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The Power to Define is the Power to Rule

June 29, 2023

The federal legislative process is messy, slow, and littered with stumbling blocks – exactly as the Founders intended. Compromise and half-loaves are built into the system. The public can learn what legislation is up for vote, and members can slow down the process as they represent their constituents and work on their policy priorities. The sluggish pace frustrates activist government whether on the left and the right, so the executive branch finds workarounds: agencies promulgate regulations, the president issues executive orders, and so on.

Yet sometimes, in order to get what it wants, the government just changes how things are defined. The simple manipulation of language or the meaning of a word can often remove obstacles and give federal agencies what they couldn’t get through legislation.

For example, the National Academy of Sciences has proposed a new definition of poverty. Ostensibly, it wants to do this because “An accurate measure of poverty is necessary to fully understand how the economy is performing across all segments of the population and to assess the effects of government policies on communities and families.”

That’s reasonable. What’s not reasonable is the new definition’s practical impact: making millions more people eligible for welfare benefits. The U.S. could get a massive backdoor extension of the welfare state – at least $124 billion over 10 years, by one estimate – because NAS arbitrarily wants a new definition.

With Congress closely divided, this kind of spending could be nearly impossible to pass. But if the Census Bureau adopts NAS’s proposed new definition, the administration doesn’t need Congress.

And NAS’s proposal is not arbitrary. Twelve of the 13 authors of the paper proposing the change “have contributed to Democratic causes or worked for Democratic administrations.” So, inside of government, shielded from oversight and public awareness, partisans want to implement a partisan scheme – and they can do it by changing a few works or numbers.

It’s a common tactic. In the first two quarters of 2022, the United States experienced negative economic growth. That had long been one of the definitions of an economy in recession. Not anymore: with midterm elections looming, the Biden administration refused to acknowledge the recession. “When you’re creating almost 400,000 jobs a month, that is not a recession, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said.

But job creation has not been a measure of what constitutes a recession – at least, not until it became convenient for the White House. Yellen was adamant. “This is not an economy that’s in a recession. A recession is broad-based weakness in the economy. We’re not seeing that now,” she said.

Truth may be the first casualty of war, but it’s no safer during a pandemic. This became apparent in September 2021, when the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) quietly redefined the words “vaccine” and “vaccination” on its website. As the Miami Herald explained:

Before the change, the definition for “vaccination” read, “the act of introducing a vaccine into the body to produce immunity to a specific disease.” Now, the word “immunity” has been switched to “protection.”

The term “vaccine” also got a makeover. The CDC’s definition changed from “a product that stimulates a person’s immune system to produce immunity to a specific disease” to the current “a preparation that is used to stimulate the body’s immune response against diseases.”

Why did the CDC make these changes? Because the COVID-19 “vaccines” weren’t vaccines at all. Whatever their benefits, the shots developed and distributed in response to the pandemic did not “stimulate a person’s immune system to produce immunity to a specific disease.” Yet they were hyped as vaccines. When it became apparent that the shots weren’t doing the job of vaccines, the government decided to change the definition of what a vaccine is.

A CDC spokesperson’s attempt to explain it was singularly ineffectual: “Slight changes in wording over time … haven’t impacted the overall definition.” Except in this case. As the Herald explained, the spokesperson then went after a strawman:

The previous definitions could have been “interpreted to mean that vaccines were 100% effective, which has never been the case for any vaccine, so the current definition is more transparent, and also describes the ways in which vaccines can be administered,” the spokesperson said.

Nobody ever thought that vaccines were 100 percent effective, and even if they did, the responsible course would have been to call the COVID-19 drugs what they were and explain the difference to the public. Instead, government called them vaccines at a time when the public was desperate for the sort of reassurance the word “vaccine” had always carried.

In each of these cases, smart government insiders are using semantic sleight of hand to achieve their objectives or to justify them after the fact. “Control the language, control the masses” is a cliché, but only truths become clichés. Representative democracy is supposed to guarantee the people a voice in governance and ensure transparency in government’s workings. Unelected bureaucrats altering definitions to suit their needs betrays both goals.

Pete McGinnis is director of communications at the Functional Government Initiative.

This article was originally published by RealClearPolicy and made available via RealClearWire.
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