What do we mean by democracy? How do we define capitalism or socialism? Part of the challenge when discussing these ideas is that we all have different definitions of the ideas themselves.
CS Lewis complained about certain words losing their meaning, and making communication more difficult as a result:
“The word gentlemen originally meant something recognizable; one who had a coat of arms and some landed property. When you called someone ‘a gentleman’ you were not paying them a compliment, but merely stating a fact (p. xiii)… A gentleman, once it has been spiritualized and refined out of its old coarse, objective sense, means hardly more than a man whom the speaker likes. As a result gentleman is now a useless word… Now if once we allow people to start spiritualizing and refining, as they might say ‘deepening’, the sense of the word Christian, it too will speedily become a useless word (p. xiv).” Mere Christianity
The word democracy has taken a similar course. It increasingly means a system of government the author likes, and it can be defined however they choose. Hence why some of the most undemocratic nations style themselves as the “People’s Democratic Republic”. At the opposite end, fascism has frequently lost its original technical meaning, and just means a government the author doesn’t like. Most western governments could today be defined as both democratic and fascist, without any contradiction. (If this seems odd, just look up the definitions!)
All of this is simply an introduction to an excellent post over at Samizdata by Rob Fisher, entitled “The map is not the territory“. It’s hard to excerpt from, so just go and read it all!