Thoughts on Word Defining vs. Word Policing in Discussions

This post is some of my thoughts on a comment made by LDS Philosopher. In it I hope to illustrate why Karl Popper was correct that battling over the meaning of a word has political ramifications, but never rational ones. My desire is to put this issue to bed (at least for myself) so that I can just put a link to this post when this issue comes up again. As such, the post is not actually about ‘taxes as theft’ per se, though I’m sure many will desire to respond to it as such. (And that is okay.)

Here is the comment in question:

Taxes are only objectively unlike theft in certain ways if you define theft as “forcible seizure of property, in which the victim has no token of a say in what happens with it.” I define theft as “forcible seizure of property, regardless of what happens next.” So your argument only works if you define theft in your specifically narrow way, which conveniently precludes taxation.

This argument is, in style, a common sort of argument of which I wish to illustrate a hidden logical fallacy in it.

The idea being expressed is that because I (in LDSP’s view) defined the word ‘theft’ wrongly, my whole argument is wrong. But, in fact, this isn’t rationally the case. In fact, I will illustrate that — rationally speaking — it simply does not matter who ‘has the correct definition.’

Words are Only Symbols of Meaning

To understand why this is so, we must start with the realization that words have no innate meaning of their own. Words are actually symbols that point to some underlying meaning. The words themselves have no meaning on their own prior to the existence of some concept worth labeling. (Physically and biologically speaking, we would say that words point to certain similar mind/brain states shared across individuals. But this is a matter for another time.) Further, rarely if ever do words point to a single underlying meaning. We use words in various ways and nuances, often using them in slightly different but overlapping ways.

Imagine the Word Police

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the word police come along and declare that LDSP’s definition is the ‘right’ definition for ‘theft.’ So the ‘correct’ definition for ‘theft’ is now (as recognized by the word police) officially this:

  1. Theft: forcible seizure of property, regardless of what happens next.

Now it’s an objective fact that I have not been thinking of the word ‘theft’ as having that broad a meaning. I have (wrongly for the sake of argument) been using it with a bit more nuance. I’ve been excluding all sorts of forcible seizures of property from being kinds of theft.

And, apparently I am not even close to being alone on this. This we know because we just witnessed Adam, SilverRain, not to mention all non-libertarians in the world – that would be nearly everybody – not feeling that ‘taxes’ fit the proper nuance and connotation of the word ‘theft.’

This simple fact – that the word police’s definition is actually not the normal common usage of the word – is in no way affected by our choice to declare it to be the ‘correct’ definition. For in fact both ‘underlying concepts’ are valid concepts in their own right, regardless of what word you choose to call them by.

Words Have Multiple Usages

So, regardless of how the world police insist the word is intended, even they must now accept the reality that the word “theft” does in fact have at least one (probably far more) nuanced usages. So let’s write it down and make it unofficial.

  1. (Formal usage) Theft: forcible seizure of property, regardless of what happens next.
  2. (Informal usage) Theft: forcible seizure of property from non-authorized sources or by non-authorized means without due process.

The Difficulty in Defining Words Consistently: The Need for Charity of Reference

Now if I were really arguing with the word police, I’d probably point out that their definition [i.e. theft(1)] has some fairly serious issues. For example, a court taking away property as payment for negligence is now theft. Eminent domain is definitely theft. Tariffs are definitely theft. Taking away someone’s gun so that we can put them in jail is even theft. Sadly, even the police taking away disputed property so that we can work out who really owns it is theft as well. In fact, take 10 minutes and think of at least 10 other ways that “Theft(1)” now doesn’t refer to the way the word ‘theft’ as used in real life by real people.

Now granted, given additional time, I’m sure LDSP could refine his definition more and more until it took more and more time for me to find counter examples. Eventually we’d wind up with a 10 page legalese document defining ‘theft’ that only lawyers care to read. And even then, I’d be able to find some counter examples (albeit they’d be really far stretches) because there is no human way to make natural language definitions 100% consistent. There is always some ‘charity of reference’ that must take place. The person listening must decide to not argue over whether or not the word is ‘the correct definition’ and must instead just say “okay, let me get into your mind and try to understand what you really meant, regardless of whether or not it’s officially the correct definition.” 

