[lg policy] Language and the Socialist-Calculation Problem

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Wed Sep 8 14:19:30 UTC 2010

 Language and the Socialist-Calculation Problem

Mises Daily: Tuesday, September 07, 2010 by Danny Hieber

    We have room for but one language in this country, and that is the
English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turns our
people out as Americans, of American nationality, and not as dwellers
in a polyglot boarding house.

    — Theodore Roosevelt[1]

There are 6,909 languages alive in the world today. Seventy-four are
indigenous to California alone — languages like Hupa, Kawaiisu, and
Shoshone — while Papua New Guinea has over 800, with a median of just
1,200 speakers per language.

As astonishing as these figures seem, they obscure a stark reality:
potentially half of these languages are set to vanish in the next
century. Don't believe me? Consider that in North America, out of 296
known languages at the time of European contact, only 33 are being
actively passed down to the next generation. The rest will become
extinct upon the death of their last speakers (if they haven't
already), probably sometime this century.[2]

Many people have no problem with this. After all, doesn't linguistic
unity promote economic efficiency and cultural amity? Maybe so, but I
won't address that issue here. Linguists like David Harrison (When
Languages Die), Nicholas Evans (Dying Words), and Daniel Nettle and
Suzanne Romaine (Vanishing Voices) have already argued the case for
linguistic diversity, and I find some (not all) of their arguments to
be lacking, prone to a conflation of language and cultural knowledge
(see especially Harrison).[3]

But while there are good reasons for preserving languages, I'm
interested in something else entirely: how language policy is a
perfect example of the socialist-calculation problem. Governments
necessarily adopt nonoptimal language policies. They are incentivized
to violate the rights of minority language speakers and support fewer
languages rather than more. In grounding the issue of language death
in praxeology, it's easy to see how, to a large extent, language
decline results directly from the trespasses and perverse incentives
of the state, leaving the state of language diversity far worse off
than it would have been otherwise.

In the same way that there are market forces and there are
socialist-planning schemes for determining the value and existence of
commodities in a market — and thus for eliminating commodities of
little worth — there are market-driven and state-driven causes of
language decline. In any economy, entrepreneurs invest and speculate
based on what they expect future prices or values to be. Similarly,
people learn languages in expectation of their future value, e.g.,
learning French for a trip to Paris; learning Chinese for the
inevitable collapse of the dollar; or learning your native or local
language(s) so as to communicate your basic wants in society. In this
way language is a type of social capital, subject to all the same
market forces (and government distortions) as any other good.
Natural Language Death

Now let's apply these market concepts to language decline. Like any
good in the market, languages disappear as demand for their use
declines. There are two ways this happens: the natural growth of
speech communities, and crowding out by the state.

The historical growth of languages parallels the growth of human
societies. At the dawn of the Agrarian Revolution, ca. 10,000 BC,
speech communities were extremely small, between 500 and 1,000 people.
Assuming the classic population estimate of 10 million,[4] there may
have been as many as 10,000–20,000 languages in existence. With the
rise of settled societies that could support larger communities, the
size of speech communities grew accordingly, and the number of
languages declined.[5]

This is a clear case of free-market language decline, and
globalization is another. Today there are strong incentives for
learning English. It provides access to lucrative markets, whether you
own a tourist shop in Kenya or a multinational corporation in China.
It is requisite for higher education, certain types of jobs,
emigration to English-speaking countries, and it has great psychic
value as a language of prestige, wealth, and media. As the number of
people and media sources we interact with on a daily basis continues
to increase, the number of languages in the world will steadily
decrease. Just as the introduction of new production technologies
allows producers to make more with less, globalization allows speakers
to fulfill more of their socioeconomic needs with fewer languages. In
fact, most people in America and England fulfill all those
socioeconomic needs with precisely one language — English.
"Adopting a national language is essentially the nationalization of
the language industry."

These are not bad reasons for language shift, just as a farmer is not
wrong for abandoning toil in the field in favor of a paying factory
job. After all, "The right to language choice includes the right to
choose against a language."[6] The difference is that the adoption of
a second language doesn't require the loss of the first: "Healthy
bilingualism is a state in which two languages are seen as
complementary, not in competition."[7] Language is a nonscarce

In fact, the majority of the world is actively multilingual, speaking
four or five languages, due to the fact that different languages are
required for the fulfillment of different ends. In Kenya, for example,
one must know a local mother tongue to fulfill social needs, a
regional lingua franca (Swahili) for commercial needs, and English for
media-based and educational needs. In Arnhem Land, Australia, by
contrast, one must marry outside one's clan, and each clan speaks a
different language.[9] So the social uses for language vary from
culture to culture. Languages are a commodity, which people both value
and create demand for. Like free markets, language communities are
self-organizing, emergent systems, meaning we cannot predict how
languages (the social capital) will be used on the market. And like
any spontaneous order, language communities can be quickly disrupted
by the intrusions of the state.

Globalization does not explain why, for example, there were
approximately 1,500 languages spoken in South America at the time of
European contact, while today there are only 350. The cause is more
obviously Spanish colonialism — it's difficult for a language to
survive when all its speakers are dead or enslaved.

