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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/13822/language-and-the-socialist-calculation-problem/

Language and the Socialist-Calculation Problem

September 7, 2010 by

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. FULL ARTICLE by Danny Hieber


Seattle September 7, 2010 at 9:18 am

An absolutely fantastic article. It’s also nice to see austrian analysis applied to something other than monetary policy for a change.

Jkillz September 7, 2010 at 9:39 am

As someone who lives in Asia, where the fever of learning English for the purpose of engaging in the globalized economy is at a pitch, I greatly appreciate this article. I have pondered this question — about the state’s involvement in languages — only a little, but have recurrently been troubled by the problem.

Fantastic article.

Russ the Apostate September 7, 2010 at 6:34 pm

I’ve recently heard rumors that Japan is thinking about simplifying the kanji, or going to Romaji (Roman alphabet) altogether, to make the language easier to learn and thus make it easier to attract “guest workers” to prop up the social system. Any truth in this?

Jkillz September 7, 2010 at 7:41 pm

Not sure, honestly, as I live on the mainland. But it wouldn’t surprise me. There’s been a big push for side-by-side Romanized transliteration and the native languages of the major Asian economies (usually Korea, China, and Japan) in all public transportation. How far this extends, especially in public schools, I’m not sure.

Peter September 7, 2010 at 9:18 pm

That would certainly be counterproductive, ISTM. It’s much easier to learn Japanese using kanji, or even kana, than romaji.

Allen Weingarten September 7, 2010 at 10:24 am

Languages within a country are best left to private choice. However, that does not require a government to accommodate many languages. For example, at a traffic alteration, the police should not be obligated to communicate with any of a hundred possible languages. Nor should schools, at public expense, have to accommodate many languages.

Seattle September 7, 2010 at 10:35 am

When a Government makes a decision about the number of languages to accommodate they distort the “language market.” Public schools only teaching in English is but just one example. The solution is to get rid of the state itself.

Allen Weingarten September 7, 2010 at 11:48 am

So is your view that until we get rid of the state our schools should accommodate many languages?

J. Murray September 7, 2010 at 11:50 am

No, we should get rid of the state schools. They’ll then determine which language(s) to use.

Allen Weingarten September 7, 2010 at 5:27 pm

So are you saying that until you get rid of the schools that we leave things as they are, or change them till then?

North September 7, 2010 at 5:57 pm

I think he’s saying that you cannot “know” until you remove the distortion. That’s the whole socialist calculation debate in a nutshell.

You try for an optimal solution under government mandate, but you have no way of knowing what is right. Your guess is as good a theirs.

The profit and loss system lets you “know” what is optimal (or at the very least hits you with a loss every time you get it wrong).

The solution of eliminating the state is his suggestion to add an objective measure. Instead of randomly guessing in the dark (which the state is already doing anyway)

J. Murray September 8, 2010 at 9:25 am

North nailed it perfectly. The state school CANNOT provide the right number of languages because it simply is unable to know what the right amount is. The solution IS to get rid of the state school, not to find ways to fix a system that cannot be mended.

J. Murray September 7, 2010 at 11:07 am

You’ve just assumed the police are a valid function of government. Especially the traffic variety, which aren’t in place for safety but as a method to extract resources from the public for State use.

Allen Weingarten September 7, 2010 at 11:52 am

There has not been such an assumption, but rather the need to address what exists. Are you saying that if a doctor is treating an ailment, he ought instead address how it should not have occurred?

Dave Albin September 7, 2010 at 2:41 pm

Any good doctor should address preventive measures, to keep the ailment from happening again. Or, read about it yourself…..

Allen Weingarten September 7, 2010 at 5:29 pm

Dave, there is no question about the need for prevention, but do you believe that you responded to the question as to whether or not the doctor should treat the ailment as well?

North September 7, 2010 at 6:36 pm

Your doctor example assumes the patient continues the self inflict damage. It’s valid to some extent but think of a heroin addict to really flesh out this argument (not that this invalidates your argument, it just add a concrete perspective).

As far as I know doctors typically advise patients to avoid copious amount of street drugs such as heroin. If a patient continues the general advice is to, at the very least, refrain from sharing needles (the two behaviours have been known to correlate, and positivist doctors find the advice relevant and helpful).