Now I should probably point out that definition #2 can be made to have some of the same problems. (Excellent comment here makes this point. See also here.) And I am not claiming otherwise.

Defining Terms Has No Rational Content

In fact, my real claim is it’s pointless to try to win a debate via defining of terms because it never has any real rational content once we’ve come to that. Defining of terms has one and only one place in a discussion: helping others understand how you happened to be using your terms (be it right or wrong) so that they can understand you better. Arguments over definitions  never clarify meaning. They are effectively a discussion killer. For there is never a time you can’t both just say “okay, let’s split this word into two definitions and keep going with the discussion.” 

Is it the Majority Vote that Matters?

But the word police actually have a much more significant problem on their hands, because even if the word police eventually convince everyone in the world (including me) to stop using ‘theft’ in the common way and to adopt their definition instead, we still have a valid concept of taxation as something meaningfully different from the type of ‘theft’ done without due process. The underlying concept itself does not change just because we slapped a different label on it. Indeed, the underlying concept doesn’t change even if we declare that it’s illegal to ever make up a word to refer to it. The concept has a platonic reality of its own independent of any words.

If the word police convinced everyone in the world to use their definition for ‘theft’ — i.e. Theft(1) — that ‘theft’ would no longer even have a negative connotation any more. It would be more similar to how we used the word ‘confiscated’ today. It would just be a neutral word for taking something away from people. “Theft” would just mean any sort of situation where we are forced to take a person’s property away, being for either a good reason or a bad reason. This is because merely redefining ‘taxes as theft’ in this way still leaves a whole world of people convinced that states are good and taxes necessary.

Ironically, we’d now need a new word for forced taking of property without due process. Pretend that the word “efou” is this new word. Libertarians would now give up even caring whether or not ‘taxes are theft’ (just as I never hear Libertarians crying ‘taxes are confiscation!’) and their new refrain would now be ‘taxes are efou!.’

Why? Because it’s the negative connotation they were after in the first palce, not the specific concept. And so really nothing would have changed even if the change of definitions had been unanimously agreed upon. In short, defining of terms does not buy Libertarians what they want here. What they want is for people to start thinking of taxes in the negative way that Libertarians do. And this can’t be accomplished via a redefinition scheme.

So it’s not the definitions that matter after all, it’s the underlying concept that does! 

(Side Question: Does this not also mean that when Libertarians claim ‘taxes are theft’ that there is an underlying assumption that their definition isn’t the common one?)

Conceding LDS Philosopher’s Definition Buys Him Nothing (Rationally)

So I’m actually quite comfortable with the idea that LDSP has a right to define ‘theft’ any way he wishes. Conceding this point buys him nothing rationally.

The fact is that all we’ve done now is split the word in two. So, at best, all we can say is that ‘taxations are objectively Theft(1) but objectively not Theft(2).” That just means there is no disagreement any more. In fact, it means there was never a disagreement to begin with! Arguing over whose ‘word’ is ‘the most correct’ is meaningless to this or any future conversation.

So I’m willing to conceded that, given LDSPs definition, he’s right that ‘taxes are objectively theft(1)’ but that given mine [theft(2)] I’m right. So there is nothing to debate or argue about here after all. Case closed.

Plus, we can play this game all day, of course. Let’s, for example, decide that ‘theft(3)’ now refers to any form of charity. Am I now rationally correct to say “tithing is theft as I’ve defined the term?” Absolutely! And so what?

Understanding Each Other Is What Matters…?

Rationally speaking, the only thing defining terms gives us is a clearer understanding of what was intended. I now know that LDSP is not defining ‘theft’ in the same way I am. (A point that I wish he had clarified long long ago.) Both of us should be charitable and allow for both definitions for the sake of discussion. I can do that: LDSP is right – taxes are Theft(1).

And I don’t care. Because that’s not a definition of ‘theft’ I have ever used before nor will ever use again any more than I will ever refer to ‘generous giving’ as ‘theft’ beyond the last paragraph.  

