When words have no meaning…

I recently finished F. A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom and found it incredibly inciteful into recent history for a text originally published in 1944.  One of the most pertinent issues facing America today is the hijacking of language and the changing of the meaning of words like freedom for security, marriage for committed relationship, welfare for permanent subsidy, equality for guaranteed outcomes regardless of skill, sin for mistakes or poor choices, salvation for state control, and religion or faith for superstition.

What can we expect when people allow their language to have no meaning?  Consider these words from Mr. Hayek,

The most effective way of making people accept the validity of the values they are to serve is to persuade them that they are really the same as those which they, or at least the best among them, have always held, but which were not properly understood or recognized before. The people are made to transfer their allegiance from the old gods to the new under the pretense that the new gods really are what their sound instinct had always told them but what before they had only dimly seen. And the most efficient technique to this end is to use the old words but change their meaning. Few traits of totalitarian regimes are at the same time so confusing to the superficial observer and yet so characteristic of the whole intellectual climate as the complete perversion of language, the change of meaning of the words by which the ideals of the new regimes are expressed.

The worst sufferer in this respect is, of course, the word “liberty.” It is a word used as freely in totalitarian states as elsewhere. Indeed, it could almost be said – and it should serve as a warning to us to be on our guard against all the tempters who promise us New Liberties for Old– that wherever liberty as we understand it has been destroyed, this has almost always been done in the name of some new freedom promised to the people. (The Road to Serfdom by Hayek, pg. 174)

In short, the only thing we will gain by redefining long held terms is a new form of tyranny and the loss of freedom.


About Scott Roberts

pastor of Hope in Christ Church, Bellingham, WA
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