Mises Daily

Language and the Socialist-Calculation Problem

Tower of Babel by Gustave Dore

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 resource.[8]

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 society.[10]

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 more.

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 history:

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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[1] Roosevelt, Theodore, Works (Memorial ed., 1926), vol. XXIV, p. 554 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons).

[2] The preceding statistics are hotly contested. Linguists have leveled heavy criticism at the Ethnologue in particular for being either out of date or imprecise concerning distinctions between language and dialect. However, few linguists deny that we are experiencing a loss in linguistic diversity. The praxeological reasons why languages are disappearing obviate the need for any particular set of statistics, as we will see.

[3] Mufwene offers a fuller critique along these same lines. His paper carefully disentangles the many arguments in favor of linguistic diversity, and is well worth a read.Download PDF

[4] Lee, R. B. and I. DeVore (eds). 1968. Man the Hunter. Chicago: Aldine.

[5] The situation is actually more complicated than this. Some linguists posit that there were as few as 3,000 languages at the dawn of the Neolithic. The adoption of farming resulted in a population boom in which the number of languages actually increased due to the drastic increase in the number of communities. However, because the size of speech communities was also growing during the Agrarian Revolution, the ratio of languages to people would have been decreasing, even as the number of languages increased.

[6] Hinton, Leanne. 2002. Commentary: Internal and External Advocacy. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology. Vol. 12, No. 2, pp. 150–156.

[7] Crystal, David. 2000. Language Death. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 81.

[8] In fact, many people draw parallels between language and intellectual property for this reason. It should come as no surprise that several Native American groups have actively tried to copyright their language so as to prevent outsiders from learning it.

[9] Evans, Nicholas. Dying Words: Endangered Languages and What They Have To Tell Us. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, p. 8.

[10] House, Deborah. 2002. Language Shift Among the Navajos: Identity Politics and Cultural Continuity. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press.

[11] Feltman, Rachel and Clara Sherley-Appel. “Lawmakers and Language Policy for Immigrants.” Language of Law: Pulling Together Different Strands. Seconda Università degli Studi di Napoli. Santa Maria Capua Vetere, Italy. 18 June.

[12] Hinton, Leanne. 2004. The Death and Rebirth of Native American Languages. Endangered Languages and Linguistic Rights: On the Margins of Nations. Proceedings of the Eighth FEL Conference. Barcelona: Foundation for Endangered Languages, p. 20.

[13] Locke, Raymond Friday. The Book of the Navajo. Los Angeles: Mankind Publishing, p. 200.

[14] Rothbard, Murray N. “’The Holy Experiment’: The Founding of Pennsylvania, 1681–1990,” Ch. 55 in Conceived in Liberty, Vol. I: A New Land, A New People: The American Colonies in The Seventeenth Century. Auburn, Alabama: Mises Institute.

[15] Marlow, Patrick E. “Bilingual Education, Legislative Intent, and Language Maintenance in Alaska.” Endangered Languages and Linguistics Rights: On the Margins of Nations. Proceedings of the Eighth FEL Conference. Barcelona: Foundation for Endangered Languages, pp. 25–30.

[16] Romaine, Suzanne. 2008. “Linguistic Diversity, Sustainability, and Future of the Past” in Sustaining Linguistic Diversity: Endangered and Minority Languages and Language Varieties. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, p. 18.

[17] Mufwene, Salikoko S. 2005. “Globalization and the myth of killer languages.” In Perspectives on Endangerment, ed. by Graham Huggan & Stephan Klasen, pp. 19-48. Hildesheim/New Yrok: Georg Olms Verlag. Download PDF

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