Persuasive Words

Economists often use words differently from other folk. Words such as ‘profit’, ‘wealth’, ‘rent’ and ‘cost’ all have subtle, but important, differences from the way many of the general public use them. Such words can easily get tied to particular value judgements or politics - for example, the word ‘profit’ conjures up images of fat cats and greedy people in the minds of many. In the minds of economists, profit is almost always a good thing - partly because they don’t tie the word just to money.

Another example: I’m a vehement libertarian, and we think about concepts such as ‘democracy’, ‘profit’, and ‘property’ differently from the way many people do. When I tell people we don’t live in a democracy, they think initially I’ve gone off my rocker (I’m not talking here about minor inequities in vote distribution etc.). I have to explain that I have quite a different definition of democracy to them before we get back on track.

So this poses a dilemma, and it extends beyond these economic and political concepts: should one always use these words as they ‘should’ be defined, or is part of the persuasion process thinking up new words and phrases that make concepts more readily graspable? I’m not suggesting that these concepts are difficult: but it’s always easier to have a discussion when you’ve defined your terms: when people have a pre-judged notion of what terms mean, but then they are re-defined, suddenly it gets a lot harder. Are there things you have trouble explaining because people already have ideas about what the words involved mean?

Sometimes I think it’s OK to alter your terminology. It feels bad, though, when you feel like you’re giving in to established usages that you feel are ‘wrong’. I don’t like flip-flopping back-and-forth between definitions of democracy, for example, but I do it - to facilitate discussion. I think these are hard decisions to make.