But while many linguists happily blame colonialism for language
extinction and end the story there, few appreciate an obvious fact:
languages are dying today just as fast as they ever have in history.
For many languages, the only remaining speakers are elderly and have
but a handful of years left. Globalization does not adequately account
for this fact. Nor do the colonizing, massacring tendencies of the
17th and 18th centuries explain why languages are still dying today.
Our culprit, as it tends to be, is the nation-state.
Language Policy and the Socialist-Calculation Problem

Each nation must at some point address the question, "What is the
optimal number of languages for the state?" The answer that states
tend to give is simply "one." For a long time, states could actively
pursue this goal as a part of their campaign to kill or remove any
indigenous population that became a nuisance. The United States was
particularly adept at this, waging a series of wars against Native
Americans from the 17th through the 19th centuries, and enacting the
Indian Removal Act in 1830 under Andrew Jackson.

Starting with the late 1800s and WWII, however, the killing of
innocent indigenous populations by the state fell somewhat into
disfavor. So once again, states faced the question of how to get to
their preferred number of spoken languages. This time, schools for
indigenous populations were designed in the Americas, Russia, and
Africa, often with the explicit intent of assimilating the masses:

    The Indian boarding schools were modeled on the pioneering efforts
of General Richard Henry Pratt at his Carlisle Indian School, founded
in Pennsylvania in 1878. Pratt believed the role of education was to
wean the Indian from his native traditions and replace them with the
"civilizing" influences of white American culture. He strongly favored
the total assimilation of the American Indian into the dominant
culture, and he felt that the best and most efficient way to do this
was to take Indian children away from their families and culture and
immerse them in the language and culture of middle-class American

One wonders what a general was doing creating school curricula in the
first place.

The impact of such policies is rarely immediate. People see children
being taken from their homes and educated. What is unseen, following
the tradition of Hazlitt and Bastiat, is that the destruction of a
language and its enveloping culture gradually erodes the social
institutions established to handle social strife and incentivize
proper behavior among the general populace. Thus it is no surprise
that rates of alcoholism and alcohol-related deaths on Native lands
are higher than anywhere else in the country.

Also unseen is the fact that language decline does not happen
overnight. It typically takes three generations: the first generation
is punished for using the language in school, internalizes the idea
that the language is worthless, and will not teach it to their
children; although the second generation knows some of the language,
they are "semilinguals," able to understand but not speak the language
themselves; by the third generation, the language is effectively gone.
So it is that today we are suffering the delayed effects of what was
unseen in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
"States do not cope well with diversity or decentralization."

In response to this, disenfranchised minorities have recently begun to
assert their linguistic rights, and the optimal-language question has
become one of the hot topics of the past two decades. As Native
American communities moved toward greater self-determination during
the civil rights movement of the '60s and '70s, there arose a growing
awareness of linguistic rights issues on both the national and
international scale. In 1990 the US Congress passed the Native
American Languages Act (NALA), meant to "preserve, protect, and
promote the rights and freedom of Native Americans to use, practice
and develop Native American languages." The Universal Declaration of
Linguistic Rights, signed by UNESCO, followed in 1996. Of course,
governments usually interpret these as positive rights.

Accordingly, today many states are considering adopting 2 or even 3
national languages. Some truly enlightened states have adopted even
more — as many as 11 languages in South Africa (out of about 20), and
22 in India (out of 415).

We begin to see the socialist-calculation problem at work. How does
the state determine the optimal number of languages to support? The
answer, of course, is that it cannot. The "ideal" number of languages
and the "optimal" level of linguistic diversity can only be found, if
at all, through the coordination of human action in the market (i.e.,
the social sphere of interaction). The state, by contrast, follows a
number of perverse incentives, which tend toward supporting fewer,
rather than more languages.

We ought to ask two questions regarding language policy, one Misesian,
one Hayekian. The Misesian question is, even if nations were
incentivized to support greater linguistic diversity rather than less,
how do they know this is efficient? On what criteria do they base the
optimal-language decision? In contrast, Hayek would ask why
nation-states are incentivized to treat fewer languages rather than

Of course, we have already answered the Misesian question of why it is
impossible for states to set an "ideal" language policy. As we have
seen, language choice is the result of a multitude of factors,
including anthropological, sociological, and economic ones. Each
individual takes all these factors into consideration (consciously or
subconsciously) when choosing which language to learn or pass on to
their kids. Moreover, the individual has a variety of feedback
mechanisms for evaluating these choices, such as social pressures or
economic advantages gained by knowing a certain language. The state,
however, lacks both the inputs and the feedback mechanisms required to
set a language policy that is adequate for each individual. These
individuals, because of the various socioeconomic factors which come
into play when making decisions regarding language, will place
different values on each language; that is, individuals value language
subjectively. The state has no way of accessing these valuations.
"Individuals value language subjectively. The state has no way of
accessing these valuations."

