Politics & the Emptiness of Language

Progress & Conservationđź”°
4 min readMay 21, 2024
Photo by Raimond Klavins on Unsplash

“There are innumerable common men throughout the world who are bound by terminology and the written word.” — Bodhidharma

One way that Buddhism has really changed the way I think is with regard to language and politics. Buddhism holds that words are “empty” of inherent meaning. Terms lack any “essential nature” or inherent meaning so their definitions are always fluid and imprecise. Things that are usually thought of as opposites (e.g. capitalism vs. socialism; conservatism vs. progressivism) often have more common ground than one might realize because sometimes what one person means by this term is very much similar to what another person means by that opposing term.

Whether “capitalism” is good or bad is entirely contingent upon what one means by that term. The “property-owning democracy” (or distributism) of conservatives like Irving Kristol and Wilhelm Röpke seems very much to me like a “capitalism” that is good, as does the neo-liberal basic structure of Milton Friedman and F. A. Hayek (with its minimum income guarantee and social insurance for healthcare). Yet, the “socialism” of James Meade, Anthony Crosland, and Erik Olin Wright, though the opposite of “capitalism” in theory, just isn’t as in conflict with that vision as people might think. This is because words lack inherent meaning. It all depends on what the particular person speaking happens to see as the essential characteristic of the thing designated.

When the best proponents of capitalism say “capitalism,” they mean “a system with markets and competition,” whereas when socialists say “capitalism” they often mean a system in which relatively few people own the means of production and those people (the capitalists) become a sort of ruling class or economic elite. As a result, there are “market socialists” who advocate something very much like the “capitalism” of Friedman. If we want to be understood, we have to use words but we should be cognizant of the fact that words don’t inherently mean anything — their meaning comes from usage and usage varies widely. And this fluidity and emptiness of language holds true for all words that might describe one’s politics. This is just as true for words like “liberal,” “conservative,” “progressive,” and “libertarian.”

“The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others, the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor.” — Abraham Lincoln (Lecture on Liberty : An Address in Baltimore, Maryland [18 April 1864])

“Libertarian” is a good example of this fluidity and imprecision of language that results from the emptiness of words. There are some libertarians who define “liberty” as the right to use your property however you want to, whereas others define “liberty” as the lack of domination and, yet, others define it as lack of government interference. And these are, of course, very different definitions of liberty. One who defines liberty as mere lack of government interference may think that libertarianism entails the right to dump toxic waste into rivers and the right to burn tires. One who defines liberty as non-domination may think that libertarianism requires the elimination of bosses and corporate hierarchy. One who defines liberty as the right to use your property however you choose, of course, will think that the property owner has a right to boss his employees around.

This same ambiguity exists with the term “conservative.” By “conservatism,” Edmund Burke meant that he wanted to “preserve the traditions and institutions inherited from previous generations,” whereas many conservatives simply mean that they want to “conserve the money in the treasury by not spending too much.” These different types of conservatism can, of course, fit together but they do not have to. Someone that is truly a Burkean conservative will find absolutely nothing admirable about the so-called conservatism of Trump. In fact, Trump’s “conservatism” is diametrically opposed to Burke’s.

I would caution the reader to not get caught up on the terminology I use and, instead, to look deeper in order to find the significance of what I am trying to communicate.

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Progress & Conservationđź”°

Buddhist; Daoist, Stoic; Atheist, Darwinist; Mystic, Critical Rationalist; advocate of basic income, land value tax, and universal healthcare.