Parsing Political Language: Is Obama an Inveterate Liar?

With the news breaking today that “Obama suggests value-added tax may be an option,” many of my fellow libertarians are going to pat themselves on the back while (cynically) claiming that the President has broken yet another campaign promise and is, therefore, a liar. They’re wrong, of course. Politicians don’t lie. They speak precisely. Libertarians need to pay closer attention to what politicians actually say instead of misinterpreting what was said. Remember too that all language is metaphorical and definitions can vary for any word. Here’s master-linguist William Jefferson Clinton explaining it much more concisely than I:

Eat your heart out, Derrida.

Libertarians will tell you that Obama made a firm pledge not to raise taxes on any family making less than $250,000 per year. This is false. Here is the actual video:

He chose his words precisely.

Transcription: “And I can make a firm pledge: under my plan, no family making less than $250,000 a year will see any form of tax increase, not your income tax, not your payroll tax, not your capital gains taxes, not any of your taxes.”

Let’s take a look at the language there: “He can make a pledge” that no family making less than $250,000 a year will see any form of tax increase.” Note that he didn’t make a pledge; rather, he said he can make a pledge. Simple statement of fact. I believe him. It’s not difficult to make a pledge. All he has to do is say, “I pledge…” followed by the pledge. He didn’t say that. If that’s not enough to settle the issue for you, he said “no family”. Well, what’s a family? Don’t even try to define family. I could present you with 40 different definitions for family off the top of my head. It’s impossible, therefore, precisely to know whom he was referring to in this non-pledge. Not convinced yet? Well, he said “making less than $250,000 a year.” But, see, my father (a brilliant economist) taught me when I was a child that it’s imprecise to talk about “making money”. You know who makes money? The Treasury Department’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing and other counterfeiters. What productive people do is “earn money”. Understand the difference? Finally, the non-defined families which counterfeit “less than $250,000 a year” that he’s describing in his non-pledge won’t “see” any form of tax increase. They might “experience” it. They’ll certainly pay it. They just won’t “see” it.

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  • I think Safire would have said “congenital” not inveterate.

  • I would go further and say that in his non-pledge he stated that you’d see no increase in “any of your taxes”– “not your income tax, not your payroll tax, not your capital gains taxes.” He doesn’t say anything at all about taxes you don’t (yet) pay, leaving the creation of a new tax free and clear.