Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Language, Money, Inflation

Steve Horwitz on the analogy between language and money, from "Money, Money Prices, and the Socialist Calculation Debate" in Advances in Austrian Economics, Vol. 3:

One fruitful way of understanding the importance of money as a social institution (and its role with respect to economic calculation) is to see that money's role in the market is analogous to language's role in other human interaction. In the same way that language enables us to transcend our individuality and our physical senses by opening up a means of social communication, so does money enable us to communicate our subjective preferences in the market. In addition to being analogous to language, money also extends our range of communication beyond language by enabling us to make our inarticulate (and thus linguistically inaccessible) knowledge socially usable. The power of the analogy between money and language derives from both being spontaneously evolved means of exchange. The medium of exchange function of money is well-known to economists and the items being exchanged are goods and services. For language, it is mental phenomena that are "exchanged" by being constituted in a language that is accessible to other thinkers. (p. 63-4)
Let us reverse this, and consider how what we understand about money could help us to understand language. Money prices are a "stand-in" for value, much in the same way that the referential aspect of language allows for certain sound combinations to act as a "stand-in" for certain objects, actions, relationships, quantities, or qualities. Thus, in the same way that the quantity of money can affect the distribution of goods (through inflationary and deflationary effects), words can affect many of the things they "stand-in" for.

Let me use an example. Although the statement that "All sex is rape" has been falsely attributed to Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon because of summaries of the former's views by her critics (and to the latter, because of her association with the former), the fact of the matter is that this statement, regardless of its origin, is now in the public imagination -- and is probably accepted by many who would abhor the ideas of the critics of Dworkin.

Such an association of all sex with rape has the same effect of printing more money than there is demand for -- the term "rape" becomes devalued, and the act, too, thus becomes devalued. Sex is not similarly affected, because most adults have had sex (and fewer have raped or been raped), and most people do not consider most sex rape, let alone all sex. More casual attitudes toward rape are more likely to emerge than are disapproving attitudes toward sex. If it were a vin diagram, "all sex" would fill a large circle, while "rape" would fill a smaller circle within that larger one, with most of the larger circle being "non-rape sex" (there is likely to be "acceptable" and "non-acceptable" sex within the "all sex" circle, too, with rape being in the "non-acceptable" region). "All sex is rape" expands "rape" into the "non-sex" area, including everyone's "acceptable" area. Rape is thus re-conceived as being more acceptable.

Of course, classical liberals make the distinction between coercive and non-coercive acts, but not everyone does. Libertarians agree that taxation is a coercive act -- that taxation is theft -- but others disagree. Thus, is it possible for a coercive act to become socially acceptable. This is different from the point in regards to acceptable vs. non-acceptable sex acts, which amount to personal preferences (which some people think validates the use of coercive measures to ensure others also acts according to their personal preferences). Nevertheless, the acceptable-unacceptable line changes with social-cultural evolution. The "acceptable" region is more likely to expand than the "unacceptable" region. A similar point along these lines could be made in regards to same-sex marriage -- that expanding same-sex unions into the "acceptable" region doesn't make opposite-sex marriage "unacceptable". Nor does it mean that we have to accept forcible marriages (although non-coercive polygamy is up for grabs). Just because two things are unacceptable, that doesn't mean they are unacceptable in the same way.

Or think about it this way. It is one thing to say, "All humans are animals," but it is another thing to say, "All animals are human." It is possible to argue, from the first, that while we are animals, we have certain features that make us distinctly human. But if we accept the latter, then we cannot argue for distinct differences. That makes a difference in our attitudes toward humans. It is the attitude we get from someone like philosopher Peter Singer, who on the one hand argues for animal rights, and on the other hand argues for human eugenics. The two attitudes, for Singer, stem from the fact that he essentially believes "all animals are human." One does not have to believe that and support animal rights; but if you do believe it, you will come to the conclusions of Peter Singer.

As we can see, words (or groups of words as terms) refer to a shifting reality. Yet the inflationary effects only work in certain ways. Whether or not this would apply to monetary inflation is up to monetary theorists like Steve Horwitz to address.

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