemployed (by choice), with piercings and tattoos, and in general a scourge on the hardworking small business owner.

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