This is apparent in the way that states set language policies in real
life. The state has immense difficulty adopting language policies that
adequately address the sociolinguistic needs of its people. Feltman
and Sherley-Appel note that "Language policies are often designed to
accomplish tangible goals in the political and educational spheres; to
encourage assimilation or discourage immigration; to integrate
citizens of disparate backgrounds, or to restrict definitions of
citizenship and confer advantage on citizens meeting certain
demographic requirements."[11] The authors go on to illustrate ways in
which such legislation is often counterproductive to those very ends.
It is an excellent illustration of the "random and piecemeal" nature
of language policy in the United States "composed of multiple trends
with contradictory aims."[12] It becomes rapidly evident that national
language policies are rarely based on linguistic or economic factors,
but rather political ones.

The Hayekian question is, why do nation-states opt for fewer languages
rather than more? Here we can say that the focus on a single language
is the state's attempt to bring together the information and resources
needed to run an economy. The task is made much easier when the state
has only one or two factors it must consider. States do not cope well
with diversity or decentralization. Here I take a page from Navajo

    The Americans, accustomed to thinking of all Indian tribes as
savage bands ruled over by a hereditary chief — a political
organization not unlike that of most contemporary European states in a
more simple form — would fail to recognize the fact that a treaty with
a Navajo "chief," to be effective, had to be agreed upon by the entire
nation much as the same treaty had to be ratified by the United States
Senate. This lack of understanding of the Navajo tribal structure
would eventually lead the Americans to think of the Dineh [Navajo] as
the most treacherous, treaty-breaking tribe with whom the
westward-expanding Americans had yet come into contact. As a result
the Navajos, who looked upon the Americans as allies at first, soon
found themselves faced with the most formidable foe they had ever
encountered and one who would, within less than two decades [from
1840], conquer and all but destroy them.[13]

The Navajo were not one centralized tribe, but a collection of
ethnically and culturally similar bands. States, however, must have a
centralized point of authority to interact with, or else they cannot
coordinate (thus the success of the persistent anarchist nature of
Pennsylvania in warding off statist power grabs in the 1680s and
'90s).[14] As such, states are highly incentivized to promote
homogeneity when it comes to culture, and standardization when it
comes to language.

Furthermore, the state is not highly incentivized to recognize
minority languages. Running a multilingual government is a logistical
nightmare (just ask India), and multilingualism is a direct affront to
the ideas of national identity and standard education. Misconceived
patriotism has given rise to many attempts at English-only legislation
over the years, and the professed intent of the education system has
always been assimilatory rather than appreciative.[15] This is, of
course, the type of policy most harmful to minority languages. The
exaltation of English in schools does not, as has been professed, open
the gateway to well-paying jobs, but rather actively contributes to
the impoverishment of those who don't speak it. As shown in Growing Up
Bilingual, interrupting the learning and socialization process of
one's first language and replacing it with another (at the time when
an immigrant or Native American child enters school) results in a
child who is neither fully socialized nor competent in either
language. If instead the child is allowed to focus on their primary
language for a while longer, many researchers believe that they will
be far more successful in the long run. Thus even when the state
actively tries to promote multiple languages, it is done in a way that
hinders their continued use.

Having answered both the Misesian and Hayekian questions, it's easy to
see how the socialist-calculation problem ties into language. Adopting
a national language is essentially the nationalization of the language
industry. Like any good in the market, the state is unable to offer
the same coordinating harmony that would otherwise be present in the
free market, thus resulting in an overall distortion of the market and
a greater scarcity of that good.

Linguists on the whole have been slow to catch on to the broader
incentives created and adhered to by central governments, and how
these have contributed to the decline in language diversity. They use
capitalism and vague notions of "Western society" as ready targets
while underscoring environmental connections to language. As one
author states,

    Policies narrowly focused on economic development defined in
Western terms have narrowed people's options and are then used to
justify more economic development, usually in the form of mining
natural resources such as gas and oil that the rest of Canada urgently
needs, as the solutions to problems that were caused by the imposition
of a Western economy in the first place. … More often than not, a
human and ecological wasteland is left in the wake of Western economic
and resource development schemes.[16]

Passages like this make clear the lack of understanding concerning
market forces, property rights, and the government's role in
obstructing both. Linguist Salikoko Mufwene offers a brilliant
analysis of the problem:
Mises Academy

    Can most of the indigenous languages be maintained without
changing the current socio-economic world order among both the victims
and those who control it? The answer to this latter question is
obviously negative. The embarrassment is that language rights
advocates have given little thought to the revolution that is entailed
by their discourse. They have provided no answer to the implicit
question of what alternative socio-economic world order must be
recommended to the victims to meet their new material and spiritual
aspirations, which depend in part on languages of the workforce.[17]

In other words, language activists correctly identify the symptoms but
not the causes. Yet the causes are simple to understand. There are
natural, market forces that lead to language shift, and there are
coercive, state-driven ones. Austrolibertarians already know what that
alternative socioeconomic world looks like. Were it not for the
state's incessant need to homogenize and its inability to cope with
diversity, the languages of the world would not be in the dire
situation they are today.


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