Perhaps he feels the same way in reverse. Okay, fair enough. But he still has the issue of dealing with the fact that the vast majority of human beings do in fact see Theft(2) as the way they normally use the term. So from this point forward, the only thing that would make sense rationally speaking would be for LDSP to admit this. From this point forward when he says ‘taxes are theft’ it behooves him (if communication is his goal; see below) to first admit that he’s using a different definition then what most people mean by the word. Failure to do so is merely to choose to be misunderstood.

The “Political Pros” of LDSPs Definition of Theft

I confess that it does seem to me that LDSP’s position on this issue is different from Geoff’s. Geoff was clearly using the phrase ‘taxes are theft’ in an objectively inconsistent, but personally consistent way. i.e. It was an objectively correct expression of how he subjectively felt.

LDSP, coming from an anarchist point of view, is a different beast. I suspect that what LDSP is getting at is that there should be no ‘states’ at all and therefore there should be no taking of property by due process except in some very narrow exceptions. (Perhaps in the example of the court taking away property to pay for negligence).

Given this view, it seems understandable to me that he’d personally feel that due process isn’t the sufficient distinction that most people understand it to be between taxes and theft. So I am not denying the rationality (i.e. consistency) of LDSPs view here. He is right that taxes are theft given his set of assumptions. (Which I do not agree with.)

But this doesn’t really resolve the rational issue at stake, does it? This still boils down to the same choice Geoff had to make. What is the purpose of LDSP’s comment? Was it to carefully communicate his position? Or was it rhetorically meant to ‘taint’ the concept of due process and states?

Had careful communication been the desired goal, it would not be hard for LDSP to be more clear about his position. He could easily say something like this instead:

I understand that most people see a difference between taking someone’s property by due process and taking someone’s property without due process. I do not personally accept this distinction because I don’t believe that there should ever been states. So to me I can’t politically accept that taxes are not theft, though I can easily see why those that accept the distinctions of due process would say otherwise.

It’s just not that hard to communicate the underlying idea here. But it sort of removes the intended taint right along with it. In other words, the approach above, while far more accurately communicative of LDSPs real position, lacks the emotional punch desired.

So in the end, despite a clear difference in LDSP’s position compared to Geoff’s the end result is basically the same. He must decide what his purpose is when writing his posts and comments. For objectively speaking it still a fact that the way most people commonly define ‘theft’ taxes do not qualify. Redefinitions do not change this.

To realize why LDSP feels taxes are theft, one must first understand the chain of thoughts that hooks together such diverse concepts as theft, due process, and states. LDSPs previous comments (prior to the one being considered) failed to convey the required information for an outsider to make sense of his comments. But I can see why that might have been by design. So I am not prepared to take issue with LDSPs chosen approach.

In fact, I think LDSPs approach represents a trade off that he gets to choose to make between expressing how he feels (and finding others that feel the same) and communicating to those that disagree with him. And because that is true, this approach comes with the very same high price Geoff’s did: outsiders will sincerely be unable to understand his position until he clarifies it.

But so what? Again, can we really call LDSPs approach unsuccessful? Didn’t he just get me to spend a few hours thinking about his position in depth?

28 thoughts on “Thoughts on Word Defining vs. Word Policing in Discussions

  1. Bruce, good write up. This is true of many words that can be nuanced. LDS do it all the time, by putting their own meaning onto terms normally used differently by everyone else. All it ends up doing is causing confusion, and lending towards our being considered “weird” or cultish.

    For example, the word “saved” means many different things in LDS parlance. Sadly, for much of the 20th century, we used it very differently than the rest of Christianity, and never bothered to explain the difference. We can be partially to blame for the way other Christians now view us with suspicion, simply because we insisted on being different for decades, and only in the last 30 years have sought to focus on similarities, rather than the differences.

    I recall in a Stake Conference talk years back where the stake president asked the members to raise their hand if they are “saved.” Only a very few out of the thousand plus people raised their hands. He had to teach them that they are saved, and now must work towards exaltation through sanctification. It really was a sad experience to see that. Yet that is what we got from trying to redefine “saved” to mean something very different in Christianity.

