Economic and linguistic inflation

Today, it is precisely those who are most prone to fling around words like “racist” and “bigot” who are themselves most obviously guilty of racism and bigotry in the original, narrower and more informative senses of the terms.

(Image: Jakayla Toney/Unsplash.com)

F. A. Hayek’s classic paper “The Use of Knowledge in Society” famously argued that prices generated in a market economy function to transmit information that economic actors could not otherwise gather or make efficient use of.  For example, the price of an orange will reflect a wide variety of factors – an increase in demand for orange juice in one part of the country, a smaller orange crop than usual in another part, changes in transportation costs, and so on – that no one person has knowledge of. Individual economic actors need only adjust their behavior in light of price changes (economizing, investing in an orange juice company, or whatever their particular circumstances make rational) in order to ensure that resources are used efficiently, without any central planner having to direct them.

Inflation disrupts this system. As Milton and Rose Friedman summarize the problem in chapter 1 of their book Free to Choose:

One of the major adverse effects of erratic inflation is the introduction of static, as it were, into the transmission of information through prices. If the price of wood goes up, for example, producers of wood cannot know whether that is because inflation is raising all prices or because wood is now in greater demand or lower supply relative to other products than it was before the price hike. The information that is important for the organization of production is primarily about relative prices – the price of one item compared with the price of another. High inflation, and particularly highly variable inflation, drowns that information in meaningless static. (pp. 17-18)

I would suggest that a similar problem is posed by what is called linguistic or semantic inflation. This occurs when the use of a word that once had a fairly narrow and precise meaning comes to be stretched well beyond that original application. The result is that the word conveys less information than it once did.

One way this occurs is via the overuse of hyperbole. The author of the article just linked to gives as examples words like “awesome” and “incredible.” At one time, if an author used these terms to describe something, you could be confident that it was indeed highly unusual and impressive – a rare and extremely difficult achievement, a major catastrophe, or what have you. Now, of course, these terms have become utterly trivialized, applied to everything from some fast food someone enjoyed to a tweet one liked. At one time, calling something “awesome” or “incredible” conveyed significant information because these terms would be applied only to a small number of things or events. Today it conveys very little information because the words are applied so indiscriminately.

Now, the same thing is true of words like “racism” and “bigotry.” At one time, to call someone a “racist” implied that he was patently hostile to people of a certain race, and to call someone a “bigot” implied that he was closed-minded about certain groups of people or ideas. Accordingly, these terms conveyed significant information. If someone really was a racist, this would manifest itself in behaviors like badmouthing and avoiding people of races he disliked, favoring policies that discriminated against them, and so on. If someone really was a bigot, this would manifest itself in behaviors like being intolerant of those he disagreed with, refusing calmly to discuss or debate their ideas, and so on.

Today the use of these terms has been stretched far beyond these original applications. In part, this is a result of hyperbole born of political partisanship. Labelling political opponents “racists” and “bigots” is a useful way to smear them and to stifle debate, just as hyping something as “awesome” or “incredible” is (or once was, anyway) a useful way to draw attention to it.

But the stretching of these terms has also resulted from the influence of ideologies (such as Critical Race Theory) that claim to reveal novel forms of racism and bigotry of which earlier generations were unaware – forms that float entirely free of the intentions or overt behavior of individuals. The result is that even people who exhibit no behavior of the kind once thought paradigmatically racist and who harbor no negative attitudes about people of other races can still be labeled “racist” if, for example, they dissent from CRT or other woke analyses and policy recommendations.

In fact, the words have drifted so far from their original meanings that today it is precisely those who are most prone to fling around words like “racist” and “bigot” who are themselves most obviously guilty of racism and bigotry in the original, narrower and more informative senses of the terms. They will, for example, shrilly and bitterly denounce “whiteness, “white consciousness,” and the like as inherently malign, even as they claim to eschew negative characterizations of any racial group. They will refuse to engage the arguments of their opponents and try instead to shout them down and hound them out of the public square, even as they accuse those opponents of bigotry.