The doctor’s advice is not to continue using street drugs and use up public dollars for treatment, their advice is to stop causing the damage in the first place. To relate this to the school discussion, look at why no one knows the optimal language mix and then eliminate the cause.

You are asking them to assume the cause will never be eliminated, in the case of the school system. In the doctor example I gave, not all doctors will treat a patient who continues to self inflict damage like that to their body. Some will, and they’ll offer advice on clean needle use until the patient is ready to kick the habit. But others will refuse to treat (refer the patient elsewhere) so they are not enabling the patient’s bad health choices.

Some economists refuse to give advice when individuals or groups of individuals refuse to treat the cause of their problems. If a group of people are addicted to bad economic policy (printing money like bandits for example), the advice is to stop the bad behaviour.

“Assuming” the poor behaviour will not end and asking whether or not, for example, tarot cards are superior to econometric modeling is as irrelevant to some economists as asking some doctors if clean needles are superior to dirty needles.

The commenters here have reiterated the core problem, as far as they can evaluate it. If you’re hooked on the cause, perhaps come back to them once you’ve kicked the habit and they’ll have advice you want to hear. Or seek treatment that will let you stick to your addiction until you are ready to quit, but this line of questioning requires different phrasing.

J. Murray September 8, 2010 at 9:27 am

Doctors only provide advice. My doctor can’t fine me and throw me in prison for refusing to take a prescription medication or deciding against a surgery. Police provide orders. Two different beasts entirely.

David C September 7, 2010 at 11:34 am

Most states can’t even respect their “official” language. They keep trying to redefine what things like property, contract, freedom, and rule of law mean. IMHO, their efforts to destroy their “official” languages are as relentless as their effort to destroy the non official ones.

J. Murray September 7, 2010 at 11:40 am

Very true. Whatever it is that lawyers speak clearly isn’t English.

Sione September 7, 2010 at 11:52 am

Lawyers, politicians, spokespeople, media reps, bureaucrats, etc…. seem to have vested interest in conveying feelings without communicating fact, without addressing ideas.

Sean September 7, 2010 at 8:07 pm

Great article! It is great to see praxeology applied to good other than those typically treated in economics (as someone else has already commented).

Ohhh Henry September 8, 2010 at 12:13 am

… Governments necessarily adopt nonoptimal language policies. They are incentivized to violate the rights of minority language speakers and support fewer languages rather than more … 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 …

While many governments have throughout history run roughshod over minority languages, right now the trend in western social welfare states is the opposite. Linguistic minorities are sought out using the census data and entire fiefdoms of political pork and patronage are created using these minorities as the anchor. It’s a new twist on the aboriginal reservation system – invented in Canada and perfected in South Africa. This is a good, old, tried and trusted strategy to maximize parasitical revenue at the expense of the host population. Your grandfather knew it as Divide et impera.

Here is an example. First they made speaking French a requirement for getting a Canadian federal government job, then for many provincial government jobs outside of Quebec, then for municipal jobs. Then they started erecting ornamental gates at the entrance to Chinatown. Now I see that a street with mostly plain old houses, auto garages and a couple of restaurants has a huge “Welcome to Little Italy” sign erected by the municipality (with matching funds provided by the province and feds). Probably the Sikhs, Tamils, Koreans and Portugese are filling out the forms to get their gates too (and a huge check for their political patronage headquarters – errr, community center).

There was an absolute sh*tstorm recently over whether the Canadian federal government should fine, imprison and (ultimately) shoot anyone who declined to fill in a census form. Why? Because it is difficult to find reasons to expand the Welfare Empire, unless one can find and elevate aggrieved minorities with sufficient precision (sufficient to determine which political jurisdictions will get to control the pork and patronage). You might think that the sh*tstorm represents some kind of misstep by government, but the opposite is true. The more controversial the government intervention, the more polarizing, and the more anger and strife which can be exploited by politicians to get votes and power. That’s the real reason behind the multilingual problems in India mentioned above. They kill some (languages and people) and elevate others, because that’s how they get paid.

North September 8, 2010 at 8:05 am

Good insight!