    While I am a Libertarian, I try to be a sane one. I do not consider taxation as theft. However, I recognize that government has power of force to seize property and even take away life. In so doing, I wish that Americans were very circumspect regarding giving away tons of their rights to the federal government, in exchange for political bribes. For that is how I view it, not as theft, but as a sick game of buying votes with someone else’s money, occasionally taking that money by force.

    For example, what sane and thinking American would have really approved $15 Trillion of debt? Instead, it was an issue of people greedily accepting bribes on both sides: politicians receiving bribes from corporations, unions, and the public, in return for cheap money, health care, and other benefits.

    So, while LDSP may feel he was robbed, I feel like I’m stuck on this Insane Clown Posse roller coaster, with no way to get off of it. Or perhaps like the Hotel California, where “you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave….”

    We all agree we need to reduce government. Yet, when it comes down to it, no one is really interested in reducing their own benefits. So government keeps growing at an insane rate. Old people are receiving benefits that the AARP claims in their commercials were earned, yet they did not earn them. Neo-cons seek to maintain a huge Dept of Defense, so we can continue policing the whole world, even while our internal national security along borders, etc, still is not resolved after 30+ years. Don’t you dare take away Social Security, or make us wait until we’re 67 to get it.

    So, what LDSP considers theft, I consider just a series of bribes going back and forth between government, business, and the people. We cannot get off this ride, without crashing and rebuilding/restarting. Yet, after decades of no maintenance, the ride is ready to collapse and take everyone with it. It is not theft. Just insanity.

  2. I second what Rameumptom said. That’s how I feel about it, too. But I value America and my life too much to get off the ride.

    Corruption in government is inevitable, in any government. I don’t believe that there is One True Way to govern people. There are consequences to everything. People who want power over others will always find a way to try to get it. We just have the lottery ticket that buys us a mandatory ride on the consequences of a capitalistic republic and the people who have taken advantage of that.

  3. I agree with most of it, but I think you go too far. I think we can confidently say the following:

    Language can often be used politically and as an instrument of norm enforcement. Idiosyncratic definitions are often a form of displaying one’s commitment and of one upmanship within one’s ideological group. If I say ‘taxes are theft’ maybe I just mean ‘Look at me, I hate taxes, I’m more libertarian than y’all other libertarians.’ And if I then try to justify my language in argument, I’m probably just rationalizing my primate posturing. All of us do this.

    At the same time, tt serves the common good to have a language that serves rational ends or “makes sense”, just as it serves the common good to have an easily accessible language (i.e., to use words as commonly used and understood). Many arguments about the meaning of words aren’t consciously from ignorance, or political norm enforcement, or posturing, but because of the interlocutors devotion to one or another of these goods. These goods are sometimes in tension. For example, traditional Christians often genuinely and reasonably believe that there ought to be a rigorous and theological definition of Christian. Mormons point out that in practice the word ‘Christian’ isn’t used or understood this way so saying that Mormons aren’t Christians causes confusion.

    The good of language that serves rational ends can bleed over very easily into posturing, political norm enforcement, or just plain discourtesy.

    Saying the descriptively there are no lanugage rules and word definitions does not allow one to prescribe that there should be no language prescription. Is does not lead to ought.

  4. I feel like I’ve been called insane, posturing, discourteous, and insane by the commenters here. Maybe it’s time me and my wild-eyed madmen ideas to move on from this blog.

    All for believing that it is robbery to forcibly take money from people.

  5. LDSP — don’t go! We need your particular brand of insanity here because it is very similar to mine. 🙂

    First they laugh, then they mock, then they start considering your ideas, and eventually some people accept them because of their consistency.

  6. LDSPhilosopher,
    I never called you posturing or discourteous, nor did I mean to single you out for these descriptions. I see them as ailments commom to the whole tribe of Adam, like the common cold. I will call you overly sensitive.

  7. Overly sensitive, or just weary of arguing with people who somehow think that forcibly taking money from me is no longer theft, once they have an ostensibly good purpose and a crowd on their side?

    That’s what the whole “democracy makes it all right” argument really is: the crowds are ok with it, so it’s fine. That’s all. There is nothing magic about a crowd’s opinion that can change the morality of an act.

