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Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

Supply and Demand: an Unhappy Marriage

I’ve been meaning for quite some time to write something about John Kenneth Galbraith, specifically an idea he put forward in The Affluent Society (1958). It’s an idea worth repeating, because it exposes an underlying assumption in contemporary debates about everything from government spending to school choice to health care. Roughly, Galbraith’s claim is that when supply and demand are not independent in an economy, (neo)classical economics fails to describe the behavior of that economy. This means, among other things, that the conclusion that unfettered trade will best serve to fulfill the wants and needs of consumers is either invalid or reduced to tautology.

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Written by whereofwecannotspeak

November 29, 2007 at 8:29 pm

Posted in Ideas, Language

Essential Debate

It was recently expressed to me that the essence of the American debate between “conservatives” and “liberals”1 is something like this:

Conservatives believe that

  1. People should be free to “stand on their own two feet,” that is, to pursue their own goals, interests, and activities with the least number of hindrances; and
  2. When people are free to stand on their own two feet, they will provide the compassion and care for one another that they require (and probably be happier and more prosperous besides).
  3. As a (perhaps paradoxical) corollary, if they are made to provide this care for one another, through regulation or other impositions on individual freedoms, the quality of the care declines and it becomes ineffective, insincere, and a haven for corruption and inefficiency.

Liberals, on the other hand, believe that the best way for society to provide care and a happy life for its members is to impose laws and regulations that institutionalize this care, instead of allowing people the freedom to provide it personally.

Now, I think this characterization of the debate is based on a misunderstanding, but it is a misunderstanding that is very common and often propagated by people on both sides. After all, the idea that people should be free to pursue their own interests and activities is the original liberal idea. I want to examine this expression of the debate, in order to help correct that misunderstanding.

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Written by whereofwecannotspeak

November 12, 2007 at 12:18 am

Posted in Ideas, Language

Advertising and Free Speech

If one were to criticize advertisements for some of the effects they have — of creating an overly-materialistic culture, or causing people to want things that they would not otherwise want and might actually harm them — proponents of “free markets” and “free speech” would immediately come to its defense. It’s up to consumers, they would say, to actually make the choices that advertisements merely suggest; and anyway, we can’t restrict advertisements because doing so would clearly violate the First Amendment.

I think both defenses have problems with them; I am concerned here with the second. (For a very considered discussion of the first, you might take a look at John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society.)

I think that the state to which we have allowed advertising to invade our culture actually harms the ideal of Free Speech, and to defend it on First Amendment grounds is out of touch with the spirit, if not the letter, of the law. Here are the reasons why:

  1. Advertising takes up space and air time. By filling our media with advertising (to the extent that magazines have more advertising than content, and half of every television broadcast is filled with commercials), we prevent that time and space from being used to propagate information that might be more useful or significant to the public. Moreover, because advertising is profitable to the entities that broadcast it, they have little or no incentive to replace it with more meaningful content if it means a drop in profit margins — thereby making it even more difficult for a useful message to get air time. Not only does that message need to compete for the time; it needs to compete for paid time.
  2. Advertising makes us less sensitive to information generally. Through constant overstimulation, media consumers become desensitized to information. Rather than taking on the Sisyphean task of sorting out information that’s good and useful from information that isn’t, we simply become more likely to tune it all out. Things that should shock us don’t; useful messages don’t have the effect they would have in the absence of advertising.
  3. Advertising is psychologically manipulative. Advertising creates desires in people where none existed before. It encourages conformity to the states of mind that advertisers want consumers to have. Whether or not you believe it’s “ultimately up to the consumer” to act on the mental states that advertising induces, it is undeniable that the express purpose of advertising is to cause people to believe something they did not before, usually for the sake of the advertiser’s profit. Even if this is true, of course, it doesn’t necessarily affect the right to free speech. The problem, however, is that free speech is only valuable if free thought precedes it: the purpose of protecting free speech is to protect a diversity of perspectives, which are necessary for the pursuit of many other valuable things (like, say, the Truth). Advertising, by creating conforming desires, destroys that diversity of perspective. It therefore harms not just free speech but its more valuable precursor as well.

All this is not to say, of course, that we should do away with advertising entirely. Some advertising is genuinely useful (for example, if it informs people of new products that can actually improve their lives). What we need is a way to sort the good advertising from the merely invasive. Again, the free market people will try to tell us these mechanisms already exist: you as a consumer can change the channel during commercials, or skip ahead to other pages with real content. But clearly, this approach has only made advertising more invasive and more subtly manipulative over the last several decades. Some new mechanism is required — one that puts the power to choose good content and reject bad content in the hands of the collective consuming public, instead of merely the individual.

Proposals, anyone?

Written by whereofwecannotspeak

March 7, 2007 at 10:37 pm

Graph Connectivity is not First Order Definable

Perhaps, dear readers, I am mistaken in believing that many (or any) of you are interested in logic, but on the chance that you have arrived here through a search engine in desperate hope of finding a solution to some problem, I shall post a PDF for you, and for historical purposes.

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Written by whereofwecannotspeak

October 22, 2006 at 7:31 pm


Philosophers of language sometimes like to speak of “reference” as the relation between language and the world. This is a fine enough name, but it runs into trouble when we try to say what the relation really consists of. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by whereofwecannotspeak

September 28, 2006 at 9:24 pm

Posted in Ideas, Language


There are many ways that groups of people make decisions. Some of them are conspicuous: we talk about “collaboration” or “coming to consensus”, for example. Other cases are more subtle: sometimes decisions are “handed down from above”; the price of some good reaches an equilibrium in a market; a conversation shifts to a new topic. In each of these cases, a stable outcome is reached after being influenced by many individuals. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by whereofwecannotspeak

September 28, 2006 at 12:17 am

“Part of me…”

“Part of me thinks this.” “Part of me feels this way.”

But which part? Wittgenstein would say: point to it. Is it your foot? Your thumb? Your head?

Does “I think this, but also that” mean the same thing? Or maybe “I think this, but I do not want to believe it”?

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Written by whereofwecannotspeak

June 9, 2006 at 10:23 pm

Posted in Language