At least since I first read George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, I have been a student of the use of weasel words. I have joined what he called the “struggle against the abuse of language,” because “Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful…and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” ...
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At least since I first read George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, I have been a student of the use of weasel words. I have joined what he called the “struggle against the abuse of language,” because “Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful…and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
I even found the phrase’s origins interesting. As explained by phrases.org, “It has long been a widespread belief that weasels suck the yolks from bird’s [sic] eggs, leaving only the empty shell. This belief is the basis of the term ‘weasel words’.” And although that idea can be traced to Shakespeare’s mentions of weasels, the phrase’s first known use was in 1900, near the beginning of the Progressive Era, during which even the word progress clearly became a weasel word (moving forward in time does not imply societal improvement).
One of the economists I most admire, Friedrich Hayek, commented in The Fatal Conceit that social was “the great weasel word.” As Roger Clegg summarized the reason, “it sucks the meaning out of any word to which it is appended in a phrase. Thus, ‘social justice’ is not really justice, ‘social security’ is not really security, and so forth. Hayek even produces a list of 160 nouns he has found thus qualified by the word ‘social’”
With my eyes and ears primed to detect weasel words, I was recently struck by the phrase “He only does it for the money” in an article I was reading. The reason is that it plays on ambiguities in the meaning of the words only and for, and focuses attention on the wrong question to ask when evaluating public policies.
Merriam-Webster’s primary definitions of only are “sole” and “nothing more.” If that meaning is applied to “He only does it for the money,” it means that money is the sole reason for what he does. Opprobrium for such shallow, questionable character is not far behind, and ad hominem dismissals of the person's beliefs and rights are also riding further back on the same train.
However, as a conjunction, only is defined as “were it not that” or “but for the fact that.” If that meaning is applied to “He only does it for the money,” it has a very different sense. It means that if money (or better, resources) had not changed hands as part of the arrangement, the person would not have done what he did for someone else. That is a far cry from only caring about money. It means only that without some compensation for the efforts in question, they would not have been forthcoming. And no adverse inferences of the sort that follow from the first meaning can be drawn. Quite the opposite, in fact. It means that, if the arrangement involved was voluntary, monetary compensation made it possible for the counterparty to receive a good or service at a lower opportunity cost than he would otherwise have had to bear. That implies that the subject is a benefactor to others, not a pariah.
The distortion introduced via only is further magnified by the ambiguity in the use of the word for in the phrase. Merriam-Webster defines the word as “a function word to indicate an intended goal.” But applying it to money is misleading, because money is not an end or a goal. It is a means, complementary to freedom of association, which enables people to more effectively advance whatever their ultimate goals are. So although saying that someone does something only for money sets up a straw man caricature that is easy to dismiss as not worth respecting, or somehow “less” than those who are more enlightened, a more accurate statement is that the subject, like everyone else, simply values command over more resources so that he can direct them to the purposes he cares the most about (as when Mother Theresa used Nobel Prize money to build a leprosarium). Money is not an end sought, much less the only end.
To do things for money is nothing more than to advance what we care about. In the voluntary exchanges of free markets, we do for others as an indirect way of doing for ourselves, relying on the protection of private property rights to rule out coercive or involuntary invasions of our rights as individuals. And that does not justify moral condemnation, unless using money to support your family, to live up to the agreements you have made with others, and to try not to burden others justifies moral condemnation.
Twisting the meanings of only and for, like money, is not an end in itself. In politics, as Orwell noted, it is a means to transform the universal fact of market arrangements—that we all do for others to indirectly do for ourselves (which is what makes them among humanity’s greatest achievements)—into unjustified criticism of those whose resources are targeted by government actors and their favorites, precisely because only they have the coercive power to violate others' rights and property.
For all the efforts focused in that direction, the political rhetoric focused on demeaning those who produce for others, which is so often used to set them up as patsies to take from, looks in the wrong direction. It makes more sense to ignore the gains of those targeted as patsies because of market success and ask instead whether those they deal with are better or worse off as a result of their efforts. Once you ask that honestly, envy and jealousy toward those who have produced greatly for others can no longer justify the politics of theft.