Words without meaning

Monty Python introduced us to the “Knights that say ni”. What is “ni”? Why do they say it? No reason. They’re just being lovable idiots for our amusement.

Perhaps that is the strategy of those social policy commentators who are the “Knights that say social cohesion”?

It is useful to have a word that means everything and nothing at the same time. This ‘social cohesion’ creature has magical powers. Without actually meaning anything it is able to justify high tax and high welfare and also provide a warmer inner-glow for users of the word. By simply saying it and nodding your head wisely you are able to elevate yourself to a higher moral plain.

In a recent paper on welfare Luke Buckmaster from the Parliamentary Library gives us a few hints as to what ‘social cohesion’ may mean. Perhaps it means “minimising social disparities”? But then it is basically a synonym for equality. Perhaps it means “avoiding conflict”? But then it is just a synonym for safety. Perhaps it means “fellow-feeling, unity, social connectedness”? But then it is just a synonym for civil society.

Or perhaps it means “I’m a leftist who wants to increase your tax and I’m more moral than you”. At least this meaning would make the phrase useful, instead of being a fluff word.

Defenders of the welfare state insist that welfare contributes to ‘social cohesion’. The proof of this is another brilliant plagiarism of Monty Python. First, it is assumed that welfare leads to a good outcome. Second, you allow the fluff word to mean, roughly, ‘good outcome’. And then, presto, welfare leads to social cohesion. Which is a good thing. Of course. If you disagree then clearly you like to club baby seals and trip blind people.

As long as you don’t allow ‘social cohesion’ to mean anything, then it is impossible to falsify this claim. So it can be repeated continually. And we all know that when you repeat something enough it becomes true.

But if we suspend the fluff-status of the word, and instead look at its synonyms (equality, safety and civil society) then we are able to put the welfare claims to the test.

And the facts aren’t friendly to our lentil-eating, tree-hugging moral-elite Knights.

In summary, they get ½ out of 3.

Does the welfare state improve civil society? Hell no. The exact opposite is true. The undermining of civil society is perhaps the most pernicious consequence of the welfare state and one of the least well understood. Instead of low-income people engaging with community groups for their support, they engage with a bureaucrat at the front of a Centrelink queue. Instead of local groups getting together to solve their local problems, people lobby the distant and impersonal government for a handout. Where once we built social capital with extended family, neighbours and civic groups, now we just complain that politicians aren’t doing enough. On the count of civil society, the welfare state is an epic fail.

Does the welfare state improve safety? No. There is no evidence to suggest that welfare handouts lead to lower crime, and some evidence to suggest the opposite is true. But more likely, welfare is mostly irrelevant to crime.

Does the welfare state increase equality? Kinda. This is a big question. Yes, handing government money to poor people will result in poor people receiving more government money. However, this has to be weighed against a drop in private income as some people drop out of the workforce.

Also, it is not clear what the correct level of equality should be. Certainly, we don’t want everybody in the country to have exactly the same life. Further, we have to distinguish between static inequality and dynamic inequality. Some people will always be poorer than others, but as long as there is social mobility there is no problem. And finally, while welfare provides some extra money we have to consider whether it then dooms some welfare recipients to a life (or perhaps multiple generations) of no further improvement and therefore decreases social mobility.

These are all open questions, so we can give the welfare lobby half a point on this score.

Getting ½ out of 3 is not a good result. If any student got that in an exam they would be failed. But of course, the welfare lobby have the perfect rebuttal. The magical word ‘social cohesion’ can simply change meanings again. Like a desert mirage, as soon as you get close it just disappears. And as we learned in The Castle, we are left chasing “the constitution, Mabo, the vibe” or anything else that remains safely obscure.

12 thoughts on “Words without meaning

  1. “Some of the most popular words and phrases in politics are undefined and undefinable. That is what makes them popular and what makes them politically effective in rallying support. People who mean wholly different things by “fairness” or “social justice” can be brought together by politicians to serve their own ends.”
    Thomas Sowell

  2. ‘Social justice’ is my favourite fluff word, and can similarly be a moving target.

    However, I reckon, like ‘social cohesion’, ‘social justice’ actually does have an exact meaning, it’s just that the proponents of it dare not speak its name.

    Both of these terms are synonyms for ‘socialism’, which, like ‘capitalism’ is still a bit too unpopular a word to say openly.

    That said, another waffly term I sometimes hear is the Fabric of Society (I always wonder whether it would be cotton or silk 😉 ).

    It sounds like it should mean the same thing as ‘social cohesion’ and therefore be used by leftists, but actually it’s used by conservatives, to denigrate some group (e.g. homosexuals) who are supposedly destroying this ‘fabric’ by adopting a different lifestyle to the conservative person. In this instance ‘fabric of society’ seems to be a synonym for ‘traditional or archaic values’.

    A lot of words can be thus misued. Even the ones we hold most dear, liberty, and freedom have been corrupted. Bin Laden thinks he is blowing up infidels in the name of freedom, the Chinese communists ‘peacefully liberated’ Tibet etc

  3. Frank Devine once spoofed ‘social justice’ by calling for Cosmic Justice! Grander sounding, though just as subject to as many meanings as you want.
    For instance, what do people mean by ‘equality’? If you try to pin them down, they don’t seem to know, since it has been used in so many issues. I vigourously define it to mean equality before the law, and I reject and counter other meanings. These other uses covertly or openly tend to mean ‘equal outcomes’. Everybody wins, nobody loses.
    As for social cohesion, please! If I could start up a libertarian movement, it would be called ‘Separatitas’, and embrace the right to be separate- that would be it’s motto- “Be Separate”. It would support all separatist movements, everywhere. If ‘society’ breaks up, it couldn’t have been very strong, anyway.

  4. Community isn’t a stupid term. It has a clear enough meaning. A community is a group of people with a set of common interests and associated relationships. I think it is a really useful term. How else would you refer to the Melbourne neo-nazi community or the Iranian gothic community or the Texan needlework community. What would become of Australians libertarian community?

  5. Well I’m back briefly with the question, “Why is it that when some bastard has the flu he always seems to be sitting next to you?”

    Good points; but we should consider the possibility that these terms are actually used by our dear leaders in genuine and altruistic efforts to promote the “common good.” 😉

  6. I like “working families” – that has meant anything and everything from individual dole recipients to invalid pensioners to recently deceased individuals.
    Kevin Rudd happens to be pretty good at creating meaningful phrases – it’s an essential skill for a politician who pretends to be everything to everybody.

  7. Its all Orwellian doublespeak.

    Armed robbers come into a bank and fire warning shots. They demand the teller hand over some “social justice”.

  8. “Societal tranquility” might be closer to what some people are getting at when they say “social cohesion”. I agree that the phrase “social cohesion” runs the danger of being a a-lot-of-things-and-nothing. Hayek talked about weasel words. Where putting a word in front of another caused all the meaning to be sucked out of it. He said that “social” is such a word. “Studies” might be a bit of a weasal word if you throw it at the other end of the phrase. Hayek was so tactful in the face of leftist scum, he tried to foist the responsibility of pointing out the weasal effect of the word “social” by foisting the blame off onto alleged friends less tactful then himself.

  9. Nice identification. “Social cohesion” certainly does seem like a typical meaningless political cliche.

    There’s no way to work out what actual particulars this term refers to.

    I would class this as a “floating abstraction” a category of concepts identified by Ayn Rand whereby the concept is detached from any existents.

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