‘The most dangerous pronoun discourse has nothing to do with gender identity. It’s the undefined ‘we’ in public policy debates that’s the problem.” These are the words of Richard Morrison, a research fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Morrison identified “the fallacy of we,” and I’m often guilty of committing it.
I frequently say things like, “If we increase spending on this or that, it will cause some economic distortions.” Who exactly is this “we”? Certainly not me or most of you. Politicians propose and vote for additional spending, and the president signs new spending bills into law.
The problem also appears when I write things like “In 2021, we have increased the debt to $24 trillion.” Yet, neither the borrowing nor the spending was done by you and me. It was done by some politicians in Congress, aided by the president, and with the assistance of some bureaucrats at the Department of the Treasury.
Just pick up a newspaper or listen to politicians, or even to people like me, and you’ll soon realize that this “we” is everywhere: “We must protect our children by keeping the schools closed (or open)!”; “We need (or don’t need) a national industrial policy!”; “We must invest in infrastructure (or something else)!”
This group is a phantom, easily invoked but sometimes impossible to identify. Is it individuals? Pundits? Experts? The federal government? All members of Congress, or just those in support? Does “we” include the president and his administration? How about the judiciary? Or do the leaders of a representative democracy get the honor of attributing their actions to every single one of us?
Take the idea that “we” must invest in infrastructure. Who decides exactly where to invest? With whose money? And who is getting the returns, if any, on that investment?
Are these the same people who will lose their shirts if the investments fail? These are not trivial questions, because the rhetoric makes it almost impossible to tell that there are both winners and losers in any such transaction.
That’s precisely the point of using “we.” It implies a collective responsibility, creates the false impression that most people are on board and hints that we’ll share equally in the benefits. “We” is often used to obscure the truth and create the illusion of uniformity.
The same is true with many other words. In 1926, Columbia University political scientist Parker T. Moon wrote this in his book “Imperialism and World Politics”: “When one uses the simple monosyllable ‘France,’ one thinks of France as a unit, an entity ... we impute not only unity but personality to the country. The very words conceal the facts and make international relations a glamorous drama in which personalized nations are the actors, and all too easily we forget the flesh-and-blood men and women who are the true actors.”
Nowhere is this insight more revealing than when evaluating rhetoric about using import tariffs to protect “America” against “China.” Countries don’t really trade with one another. Flesh-and-blood persons trade, sometimes individually and sometimes when they join forces in business firms.
To grasp this fact is to realize that Washington’s import tariffs hurt Americans by preventing them from taking full advantage of good deals. Claiming that “we” must impose import taxes against “them” removes attention from the American consumers who end up losing out.
Such verbal deception is rampant throughout government policies. Take the Export-Import Bank, which describes itself as “the nation’s official export credit agency … with a mission of supporting American jobs by facilitating the export of US goods and services.”
This phrasing makes it sound as if it helps all Americans at no net cost. But in reality, EXIM backs around 2% of US exports, putting the other 98% at a relative disadvantage. As for its support of American jobs, the economic literature shows that export subsidies help a few people while hurting more.
“Language often obscures truth. More than is ordinarily realized, our eyes are blinded to the facts … by tricks of the tongue,” wrote Moon. Going forward, let’s avoid the sloppy language.
Veronique de Rugy is the George Gibbs Chair in Political Economy and a senior research fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.