Everybody seems unanimous, from the Left to the Right. MSNBC wrote: “Iran Will Retaliate for U.S. Killing of Soleimani.” The Wall Street Journal: “Tensions Rise in the Middle East After U.S. Killing of Iranian Military Leader.” Time: “Iran Has Vowed Revenge Against the U.S. for Killing Qasem Soleimani.” Fox News: “Trump Warn Iran: US has targeted “52 Iranian Sites”.” Al Jazeera: “US Kills Iran’s Qassem Soleinani in Air Strike.” NPR: “Was It Legal for the U.S. to Kill a Top Iranian Military Leader?” And so forth.
The unanimity is about the presumed fact that there is something or somebody called “the US” who killed Soleimani, and that there is something or somebody called “Iran” who will retaliate. But are the US and Iran big organisms of which citizens are the mere cells? Or are the US and Iran each a big collective with its own distinct preferences? Or do the words refer instead to the government of each country? Strangely enough, most people seem to think that words like “the US” or “Iran” represent both the government and the governed, which are somehow identical as Jean-Jacques Rousseau imagined. (For a discussion of this political “we,” see my Econlib article on “The Vacuity of the Political “We”.” Don Boudreaux just had a very pedagogical post on the same topic at the American Institute for Economic Research: “There Is No Such Creature as The People.”)
On January 2, the Department of Defense issued a statement that ended up with the sentence: “The United States will continue to take all necessary action to protect our people and our interests wherever they are around the world.” If, on the one hand, “the United States” means the people in the country called “United States,” who are “our people”? The people of the United States will protect the people’s people? Obviously, there are problems with collective-speak. If, on the other hand, “the United States” is the US government, the sentence makes some sense: the US government will protect “our people,” presumably Americans, as well as “our interests,” assuming all American share the same interests or at least some common interests; but then, why not say “the US government”?
(Not surprisingly, President Trump’s own statement was also confused, although it did distinguish between “the Iranian people” and its government. As expected, his ideas were not always crystal clear—for example: “America will always pursue the interests of good people, great people, great souls.”)
Is organicist- or collectivist-speak only a way of using linguistic shortcuts? In some cases, it might be, for we cannot avoid shortcuts in language. We can’t, in the breath of a sentence, explain all the statement’s theoretical foundations and express all the necessary caveats. Moreover, the media have a need for short titles—an excuse that, if I may myself sin in speaking, does not apply to our collective mouth, the government. Yet, this form of speech—“our poisoned language,” to borrow an expression from F.A. Hayek in his 1988 book The Fatal Conceit—is dangerous for it can create much confusion or confirm many dangerous political ideas.