Do you have any references handy for further reading on the reserve structure in Canada? I’m actually doing some research on that part of Canadian history (annexation and treaties), so any additional references are always come in useful.

Of interest to your summary above, Canada actually made a strong push to rid Western Canada of French before giving that land “provincial status”. Shortly after confederation they annexed much if not all of Rupert’s land, an unconstitutional move which surprised me so quickly after creating the the thing, and immediately started trying to bump the French speaking population off in favour of British transplants.

Ohhh Henry September 8, 2010 at 9:00 am

I don’t have any of what you would call solid references for the link between Apartheid and the Canadian reservation system. However it is frequently claimed that officials from South Africa visited Canada to study their system in order to help design their own system of homelands. For example. Possibly somewhere in the vast literature on Apartheid there is some scholarship which either proves or debunks this point. I have never formally studied the Canadian reservation system itself, probably because the public school system avoids this subject like the plague. Even the most fanatical statist cannot defend this disastrous mistake, yet the system just keeps going and going. In a way, aboriginal reservations are like a predecessor and a proving ground for the welfare state as a whole. What they do to Indians in one decade (imposing “free” health care and schools, endless welfare checks, suppressing private property rights, etc.) is what they will do to the entire population in the next decade.

It’s true that Canada has in the past suppressed linguistic minorities. In my own parents’ lifetimes the Ontario provincial school system tried to suppress the teaching in French to the thousands of unilingual French students then living in eastern Ontario. Perhaps the official treatment of languages tends to have two phases – (1) during the expansionary, empire-building phase such as the annexation of Rupert’s Land or the building up of a small provincial ministry into a vast bureaucracy, the tendency is to suppress languages in the name of imposing fear and obedience; (2) once absolute control is achieved, minority “rights” are suddenly rediscovered and the minorities are thereafter indulged for the purposes of expanding the bureaucracy. Phase (2) is actually a kind of invasion of the majority population’s pocketbooks, because of course by “protecting minority rights” what the government really means is stealing money from the majority, subtracting a huge cut for the government and then using what’s left to create a noisy, grasping lobby group which will fight like wildcats to keep the racket going.

North September 8, 2010 at 9:42 am

Thanks for the link!

And your thoughts are the two phases have merits, and are certainly worth considering as I study historic examples further. I haven’t looked into stages like this in much detail but Hoppe mentions something relatively consistent to what you mention in his Theory of Socialism and Capitalism. He talks about Democratic Socialism’s redistribution technique of offering “equality of opportunity”. This fits in line with the second stage you mention where the formerly oppressed suddenly become a special interest group.

What I don’t yet understand is whether the Canadian example is a progression from feudalism to democratic socialism or if it better illustrates a simple evolution of democratic socialism (or if it illustrates both).

Certainly gives me much to think about. Thanks!

Ohhh Henry September 8, 2010 at 12:26 am

BTW, like everything governments do, any attempt to preserve minority languages actually backfires and helps to kill it. French speaking students in Canada are taught what is now a very archaic, stilted form of French. This form of French is frozen because the teachers and government nannies are terrified of “Anglicisms”, meaning not just English loan-words, but any kind of phrase or grammatical construction which smells like an Anglo-Saxon invader. When you freeze a language you strangle it, and that is exactly what is happening. Every day I hear French speaking kids on the street who after struggling with obscure French grammar and vocabulary all day at school (even the public school teachers struggle to remember their French rules), immediately lapse into a happy creole of jumbled up English and French. The bureaucrats can feel their power and their big, fat paychecks slipping away every time they hear a kid say, “Je ne care pas.” It’s why they’re going over the census with a microscope looking for more victims, I mean, beneficiaries of official government recognition and “protection”. The host dies, the parasite moves on.

Nicolás P. September 8, 2010 at 12:50 am

It is really creepy that while I’m doing a summary of Benedict Anderson’s “Imagined Communities” chapters 2-4, this article appears on the front page of Mises.org

It is a great read. Actually, I’m surprised that you didn’t include it in your bibliography. You should definitely check it out.

bobobberson September 8, 2010 at 3:03 pm


anyone read that article? About the failure of planning?

Gary September 8, 2010 at 4:44 pm

Man, can I just NOTgo along with this one!