    Let’s take the argument that Bruce used in the other post, that it’s not theft because we can vote on how much gets stolen. Well, just because I’ve been conscripted into the band that’s doing the robbing doesn’t make it any less robbery.

  8. LDSP, I would suggest a post putting forward your views on this. I am planning something on Rothbard’s Crusoe political philosophy, so I could do it if you like. But you could probably do it better than I.

  9. Overly sensitive, or just weary of arguing with people who somehow think that forcibly taking money from me is no longer theft, once they have an ostensibly good purpose and a crowd on their side?

    Overly sensitive. Perhaps even a po-faced crybaby. Being ‘weary’ of people having different points of view from you doesn’t have anything to do with manufacturing insults and acting aggrieved. Man up.

  10. The concept behind a blog and philosophy is to share ideas and have others bludgeon them to death. 🙂

    Seriously, it is to share and discuss ideas. LDS Philosopher, don’t take such things so personal. You have brought forth ideas, as have the others. Your frustration is probably based because you are trying to convince people, rather than influence them, or share your views.

    Personally, I do not worry about whether people accept the ideas I broach or not. In fact, I like when others challenge my assumptions, because sometimes there are greater truths I’ve yet to realize.

    That “taxation is theft” is a statement that can be agreed upon by many does not equal “all taxation is theft.” It is the danger of living in a black and white world, where others see shades of gray. And yet, God also works in shades of gray, even though his pronounced statements often seem black and white. If you do not believe this, then ask Nephi how he could slay Laban and keep the commandment, “thou shalt not kill”. Shades of gray.

    So, give your best shot. You may not convince everyone, but you will get them thinking. And sometimes that’s enough. I’d hate to see Ron Paul give up, simply because most Americans are not yet ready for a libertarian president. Staying in the race has allowed his voice to be heard, and for people to consider those beliefs. And more people like him now than 4 years ago.

    Change your strategy, and don’t allow yourself to be thin skinned. And allow others time to consider your proposals. Finally, while they may not agree 100% with you, they may agree with you 75% of the way, and that’s a good start.

  11. I’m not personally insulted. I’m not thin-skinned. I’m just wondering if this is the wrong forum, since clearly people here don’t appreciate the arguments I’m making.

  12. And, I do feel personally aggrieved, and not because of the ideas you hold. Because this is more than ideas. This is more than philosophy. This is philosophy that personally affects me. Much of my income, and the income of my parents and those I know, is forcibly taken from them, because others, like you guys, think it’s ok to STEAL from us because a crowd voted on it and said it was ok. So yes, I feel personally aggrieved because of the opinions you guys hold.

  13. Rameumptom, I’ll let God define the shades of gray, not the masses. If God says it’s ok to kill Laban, it’s ok to kill Laban. If a crowd says it’s ok to kill Laban, it’s still murder.

  14. Well, la-de-dah. Since the government is going to continue taxing your vast riches regardless of what I think and say, I am not altogether moved by your sense of grievance.

    As for not being thin-skinned . . . if you have a better word for someone who threatens to leave because of percieved insults that weren’t actually made, I would be happy to use it instead.

  15. For the record, I never disagreed that taxes CAN be theft, I just disagreed that they are ALWAYS theft.

    I do like the analogy in the OP which has not been addressed. Under the statement, “taxation is theft” on the basis that any forcible taking of property is theft, you have to address that “a court taking away property as payment for negligence is now theft. Eminent domain is definitely theft. Tariffs are definitely theft. Taking away someone’s gun so that we can put them in jail is even theft. Sadly, even the police taking away disputed property so that we can work out who really owns it is theft as well.”

    I don’t think the issue with taxation is that it is theft, and I think that saying it is hurts the ostensible cause more than helps it. I think that tax money has been used dishonestly, and I think we should call our government to account to us for that. Such an approach would be far more effective than overusing emotional phraseology.

    Again, there are a myriad of legal ways to avoid income tax (specifically.) Therefore, I submit that there is a level of choice to being taxed. It may not be a nice choice, but it is a choice. I still dispute that taxation is forced.

