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"The 'free market' doesn't exist": More on framing from George Lakoff

27 October 2003

The NewsCenter's conversation with George Lakoff, UC Berkeley professor of linguistics and cognitive science, continues. Here, Lakoff dissects the hidden associations of everyday terms such as liberal, progressive and free market.

Are "progressive" and "liberal" different, or is Rockridge trying to sidestep the conservatives' successfully having framed "liberal" as pejorative?

Well, there is some of that, but both terms are kind of mushy and vague. After World War II and the Vietnam War, "liberal" came to mean someone who supports [Franklin Delano Roosevelt's] New Deal, and a strong military and foreign policy. The term "progressive" originated from people who were Democratic Socialists, but the socialism aspect has dropped away, and it's come to mean what I call "nurturant morality." It includes choosing peace whenever possible, environmentalism, civil liberties, minority rights, notions like social justice through living wages, et cetera. "Progressive" has been chosen, in part, to contrast in a forward-looking way with "conservative" - for example, as when Podesta chose the name "The Center for American Progress" for his new think tank.

George Lakoff
'Conservatives have a word for people who are not pursuing their self interest. They're called "do-gooders," and they get in the way of people who are pursuing their self-interest.'
-George Lakoff

Also, within traditional liberalism you have a history of rational thought that was born out of the Enlightenment: all meanings should be literal, and everything should follow logically. So if you just tell people the facts, that should be enough - the truth shall set you free. All people are fully rational, so if you tell them the truth, they should reach the right conclusions. That, of course, has been a disaster.

Meaning, for example, that if you tell people that the tax cuts are overwhelmingly benefiting the richest 1 percent of Americans at the expense of a balanced budget, liberals think people will naturally revolt against the measure.

Exactly. It never works. And liberals don't know why. They don't understand that there's another frame involved. Here's another example: I've been working with a lot of nongovernmental organizations and advocacy groups of various kinds, including an environmental health group researching what they called the "body burden."

The what?

The body burden - you have to hear it twice, right? It refers to the amount of toxic chemicals you have in your body. This group did a study with the Centers for Disease Control and found that there are vast numbers of toxic chemicals in our bodies, and in the bodies of newborn babies, in mothers' milk, and so on. I asked them how they were going to frame this. They said, "What do you mean? We're just going to put out a report with all the statistics, and they'll be so shocking that everything will change." So they did: a few papers ran it on page 17, some papers ran it a little but more. The next day it was done.

But is that a failure of framing, or a failure of infrastructure, as in no public relations team, no properly prepared talk-show guests on staff?

It's a failure of the whole thing: not taking communication seriously and not taking conceptualization seriously. Anyway, they came back to me a couple of months later and asked how they should run a campaign on it. I said, "It's very simple. You call your campaign Be Poison-Free."

Why use the word "poison"? Because the framing of poison has a poisoner. It makes you look at who is doing the poisoning. Everyone knows what poison is - it kills you. Everybody knows that. Now of course you then have to run a serious campaign and have the money to do that and have the public relations support, which is harder, but the first step is understanding how to frame it.

What about the phrase "free market"? Is that an example of framing?

Yes, but one that's so deeply embedded that it's difficult at first to see how. You have to start with the metaphor that the market is a force of nature, which comes from [the economist] Adam Smith, who says that if everybody pursues their own profit, then the profit of all will be maximized by the "invisible hand" - by which he means nature. There is also a metaphor that well-being is wealth. If I do you a favor, therefore making things better for you, then you say, "How can I ever repay you? I'm in your debt." It's as if I'd given you money. We understand our well-being as wealth.

Combine them, and you get the conservatives' version that says if everybody pursues their own well-being, the well-being of all will be maximized by nature. They have the metaphorical notion of a free market even in their child-rearing system. It's not just an economic theory; it's a moral theory. When you discipline your children, they get internal discipline to become self-reliant, which means they can pursue their self-interest and get along in a difficult world. Conservatives even have a word for people who are not pursuing their self interest. They're called "do-gooders," and they get in the way of people who are pursuing their self-interest.

OK, but how is that a frame, rather than a guiding ideology?

Because the "free market" doesn't exist. There is no such thing. All markets are constructed. Think of the stock exchange. It has rules. The WTO [World Trade Organization] has 900 pages of regulations. The bond market has all kinds of regulations and commissions to make sure those regulations carried out. Every market has rules. For example, corporations have a legal obligation to maximize shareholder profit. That's a construction of the market. Now, it doesn't have to be that way. You could make that rule, "Corporations must maximize stakeholder value." Stakeholders - as opposed to shareholders, the institutions who own the largest portions of stock - would include employees, local communities, and the environment. That changes the whole notion of what a "market" is.

Suppose we were to change the accounting rules, so that we not only had open accounting, which we really need, but we also had full accounting. Full accounting would include things like ecological accounting. You could no longer dump your stuff in the river or the air and not pay a fee. No more free dumping. If you had full accounting, that constructs the market in a different way. It's still a market, and it's still "free" within the rules. But the rules are always there. It's important for progressives to get that idea out there, that all markets are constructed. We should be debating how they're constructed, how they should be constructed, and how are they stacked to serve particular interests.