Dictionaries are infrastructure
What is "infrastructure"? Rep. Peter Meijer's sardonic take on the abuse of the word "infrastructure" is that "Respecting the meaning of words is infrastructure." And he's not wrong about that -- words have meaning, and they matter.
■ It's too easy to dismiss "words matter" as a cliche. Yet our entire legal system depends upon the written word -- not oral history, not personal impressions, not interpretive dance. The conflict over how to interpret the words of the past in light of the present is perhaps the central dispute in American jurisprudence: Do the words of the law mean what they meant when they were first written down? As the language changes over time, do the standards set by the words evolve, too? Do intentions matter most, or do dictionaries?
■ Those are big debates, and they are not amenable to unanimous assent. If they were, we could long ago have resolved whether an Equal Rights Amendment would shore up rights that are not clearly guaranteed for women -- or if they were already guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. Or, further still, whether "all men" meant "all humans" when the words were used to declare independence.
■ It should be self-evident that we need to seek common linguistic ground if we are to have any kind of productive political speech and debate. And common ground requires everyone to hold themselves to a kind of linguistic precision that isn't always practiced in places where words are constrained (e.g., by a 280-character limit or by a 2-minute video news package).
■ Americans ought to start crusading for common definitions when it comes to spending debates, where matters ought to be at their clearest. For instance, it's easy to find people who use the phrase "Health care is a human right". That's an imprecise and ultimately counterproductive use of language. As it was well-stated by neurosurgeon Philip Barlow in the British Medical Journal in 1999, "A human right is a moral right of paramount importance applicable to every human being." Health care, by contrast, is a universal need.
■ The language of the debate matters: A human right is a thing which cannot be denied and to which every person has an inalienable claim. A universal need is a thing which must be produced from limited resources, and the allocation of which can place people in conflict. We can't resolve the imbalance between the number of Covid-19 vaccines produced and the number demanded by calling the vaccine a "human right". We can only make up the shortfall by figuring out how to produce and distribute more doses, and that is a question of tangible, measurable inputs and outputs.
■ The same kind of definitional discipline should apply to words like "infrastructure", too. Other things, like child care, may be worthy of consideration, funding, and debate -- but if it doesn't involve aspects like engineering or construction, it really doesn't fit a universally acceptable definition of infrastructure. We know what infrastructure is from its root words: The underlying stuff that supports everything else. Other worthy things shouldn't be shoehorned into a definition that doesn't fit. They either need to stand on their own definitions, or they need new names that describe more precisely what they do.
■ If we're truly interested in bipartisan consensus, perhaps we ought to issue a copy of Strunk & White to every household in America. That, at least, might start the process of talking about things with common definitions.