The Department of Modest Proposals

by Henry Farrell on March 26, 2009

“Gideon Rachman”: identifies a hitherto unknown apparatus of Britain’s bureaucracy.

However, I have now discovered a genuine government department with a title straight out of Dickens – it is the Department of Sensitive Words. This excellent institution has been brought to my attention by a man who is trying to establish a think-tank and to use the word “Institute” in its title. Since my friend is still involved in sensitive negotiations with the Department of Sensitive Words, I have promised not to reveal his identity. The problem is that Companies House deems certain words as “sensitive” because they are thought to convey an impression of authority or trustworthiness. Institute is one such word; British is another. If you want to use a word like this you have to get special permission from a sub-unit of Companies House – the Department of Sensitive Words, which is based in Swansea. In true Dickensian style, this is not an easy process. Companies House does provide a few guidelines on sensitivity on its web-site (its chapter three). But there is no form you can fill in and no obvious criteria to fulfill. But this is probably for the best. You don’t want any old person calling themselves “British” or “Institute”.

This is an _excellent_ idea, and one which should have been implemented in the US decades ago. From Kim Phillips-Fein’s new book, _Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan_ (Amazon, Powells)

In 1962,the executive committee of the board of trustees recommended that [the American Enterprise Association] change its name to the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, so that it would no longer be confused with a “trade association” lobbying on behalf of business: the new name would “more accurately describe the nature and legal status of the organization.” An “association” sounded like the Chamber of Commerce or the National Association of Manufacturers – an institute, on the other hand, was austere, noble and pure.

Heaven forfend that the American Enterprise Institute would _ever_ be confused with a group of people shilling on behalf of business.

More generally, there is a real problem in a political system where an organization with a grand title such as Americans for Fairness, Liberty and Free Choice in the Workplace (this is an invented organization using some of the usual buzzwords – I imagine that lobbyists automate the process of name creation with a sekrit perl script) typically consists of nothing more than a few reams of letterhead and a time-share arrangement over some law office’s fax machine. Not only will consumers will end up confused by the profusion of astroturf groups, but the generation of such confusion is precisely the purpose. It is just this kind of market failure that governments are supposed to address.

Hence my modest proposal – that the Obama administration set up a similar office, with sweeping authority and immediate effect. I can see that libertarians might possibly get upset, but they really shouldn’t. After all, they suffer more than most from the market failure in question. The term ‘libertarian’ has been heavily debased over the last few years by groups and individuals who describe themselves as libertarians, but are committed to state torture of suspected bad guys, semi-ubiquitous surveillance of electronic communications and the like. One of the first tasks that the US Inter-Agency Task Force on Sensitive Words might set itself would be to institute a proper set of standards to police self-described libertarians, clearly distinguishing between libertarians themselves (the real thing), schmibertarians (those tacitly in favour of torture and surveillance), glibertarians (those who prefer not to think about political commitments that extend beyond a cheery embrace of Econ 101 as teh awesome) and Gibletarians (I _WANT_ SLOW THROTTLING!!! AND I WANT IT NOOWWWW!!!!!!). I can’t see how this wouldn’t improve our public discourse.