Prolegomena to Any Future Policy Discussion

In the course of a TCS column on methodological individualism, Don Boudreaux makes use of this quote from Parker T. Moon's Imperialism and World Politics:

Language often obscures truth. More than is ordinarily realized, our eyes are blinded to the facts of international relations by tricks of the tongue. When one uses the simple monosyllable "France" one thinks of France as a unit, an entity. When to avoid awkward repetition we use a personal pronoun in referring to a country--when for example we say "France sent her troops to conquer Tunis"--we impute not only unity but personality to the country. The very words conceal the facts and make international relations a glamorous drama in which personalized nations are the actors, and all too easily we forget the flesh-and-blood men and women who are the true actors. How different it would be if we had no such word as "France," and had to say instead--thirty-eight million men, women and children of very diversified interests and beliefs, inhabiting 218,000 square miles of territory! Then we should more accurately describe the Tunis expedition in some such way as this: "A few of these thirty-eight million persons sent thirty thousand others to conquer Tunis." This way of putting the fact immediately suggests a question, or rather a series of questions. Who are the "few"? Why did they send the thirty thousand to Tunis? And why did these obey?

I make an effort to avoid this trap when I write about politics, but I'm sure I still sometimes fall into it. The very fact that it takes such an effort is vexing. To say that it's due to the limitations of our language, as Moon does, is true but incomplete because it still leaves unanswered the question of why our language is thus limited. Pace the linguistic determinists, language is shaped by cognitive architecture more than the other way around, and it's not hard to imagine why our brains would have a hard time dealing with the scale and complexity we're faced with in politics today. Razib Khan put his finger on it concisely last year:

10,000 years ago there might have been 50 Muguloo tribesmen, and you could make pretty robust generalizations of those Muguloos, to the point where a distribution-population way of thinking was unnecessary. Today, you have 12 million Jews, or 1.2 billion Muslims, tens of millions of liberals and conservatives... but we still talk as if they were just a band of Muguloos.

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The Monkeysphere once again

The Monkeysphere once again raises its ugly head. I would think this is not limited to people, but includes the totality of discrete ideas one can hold (thank goodness for division of labor). Political identities mirror this with the use of "liberal" or "conservative" even though the group members often have very little ideologically in common.

Is it a trap if we way Matt

Is it a trap if we way Matt wrote this blog entry instead of explaining how billions of cells contributed to it's production? To converse sensibly you have to select the level of abstraction appropriate to the topic at hand.

There's nothing wrong with saying “France sent her troops to conquer Tunis", as long you keep in mind that France is not an actual person. How hard is that?

Harder than you'd think for

Harder than you'd think for a lot of people, John, and you don't need to look far for evidence. Words have an annoying way of coming untethered from their underlying referrants in large-scale political dicussions. Semantics is a bugger.

"Harder than you’d think

"Harder than you’d think for a lot of people...

Removing the word "France" won't help them a bit.

Yep. Thinking is hard, and

Yep. Thinking is hard, and abstractions are all edges and slippery bits.

OT: Matt, just by the way, your most recent post in the comments at WoC seems not to have gone in correctly. The sidebar and search engine indicate that you commented on Cicero's most recent post, biut it doesn't show up for me when I go there: I only see my post. Weird. You might want to have someone look into that.