Partisan hyperbole and wokeness have thus introduced so much “static” (to borrow Friedman’s term) into linguistic usage that the terms no longer convey much information. They now usually tell us little more than that the speaker doesn’t like the people or ideas at which he is flinging these epithets. It is no surprise, then, that use of these terms is increasingly generating more eyeball-rolling and yawns than outrage or defensiveness. As with “awesome,” “incredible,” and the like, overuse inevitably decreases effectiveness.

The indiscriminate use of “racism” and “bigotry” is like printing too much money – in the short term it produces a euphoric jolt, but in the long-term it is self-defeating.

(Editor’s note: This essay originally appeared on Dr. Feser’s blog in a slightly different form and is reprinted here with the author’s kind permission.)


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About Dr. Edward Feser 29 Articles
Edward Feser is the author of several books on philosophy and morality, including Five Proofs of the Existence of God and co-author of By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment, both published by Ignatius Press. His new book All One in Christ: A Catholic Critique of Racism and Critical Race Theory, is forthcoming in late summer 2022 from Ignatius Press.

23 Comments

  1. Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen famously said of the runaway federal budget: “a billion here, a billion there; pretty soon that’s a lot of money.” Now, as with the COVID “stimulus package” (!), we now talk of Trillions (a thousand billions) without so much as a yawn.

    Not surprising that once the greenback currency of the economy has been totally devalued, the crowd inside the Beltway, and especially this White House tribe, would turn to other green pastures and devalue the language itself and whatever is left of Western Civilization.

  2. There’s even a hymn called “Our God is an awesome God.” I’m certain God is reassured that we think Him to be “awesome.”

    • Considering that God is awesome–that is, he inspires (or should inspire) awe and fear–I would think so:

      “For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised, and he is to be held in awe above all gods.” — 1 Chron 16:25

      “You who fear the LORD, praise him! all you sons of Jacob, glorify him, and stand in awe of him, all you sons of Israel!” — Psa 22:23

      “And they were filled with awe, and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?” — Mar 4:41

      There are many more.

      Rich Mullins, who wrote “Our God is an Awesome God”, was set to enter the Catholic Church, but died in a car accident a few days prior. It’s not my favorite song by Mullins (as I heard it far too often in Bible college when I was an Evangelical), but Mullins was a very gifted singer, musician, and songwriter, whose late work reflected a very creedal, sacramental understanding of the Faith.

      • Feser: “It is no surprise, then, that use of these terms is increasingly generating more eyeball-rolling and yawns than outrage or defensiveness. As with “awesome,” “incredible,” and the like, overuse inevitably decreases effectiveness.”

        I was referencing the loss of meaning through overuse of the word “awesome” – potentially problematic in its use in reference to God. I’m sure the hymn is a lovely one well-intentioned by its author for whom I sent up a prayer for the repose of his soul – to the God who inspires awe and fear.

  3. Thank you, Catholic World Report, for publishing this much-needed corrective to that inane, racialist and leftist screed by “Deacon” Greydanus.

  4. Dr. Feser has made an iron-clad argument. But, what does that matter to the Democrats and their friends who wield words in a promiscuous manner? Going back to economics, here is what Vlad Lenin, famous commie, economist and community organizer, said about inflation, “The way to crush the bourgeoisie (middle class) is between the millstones of inflation and taxation.” So, the political party of inflation and taxation wants to crush the middle class. Their use of language, that is, the Critical Race Theory, “racism,” “bigotry” and all the rest, fits into the same pattern–to crush the middle class which is made up mostly of White people with a Christian background. This constitutes a profound moral issue, which normal people who have great social responsibilities (e.g. bishops, GOP leadership, etc.), clearly ignore.

  5. The best example of a recent linguistic inflation is “Make America Great Again.” It’s actually just cover for and inflation of “Make AmeriKKKa White Again.”

    • And you know that how?
      a) Would that be through Trump’s support of abortion which kills more black lives than it does white?
      b) Would those abortions have been forced?
      c) Paid for by the KKK?
      d) Paid by the $1.7 Million grant made by Trump’s administration to support Crisis Pregnancy Centers?
      e) Etc.

  6. But, but…Hayek! Trickle-down economics! An economy that kills! Pseudo-Pelagian Manichean Clericalism!!! PHARISEE!!! PHARISEE!!!

