The meaningless terms

The political programs and PR announcements frequently use woolly terms which have no definable meaning. In this essay I will look at some of the worst offenders in this assault on the clarity of expression.

The first meaningless term I am going to analyse here is social justice. As picked up long time ago by Janusz Korwin-Mikke (a conservative politician, underrated and almost unknown outside of his native Poland) social justice can either mean the same as “plain” justice or something else. Justice is well defined in legal statutes and enforced by the courts. If social justice is the same as justice then the qualifier “social” is redundant, contributes nothing to the meaning of the term and should be dropped in the name of clarity. If, on the other hand, social justice is different from “plain” justice then it is inconsistent with justice. It should then be termed “injustice”. Korwin’s logic is striking in its simplicity – the term social justice is not only misleading but also deceitful.

Another word which is used in a peculiar context by the politicians and PR crowd is equality. Its meaning was clear during the French Revolution. Egalite was what gave Robespierre’s butchers a self-proclaimed right to behead both the commoners and the nobles. But how “equal” are we in the modern societies? Let us have a look at the income tax system. What taxation scheme best enacts the principle of equality? The left brain is telling me it is a poll tax. As in: all citizens are equal and they all pay equal amount of tax. It is a bit harder to justify a flat tax rate in the context of equality but it at least imposes an equal rate of tax on all citizens. But hang on – most democratic countries, which draw richly from the legacy of the French Revolution, have a progressive income tax rate! How can it be justified in the context of equality? The answer is it can not. This contradiction has spawned the bastard child of equalityequitability. Equitable is a made-up word which in simple English means “the inequality we think is necessary in the name of fairness”.

Which introduces the undisputed champion of all meaningless terms – fairness. While the first two contenders – social justice and equality – at least try to emulate definable entities fairness does not even remotely correspond to anything of substance. Which is why all tyrants and dictators used it to justify their murderous follies. The October Revolution was to bring about a fairer social system in Russia. It was only fair that the Germans had more Lebensraum (living space). I personally become skeptical the moment people start talking about fairness and rarely are my suspicions unjustified. Why would anyone use a term with absolutely zero meaning which has, historically, been liberally used by tyrants and mass-murderers?

On a lighter note, I remember how in mid-1990’s New Zealand’s telephone monopolist, Telecom, made a change in the pricing for calls made from phone booths. A call used to cost 20 cents and was unlimited in duration. The change was to introduce a time limit – 5 minutes, if my memory serves me right. This was done in the name of fairness – to stop others talking for hours when you are waiting to make an urgent call. A few years later another change was made to make things even fairer. Instead of talking for a measly 5 minutes for 20 cents the public was treated to a new pricing scheme in which 50 cents were charged for unlimited duration calls. So, after two changes aimed to make things fairer, the public had to pay 150% more for exactly the same service. Fair indeed.


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