Here is my article published in the January-February issue of Usona Esperantisto:
In a free market, the activity of millions of independent producers and consumers gives rise to a kind of spontaneous order. There is an influential school of free market fundamentalism that believes this order has been and always will be preferable to any kind of economic planning. They think that the consequences of economic planning are always less optimal and less just than what would have arisen from freely interacting agents. To see this, they tell us to look no further than the failures of the planned language Esperanto. According to the economist Thomas Sowell (2011):
“No elites sat down and planned the languages of the world or of any given society. These languages evolved from the systemic interactions of millions of human beings over the generations, in the most varied societies around the world. Linguistic scholars study and codify the rules of language—but after the fact. Young children learn words and usage, intuiting the rules of that usage before they are taught these things explicitly in schools. While it was possible for elites to create languages such as Esperanto, these artificial languages have never caught on in a way that would displace historically evolved languages” (p. 103)
Sowell was neither alone nor first in pointing to the supposed failure of Esperanto as evidence of the folly of planning.
For such a well-intentioned project, Esperanto has drawn its share of detractors. Criticisms have ranged from minor quibbles over grammar to state persecution. Among academic linguists, attitudes run from enthusiastic embrace (Tonkin & Fettes, 1996) to derisive dismissal (Laird, 1953), but there can be no doubt that Esperanto is the most successful artificial language, with perhaps two million speakers and a vibrant international community. There are even people who speak Esperanto as their native language.
But for some economists, Esperanto is assigned a special, symbolic, role. For them it is the paradigmatic example of the failure of planning. The argument goes something like this:
Natural human languages were not designed by a planner or a central authority; rather they arose over time, representing the same kind of spontaneous order we see in the market. Esperanto was an attempt to create a rationally planned language, and the fact that it never replaced a natural language suggests the superiority of the market’s spontaneous order to economic planning.
Here is a typical example from an essay in praise of Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek:
“The rules themselves, because of their evolutionary pedigree, allow the emergence of a far richer and more complex level of cooperation than rules invented by clever people. Just as the attempts to ‘invent’ a universal language, such as Esperanto, always seem a pale and inadequate imitation of the complexities and resources of a language refined and enriched by millennia of human experience, so, too, invented moral codes and planned economies reduce the complexity of human relations to what the designing mind can comprehend. No one knows all the circumstances that give rise to the rules that govern the economy, no more than anyone knows what all those rules, spoken and unspoken, might be” (Crowley, 2012, p. 16).
When John Maynard Keynes dismissed the gold standard as a “barbarous relic,” Ludwig Von Misses (1998), also a prominent figure in Austrian economics, invoked Esperanto:
“If one takes pleasure in calling the gold standard a ‘barbarous relic,’ one cannot object to the application of the same term to every historically determined institution. Then the fact that the British speak English—and not Danish, German, or French—is a barbarous relic too, and every Briton who opposes the substitution of Esperanto for English is no less dogmatic and orthodox than those who do not wax rapturous about the plans for a managed currency” (p. 468).
Another example: Cantor and Cox (2009) tell us that “languages, for example, are profoundly ordered, but not because anyone planned them out in advance” (p. xi) later they add:
“Efforts to design a more logical language from the ground up, such as Esperanto, have even less success when their inventors try to get people actually to use the artificial language in their daily lives. Academicians want language to achieve a static perfection, but fortunately real languages continue to evolve and develop new possibilities” (p. xii).
Sociologist Alan Aldridge (2005) rephrases the argument this way:
“how could one person, or committee, possibly devise a language as rich in meaning as those which have evolved over centuries? Planned languages are like the products of planned economies: inferior. Only an enthusiast could fail to see this, or be surprised at the ridicule Esperanto attracts” (p. 41–42).
Few of these writers seem to have taken much trouble to learn anything about Esperanto, either the language itself or the goals of its supporters. Indeed, a few have gone seriously off the mark. In a polemic against economic planning, Deepak Lal (1994) writes:
“the current international domination of English in scientific, commercial, and even official discourse is indubitable. Yet this has emerged spontaneously out of the competition of different languages, an eloquent contrast being provided by the failure of the arch Fabian socialist planner George Bernard Shaw’s rationalist plan to create and propagate the perfect international language—Esperanto” (p. 202).
Just to be clear, Shaw neither invented nor supported Esperanto (Rowe, 1960), nor have Esperantists ever claimed that their language is perfect, whatever that might mean.
To the overall point, replacement of natural languages has never been a goal for the Esperanto movement. In fact, many Esperantists are active in preserving endangered languages throughout the world.