    However, back to the OP, even “force” and “coercion” have a rainbow of definitive nuance. What is force to one may not be force to another.
    Few understand that on a more personal level than domestic violence survivors.

    When I say that taxation is not force, I mean that I do not pay my taxes out of fear. Perhaps someone else does. I do know that if I WAS actually afraid to not pay my taxes, I would probably try to apply for citizenship in another country.

  16. Adam: “Since the crowd is just going to keep throwing stones no matter what I say, then surely I can’t be wronging you by cheering them on, or vocally approving of their behavior.”

  17. I really think we need to man up and take personally responsibility for the way we vote. If we vote to increase taxes, we have to be willing to personally collect them if we have to. If we vote to fine those who don’t mow their lawn, we have to be willing to personally ask for the money, and to personally cage them if they refuse. And when someone complains, we can’t say, “Oh, it’s not me, it’s the government! Don’t get mad at me!” If we voted for it, it’s our doing.

    When we frame as though the “government” is doing the deeds, we don’t feel the weight of responsibility that we really have when we vote that they do it.

  18. LDSPhilosopher,

    your powers of restatement leave something to be desired. They are far surpassed by your powers of self-dramatization (you think you’re Stephen? Really?)

    Your rubric that you should be willing to enforce the laws yourself makes just as much sense as the common statist argument that you can’t sincerely argue for anarchy unless you are willing to forgo using public roads and try to assault the police.

    In my no-doubt fallible opinion, your contribution to this thread has been not at all philosophical and very much self-indulgent, sophistical, and full of low-grade debaters tricks, so when I get tired of toying with you, I’m going to bow out. No actual knowledge is being produced or exchanged.

  19. No taxation without castration!

    Hmm. A Congress full of castrati could certainly not show less manly resistance to special interest bribery and PC pressure than our current bunch.

  20. “So, what LDSP considers theft, I consider just a series of bribes going back and forth between government, business, and the people. ”

    Rame, I can see your point here.

    Adam in #3: Adam, I actually pretty much entirely agree with you in #3. (I make no promises about the rest of your exchange). It just wasn’t the point I was making at the time.

    This is something I have also come across again and again. It’s impossible to say everything you mean because all things are interconnected. But to bottom line is that there is unnecessary confusion that arises from using language in inconsistent ways. Therefore, I agree that there is a *sense* in which we may say words have a meaning. Strangely that sense is specifically “how is the word primarly used normally in this context by the people I’m currently talking to.”

    Or at least if your primary goal is ‘communication’ you will only succeed at your goal if you consider that specific sense.


    I sure hope you will see that I am not trying to offend you at all with the OP. I regret that this post turned into another discusison about taxes. I just really wanted to capture my thoughts on the problems (well, pros and cons actually) of defining words. I ‘picked on’ you precisely because I thought you’d have no issue with it.

    In fact, I sort of see your point of view. I can’t entirely agree with it. And I can’t agree with the way you are (in my opinion) narrowly defining your terms in this particuarly case. I think I’ve explained in detail now why I feel that way. It’s okay to agree to disagree, of course.

    But that doesn’t mean I want you to stop arguing with me. And Rame is right that you get me thinking. This is the highest honor anyone should hope for. 🙂

    Further, understand that my arguing with you is a definitely sign that I’m taking you seriously and treating your arguments seriously. Do you honestly think I’d put this much effort into explaining my own point of view if I didn’t take you and your argument seriously? If I didn’t take you dead seriously, I’d just do what everyone else on the Internet does: make an inappriopriate and dismissive comment. 😛

    As for Adam — I can’t figure out while you even bothered to argue with him for this long. I mean, how does one respond to “no taxation without castration!” Just do what the rest of us do. 😉 (Since you haven’t talked to Adam, you don’t realize that that is what he’s waiting for you to do.)

  21. SR,

    I appreciate your thoughtful comments on my post. I think you got my real point here very well.

  22. @19:

    LDSP, I wanted to make a comment on this one.

    I confess, if it were put to vote, I’d personally choose to vote for putting robbers in jail and giving murders life in prison or maybe even the death penalty.

    But I wouldn’t be prepared to personally do this in either case.

Comments are closed.