An Economy of Words: Adam Smith and the Political Philosophy of Language

May 2024

with Aaron White
Pre-registration is required, and we ask you to register only if you can be present for ALL sessions. All readings must be acquired in advance. You may use promo code VRG2024 to receive 35% off your purchase at Liberty Fund Books.  Participants who successfully complete ALL sessions will be eligible to receive an Amazon e-gift certificate.

Click here to register.

Linguistic diversity, from the Tower of Babel to the present, has drawn many thinkers to speculate over language and its potential impact on political theory and approach to economic principles. Smith is no exception. Adam Smith's Considerations concerning the First Formation of Languages was first published as an appendix to the third edition (1767) of the Theory of Moral Sentiments and presents Smith’s view that language develops toward increasing abstraction and that this development parallels societal development. 
In this virtual reading group, we explore Smith’s conception of language while holding it up alongside the conceptions of others - mapping views of language from past to present and concluding with the portrayal of language and the future. Are we to conclude that language, like the division of labor, is specific, reflexive, and perhaps then, inevitable?

Session I: Thursday, May 2, 2024, 12:00-1:00 pm EDT, The Origin of Language
Language, both in terms of how we communicate and how ideas are presented is an important factor for consideration. For any idea to gain purchase, it needs to be articulated well or, well enough to be understood by a society to adopt or adapt to. 

Classical liberalism pursues the scope of societal freedom through the rule of law and the broad expression of freedoms from economics to speech. Largely absent from these conversations is the nature of language as it applies to conceptualizing these freedoms. 

  • Can language be separated from nations (or tribes)?
  • One doesn’t necessarily require spoken language for exchange or barter to occur. However, it can facilitate exchange and contribute to its complexity. Smith discusses in his essay, how languages evolve by generally becoming more complex. Is this complexity advantageous? 
  • We are often concerned with the ethics or the ethical question of what is right and/or what is good? Where might language or culture fall into these considerations? 

Considerations concerning the First Formation of Languages, Adam Smith (also found in Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, Liberty Fund Edition, pgs. 201-226)
Genesis 11: 1-9
Rhetoric, Book III, parts 2-10, Aristotle (translated by W. Rhys Roberts)
(Optional) “Chapter 2: Coordination in Society: Tradition, Market, and Planning” National Economic Planning: What is Left?, Don Lavoie (Mercatus Edition, p.25-49)

Session IIThursday, May 9, 2024, 12:00-1:00 pm EDT, The Formation of the State (of language and identity)
“The basic tools of civilization — language, morals, law and money — are all the result of spontaneous growth and not of design.” - F.A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty: The Definitive Edition

Early state formation was often a process of degrees of homogenation, of people, of politics, or language. English was the gradual creation of its constituent peoples - Angles, Saxons, Jutes, with influence from other ethnic and cultural entities present in the realm.

Mises, while not overly concerned with language, is a prime arbiter on language given his experience within a multi-ethnic empire and his own command of numerous languages, among them French, German, Polish, Yiddish, and English.

Language was not always core to the state project. Again, using English as an example, was the language of the people while French was the language of the nobility. As technology and statecraft improved, standardizing communication of law and order, as well as instilling national consciousness fell upon - language and identity. Classical Liberalism has long explored and discussed language as a facet of the State.

  • Is homogenization (or standardization) whether in government or business good
  • Is multi-ethnic democracy destined to lead to conflict? Can the whole of multi-ethnic democracy endure the ongoing struggle of its identitarian parts? 
  • Borrowing directly from Smith, “What [do you think] is the proper object of moral approbation?” 
  • Is that moral approbation a reflection of the culture of the individual or the nation?

Of the Theory of moral sentiments, and the dissertation on the origin of languages, Adam Smith, pages XIX-XL
Omnipotent Government, Chapter IV: Etatism and Nationalism: 1, “The Principle of Nationality” and 2 “The Linguistic Group”, Ludwig Von Mises
(Optional) Language and State: A Theory of the Progress of Civilization, Xing Lu
(Optional) “Essay Concerning an Academic Question”, Writings on Philosophy and Language, Johann Georg Hamann (p.9-20)

Session III:  Thursday, May 16, 2024, 12:00-1:00 pm EDT, Language in the Marketplace
“Governments are enterprises—in commercial language”  - Gustave de Molinari, The Society of Tomorrow

Linguistic relativism is an idea that argues that the very way in which language is spoken can shape how a culture or state comes to understand an idea. The argument for this linguistic relativism is often found in the conception of color where languages like Russian or Turkish have two distinct words for blue compared to say, English, which has one.

While language is often attributed to culture, there is a growing field of study surrounding language as a commodity -- linguistic economics, upon which culture is a part, but the underlying determinant is made up of market forces.

This session is intended to introduce the ideas of spontaneous order to linguistic and cultural creation, the idea of identity as a consumable product or good, and situating language within the broader context of classical liberalism.

  • To what degree is spontaneity impulsive as opposed to say, reflexive? (Sternberg)
  • How does language fit into knowledge? How does language fit into the knowledge problem?

The Power and Pervasiveness of Spontaneous Order, Elaine Sternberg
The Use of Knowledge in Society” American Economic Review, XXXV, No. 4; September, 1945, F.A. Hayek, Sec. IV (p.526).
The Free Constitution of Nationality,” The Society of Tomorrow, Gustave de Molinari Ch.2 Part. II (p.47-57 or PDF pages 95-105)
(Optional) “What is Language Death,” Language Death, David Crystal (p.1-26)
(Optional) “Why it’s a good thing when languages die out: a boorish philistine’s take,”, Kristian Niemietz
(Optional) Languages Cannot Be Assimilated or Colonized, for They Contain Multitudes, Lit Hub, Lauren Elkins

Session IV:  Thursday, May 23, 2024, 12:00-1:00 pm EDT, ‘Basic’ Science Fiction, Linguistic Hegemony, and the Future
In this session, we explore the future potential of language, singular or universal. A common conception of Golden Age utopian science fiction was one of one world government, one language, unsurprisingly often referred to as “human,” “basic,” or “Terran.” But that view itself is not universal. We’ll take a look at conceptions of approaching language in the future and discuss language and the stars.

We’ll also discuss the future of language, utilizing a classical liberal framework in predicting the future of languages - Will the world retain multilingualism or gradually narrow to monolingualism?

  • Reflecting on the readings of this VRG, is monolingualism a net good for humanity?
  • What is gained and or lost from this process?
  • What are your thoughts on the future of language? 
  • How many languages do you speak? 
  • Is it important to you to pass language or linguistic concepts on? 
  • Assuming such a thing as a universal translator existed or, the world spoke something akin to ‘basic,” how might other aspects of identity play a larger role in shaping our interactions with and understanding of, whatever we may encounter in the stars?
  • How might Smith and Hume or any other writers whose work we read describe or work interactions with a space-faring race in their work? Would it be any different from how they characterized interacting with other cultures?

The Author of the Acacia Seeds. And Other Extracts from the Journal of the Association of Therolinguistics, Ursula K. LeGuin
Star Trek: The Next Generation, Season 5, Ep. 2,”Darmok” : Watch Paramount+; or, read the full script
Language and Mental Growth,” Book the Fifth: The Modern State in Control of Life, The Shape of Things to Come, H.G. Wells (p.337-340) Note: On p.4 you can click on the chapter to be taken directly to it.
(Optional) “What will English sound like 1,000 years from now — if it even exists?,” Big Think, Tim Brinkhof (worth it for the Berlitz commercial used in the article)