Zamenhof created Esperanto to be an auxiliary language—an easy to learn second language to facilitate communication between people. It was never intended to replace any existing language. Thus, the free marketers criticize Esperanto for failing to meet a goal that it never had. In terms of its stated goal, there exists today a small but thriving community of Esperanto speakers who regularly communicate across traditional linguistic barriers. It is worth noting that while these critics always assume that Esperanto has been a failure, they never cite any statistical evidence to support their claim. By some estimates, there may be between two and three million Esperanto speakers in the world today (Wandel, 2015), more than the population of many small countries.
But there is a deeper reason for the hostility these thinkers display towards Esperanto. It is not simply that they misunderstand the Esperanto project. Rather it is rooted in their abhorrence of planning. They have seized upon a simple syllogism: Esperanto is a planned language, Esperanto has failed, therefore, all planning is doomed to failure. It is startling that serious thinkers could blithely endorse such a fallacious argument. This point is worth examining because it suggests that not only have they misjudged Esperanto, but they may have also failed to grasp a central truth about the strengths and limitations of markets.
Hayek and Von Mises make much of the power of spontaneous order, sometimes making an analogy to evolution by natural selection.
While there are ways in which the workings of the market resemble natural selection, the comparison is overly simplistic. This is because the market economy did not arise directly out of nature, rather it is a cultural artifact whose existence depends upon a particular legal framework. The market has not always existed, and there is no reason a priori to regard it as optimal, or more importantly, to regard its consequences as ethical.
In order for the market system to exist, there must be certain background conditions, such as some kind of property rights, a state to enforce contracts, and some form of money. Within this framework the market may give rise to a kind of order. For example, prices may send signals to producers to either increase or decrease production without any coordination from some central authority. But this tells us nothing about the optimality or fairness of the system. The background conditions themselves are the product of a kind of government planning and could be altered by state action.
Consider for example the proposal of the under-appreciated American economist Henry George (1966). While George was not hostile to market mechanisms, he felt that private property in land and natural resources led markets to create poverty. He proposed that the wealth created by the ownership of land rightfully belonged to entire community and should be taxed in order to provide generous social benefits. He also believed that natural monopolies such as (in his day) the telegraph system should be publicly owned. George’s system would not abolish markets but would create a radically different context for their operation. As would the various proposals for market socialism (Bardham & Roemer, 1993). These systems all make room for the market, but also attempt to nudge it towards greater social fairness.
Similarly, when Zamenhof created Esperanto he did not present it to the world as finished product, but created a set of background rules and then gave the language to its users. Zamenhof created Esperanto with 16 rules of grammar, a system of orthography, and a basic vocabulary. These elements have remained intact, but the language itself has evolved and changed by its speakers. There is an Esperanto Academy that makes suggestions about usage, but their proposals only have force if they are accepted by the community of speakers. Esperanto does in fact exhibit the same kind of spontaneous order seen in natural languages; the only difference is that the fundamentals of the language were planned to make it easy to learn.
At one time, nations, and even diverse communities within nations, used different systems of weights and measures. Today the world, with only few notable holdouts, uses the metric system. Metric measures were planned by experts and designed to be easy to use and would seem to count against the anti-planning argument. Esperantists might take solace from the fact that centuries separate the first proposals for a metric system and its near universal adoption. By this standard, Esperanto’s prospects may well lay in the future.
- Aldridge, A. (2005). The market. Malden, MA: Polity.
- Bardhan, P. K., & Roemer, J. E. (1993). Market socialism: The current debate. New York: Oxford University Press, USA.
- Cantor, P., & Cox, S. (2009). Literature and the Economics of Liberty: Spontaneous Order in Culture. Auburn, Alabama: Ludwig von Mises Institute.
- Crowley, B. L., (2012). The man who changed everyone’s life: The ubiquitous ideas of F. A. Hayek. Ottawa, Ontario: Macdonald-Laurier Institute.
- George, H. (1966). Social problems. New York: Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.
- Laird, C. (1053) The miracle of language. Greenwich, CT: Fawcett.
- Lal, D. (1994). Against dirigisme: The case for unshackling economic markets. San Francisco: International Center for Economic Growth.
- Von Misses, L. (1998). Human action: A treatise on economics. Auburn, AL: Ludwick von Misses Institute.
- Rowe, V. (1960). G.B. Shaw and Esperanto. The British Esperantist.
- Sowell, T. (2011). Intellectuals and society. New York: Basic Books.
- Tonkin, H., & Fettes, M. (1996). Esperanto Studies: An Overview. El Cerrito CA: Esperanto Document 43A.
- Wandel, A. (2015). How many people speak Esperanto? Esperanto on the Web. Interdisciplinary Description of Complex Systems, 13(2), 318-321.
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