Language is not a good, nor or a service. It is not traded, exchaged nor produced. Applying any kind of demand/supply, or economic principle to it is just way too much of a stretch – IMHO.

“Non-optimal” “language policies” are… what, exactly? I didn’t know the USA HAD a “language policy” other than “We have to prioritize Spanish”, maybe.

How about languages will be born and die based on their utility or popularity? Without intervention by any government?

in South Africa, it’s ironic that the ANC government took steps to “preserve” the Afrikaans tongue, formerly maligned as the “language of the oppressor”. Why did they bother? Why waste taxpayer wealth on a questionable quest? If it survives, it survives. How much will really be “lost”, other than what our romantic notions suggest?

A true Austrian approach would be to let the free market reign. Let people choose to use a language, ….or not.

Governmen’s only obligation is to communicate it’s laws clearly, in the language of its tradition – a single language makes perfect sense and is efficient. In SA, in a mindnumbingly assinine move to “appease” or “include” as many (minority) groups as possible – and likely in the perceived socialist tradition of “uBuntu” – all laws published are done so in 14 languages – a wastefull example if ever there was one!

“…nationalization of the language industry”? Phew… there’s a LANGUAGE industry?? Come on: there just isn’t. This just sounds like another basis to malign “American” – using sound philosophy twisted to suit your purpose, whatever that is.

Excellent article?? I don’t see it. The more we differentiate – especially by language, the more the “American Melting Pot” fails. I don’t get it at all, apparently, …but I’ll sell you my foreign accent for an American Eagle if you’re interested!

Inquisitor September 9, 2010 at 12:24 am

Try re-reading the article…

GregB September 9, 2010 at 8:18 am

I read the article. I agree with Gary.

I re-read the article. I still agree with Gary.

Inquisitor September 9, 2010 at 11:12 am

…yet nothing he mentioned is implied in it…

MVSW February 2, 2011 at 9:17 pm

The science of economics is not restricted to goods or services, I thought Ludwig von Mises made that clear in his book. Economics is the science of human action, particularly human action in a world of scarcity. Language is produced by human beings, i.e. human action and therefore can be explained using sound economics. If you don’t buy this, try reading Deirdre McCloskey’s books Bourgeois Virtue and Dignity. You have a restricted and incorrect view of the scope of economics. This article was, in my opinion, a great.

The use of “language industry” is a fine metaphor. Just as there is a religion industry, musical industry, etc. Whatever humans create can be described as an industry, but with language there isn’t a business or government that creates it (france being the exception). Instead we all create language.

Your arguments for a single language is totalitarian. Efficiency? Is that how you measure what is moral and immoral? A collectivist would be in complete agreement with your perspective. Sure if a country has a “traditional language” then it will probably use it–makes sense. But if it aquires new lands with different language speakers, then what? The US took over much land with non-english speaking peoples, sometimes violently, should we also force them to speak our language?

The author isn’t anti-american. Quite the opposite he probably believes in the principles of the early republic, where it wasn’t unusual for generations of ethnic groups to stick together–though learning english for practical purposes. And your “melting pot” hopes, i.e. assimiliation, are largely created by nationalist papist-hating progressives. The idea that a multitude of languages could exist in a single country is anathema to their nationalist dreams. Before public education and policies that coerced assimilation, private catholic schools educated in german (and english), there were towns where everyone spoke a particular dialect of italian as their first language for multiple generations (even 4th and 5th generations), etc. Much of the “melting” was socially engineered by nationalists who couldn’t stand the notion that there were americans who identified as ethnically italian, german, etc. I don’t care if the “american melting pot fails,” it would probably just mean that an American would be anyone who believed in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and self-government–not by some progressive imposed American nationalism (if being American means being a nationalist, I am not an American–even if I consider myself a patriot). Being ethnically Latvian, only speaking Latvian, and disassociating myself from non-Latvians, but an also being an American wouldn’t be a contradiction. Do you consider the Amish Americans? Their first language is a German dialect, english is simply known for practicality.
In my self-governing home, english would be my children’s second language, the culture would be that of my ethnicity, and the American state would never be a false idol. But I would have no problem calling them Americans, because they would know better than most “Americans” the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and heroes (like Kosciuszko) of our Revolution.

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