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Finding our economic voice: How markets are like language

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“In the field of social phenomena, only economics and linguistics seem to have succeeded in building up a coherent body of theory.” –Friedrich Hayek

In 1887, L. L. Zamenhof proposed a universal language as a means for ushering in a new era of international peace and prosperity. The language, now known as Esperanto, was carefully constructed to be easily absorbed and understood across cultures and countries, but it failed to take hold.

Zamenhof was focused on solving a knowledge problem in linguistics—struggling to improve the ways people relate and share information with each other. Yet his efforts were doomed from the start, set on constructing a system from top to bottom when language is far better suited to develop through organic, emergent human exchange.

The parallels to political economy are obvious and unavoidable. In a new short film from George Mason University’s Institute for Humane Studies, the intersection is explored at length, prompting serious reflection on the implications of spontaneous order—economic, social, moral, and otherwise.

“Language differences….can cause some serious problems,” the narrator observes. “Given our global economy and international politics, it’s worth wondering: Why don’t we just create a universal language?”

When observing the failures of top-down collectivist approaches to social solutions, the answer to the narrator’s question seems rather obvious: they doesn’t work.

Human were made to cooperate—to give and receive. And, as history continues to demonstrate, they do so more effectively, productively, and joyfully when allowed to create and exchange with more freedom and less organization or oversight.

“No one person designs these words,” the narrator explains, pointing back to language. “They emerge from the bottom up by people pursuing their own goals, creating words to communicate simple concepts for their own limited needs. And over time, without anyone intending it, these words come to form an orderly whole—what we call a ‘language.; This process, of creating something big and complex by no one’s design but by everyone’s action, is what economists…call spontaneous order.”

Spontaneous order is truly a wonder to behold, and free market advocates are right to relish in the results. Yet in observing such miracles, we should also be careful to properly attribute the source and interpret the implications.

Given that free markets can lead to remarkable efficiency—all through largely uncoordinated collaboration—many of those same advocates are just as quick to simply shrug at the inputs and outputs, trusting that the workings of the “invisible hand” will work it out lead us to whatever is best for society. We are to “trust the market,” as they say.

Yet to take such a perspective is to pretend that our economic interactions are just mere, momentary transactions—meaningless, isolated incidents that relate only to our own self-interest and self-provision. On the contrary, they are part of the bigger, ongoing story of human collaboration and civilization, bearing spiritual and moral weight and plenty of transformative social power, as well.

As economist Leland B. Yeager explains, markets—again, like language—illuminate the deeper connections between the human person and broader society, meaning we needn’t descend into either narrow individualism or reckless collectivism as we steward our corresponding action:

Language is a prime example of the sense in which the individual is a product of his society. The example is relevant to political economy—the area of overlap among economics, political science, and philosophy—and to questions of a suitable blend of individualism and communitarianism in the shaping of institutions and policies. In these interactions, language and ethics display parallels; and related questions concern, for example, life-styles and role models for youth growing up in poor communities.

All the words and meaning and structure of a language existing at a given time were contributed by individuals, mostly members of earlier generations. Each person grew up “into” an already functioning language. It shaped his thoughts, values, and activities. Words convey moral appraisals—for example, “murder,” “shabby,” “pig-headed,” “tenacious,” “principled.” Without using socially given words and sentence structures, each of us could hardly think or reason at all. Yet, language results from the interplay of individual minds. Each individual and perhaps each generation has been influenced more by language than he or it has influenced language. Yet it, like moral traditions, is the creation of all individuals, past and present.

The lesson from L. L. Zamenhof’s failed language is clear: there’s a predictable futility in trying to plan our way to peace and prosperity from the top to the bottom. But such a realization points to a second lesson, which is just as important: our individual action and associational lives also bear moral weight and purpose.

With economic freedom, a resulting order may indeed come “without intent,” but our own voice—our own “intent” to work for our neighbors and serve God through our economic activity—is still essential to ensuring that order is both good and just, connecting moral tradition and human civilization past, present, and future.

Image: Poster for the second World Esperanto Congress at Geneva, 1906

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Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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