    Sooner or later, there’s gonna’ have to be a reckoning with linguistic inflation inside as well as outside the Church if any halfway serious Catholic anywhere ever wants to be taken seriously again.

  7. While not the subject of this article, suggest every Catholic should read Hayek’s Road to Serfdom. In some ways the use of excessive language by big government activists is just their approach to exert government control, with the goal of making us all Serfs. BTW after reading Hayek check out Thomas Sowell’s books, all of which are insightful.

  8. This article is a beautiful counterpoint and rebuttal to the last article I read and commented on here at CWR.

    It was not that the other article is woke or lacking in knowledge, especially of looking at one’s self in the mirror. The big problem I had with it is that I refuse to consider myself racist or bigoted simply because I’m a white male.

  9. As deadly and as sinful (for lying, violating God’s 8th commandment) as linguistic inflation is the machination and manipulation of language by way of euphemisms. Examples from current events are: Putin’s “war” instead called “special military operation; and Trump’s January 6, 2021 violent insurrection and coup attempt called by his cohorts as “normal tourist visit” of the Capitol and “legitimate political discourse.”

    • Can be added here is the now historically famous – notorious – wartime vocabulary crafted by G.W. Bush, for example: “torture” called “enhanced interrogation,” and “civilian casualties” called “collateral damage.”

    • The 2020 “Summer of Love” riots produced far more widespread death and destruction than Jan 6 did, yet the media called them “mostly peaceful.” VP Kamala Harris was active in arraigning bail for the rioters. Interesting how touchy the ruling class establishment elites are when they were given a one day milder dose of the “Summer of Love.” When it happens to them it is TEOTWAWKI. When it happens to the common, ordinary citizens they are evidently expected to suck it up. A two-tier society.

      • The January 6, 2021 violent insurrection was an assault on democracy and power grab driven by a linguistic inflation called “alternative reality” (lie, defying the 8th commandment) spewed by Trump and believed and spread by his followers, even among Catholics who should know better and fear the Lord (not violating the commandments).

        • The 2020 “Summer of Love” riots were every bit as political and more violent than anything done on Jan 6. Trump offered the use of troops before the Jan 6 riot, the use of which was turned down. The riot started before Trump had finished speaking. Trump did tell people to protest peacefully. The current hearings about Jan 6 are show trial hearings. Only one side’s narrative is being heard. Little better than the smears that were done to Justice Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearings. We currently have demonstrations in front of Supreme Court justice’s homes, that are supposed to be illegal. Then we have the attempt to have parents complaining about questionable school curriculum branded as “domestic terrorists.” We see on this website an article where a firebombed crisis pregnancy center is the one that is being investigated. All I see are nothing but double standards and a two-tiered system of justice with selective enforcement and demonization.
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          When it comes to alternative realities this is very much what took place with the Hunter Biden laptop story. It was suppressed by media and Big Tech censorship as being Russian disinformation. This included a statement by 51 intelligence officials. Only now is the media having to admit that it was a true, valid story.

  10. Unfortunately, while there has been linguistic inflation and hasn’t hit Weimar level inflation yet.

    Nothing since the Frankfort school came up with it, has done more to advance the left than their ability paint their critics as not just mistaken but evil. It shows little sign up slowing up. Even the Pope finds it effective, for example calling his critics “fundamentalist” and implying that they want to kill people. Mr. Olson wrote a good piece on that.

    • OK, I got to the second paragraph. This is brilliant:

      “I would suggest that a similar problem is posed by what is called linguistic or semantic inflation. This occurs when the use of a word that once had a fairly narrow and precise meaning comes to be stretched well beyond that original application. The result is that the word conveys less information than it once did.”

      • “The indiscriminate use of “racism” and “bigotry” is like printing too much money – in the short term it produces a euphoric jolt, but in the long-term it is self-defeating.”

        Let’s follow the thought. “Bad money drives out good.” Monetary inflation is like Woke: “everything about it turns to ____.”

        Given the elemental role that language plays in the structure of the mind, what can we interpolate about state of minds in an era of runaway linguistic inflation?

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