Our Confused Political Vocabulary


As expected, many of the terms of which our political universe consists are on display more frequently than usual during this election season.  Now, then, is as good a time as any to revisit these time-worn concepts.


For some reason, the self-avowed nemeses of the planned economy—whether we call this “socialism,” “communism,” or anything else—insist on describing their property arrangements of choice as “capitalism.”  Given that the latter term was coined by collectivists—communists specifically—this is beyond a merely misfortunate selection of names.  In using the language of their enemies, self-avowed “capitalists” actually weaken their own position.

There are a couple of reasons for this.

For one, the left has been remarkably successful in ensconcing the figure of “the blood-sucking ‘capitalist’” in the popular imagination. Not everyone is a doctrinaire leftist, mind you, but the left’s “march” through our culture’s institutions—the institution of popular media, specifically—has not been without its effect upon Americans at large.  Among the half-baked notions that they have imbibed is this notion of the greedy “capitalist.”

Second, “capitalism” is an “ism.”  That is, the word denotes a system.  More specifically, it implies an economic system.  Within the context of politics, the term “system” invariably suggests a consciously designed societal blueprint to the subscription of which its architect, government, compels the populace.  This image is all the more prominent when it is considered that “capitalism” is located on a continuum with such government-directed economic systems as socialism and communism.

So, the defenders of “capitalism” can all too easily be misunderstood as championing but another economic plan.  Worse, they lend themselves to being depicted as advocating a plan according to which it is “the rich,” the “capitalists,” who will be awarded the lion’s share of “the economic pie” at the expense of “the working class.”

Free Enterprise System

Sometimes the proponents of “capitalism” speak of America as a “free enterprise system.”  Granted, the latter is a preferable term to the former.  Still, though, it is confused.

The United States Constitution barely succeeded in being ratified.  Examination of both the quarrels that transpired between anti-Federalists and Federalists as well as the Constitution itself discloses a conception of America that has since fallen on hard times.  America, according to this understanding, is not any sort of “enterprise system” at all, whether “free” or otherwise.

Any enterprise is distinguished on account of its end, goal, or purpose. War would be a key example of an enterprise.  The purpose of war is victory.  It is this purpose and this purpose alone that unites the participants in a war and renders them joint-enterprisers. During times of war, the only decisions and actions that are approved are those that contribute toward, or at least do not frustrate, the realization of the end of victory. Business would be another illustration of an enterprise.  Profit is the ultimate purpose of any business and the actors in a business are joint-enterprisers whose actions are expected to serve this end.

The point here is that America was never intended to be any sort of enterprise.  In vain will we search the Constitution for a purpose to which the resources of American citizens are to be deployed.  What we do encounter when we turn to it are the conditions necessary for citizens to embark upon the enterprises of their own choosing.  Put another way, the Constitution—through its wide dispersal of authority and power—provides for the liberty that Americans were intended by their progenitors to enjoy.   But, it is crucial to grasp, this liberty is not itself an end or purpose.  Rather, it is the indispensable precondition for the pursuit of any and all purposes.

Thus, the self-declared enemies of socialism and other species of economic collectivism should from now on juxtapose with their rivals’ socialism, not “the free enterprise system,” and certainly not “capitalism,” but, simply, liberty.

The State and ‘Statists’

There are few words that have suffered as much abuse as “the state.”  In spite of the negative connotations that it has come to assume, the word itself is a good one, for it is by far the least misleading name that we can ascribe those sovereign political entities that are the stuff of the modern world.

The United States is a state.  Mind you, it isn’t the government of the United States that is a state.  The state that is America encompasses the latter’s government and its culture.

From this perspective, two things follow.

First, anyone and everyone who isn’t an anarchist is a “statist.”  Second, anti-collectivists should refrain from chiding collectivists for being “statists” and, instead, simply call them “collectivists.”


These are just some of our key political terms that need to be liberated from the ambiguity in which they’ve been cast.  This is no merely academic exercise, for how we think depends upon the words we use.

The Moral Liberal Contributing Editor, Jack Kerwick, holds a BA in religious studies and philosophy from Wingate University, a MA in philosophy from Baylor University, a Ph.D. in philosophy from Temple University, and is currently professor of philosophy at several schools in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Mr. Kerwick writes from the classical liberal perspective inspired by Edmund Burke. He blogs at www.jackkerwick.com. You can contact him at [email protected]