On the first day of my freshman writing class I give the students this assignment: You will be divided into groups and by the end of the semester each group will be expected to have created its own language, complete with a syntax, a lexicon, a text, rules for translating the text and strategies for teaching your language to fellow students. The language you create cannot be English or a slightly coded version of English, but it must be capable of indicating the distinctions — between tense, number, manner, mood, agency and the like — that English enables us to make.Fish’s program has allegedly succeeded in teaching students good writing, because it forces them to think carefully about how language works. And it’s hard to argue with success. Still, I recoil. An analogy: Imagine if I assigned my business students to design an economic system over the course of a semester. What kind of results would I get? I predict that most groups would turn in blueprints for a centrally planned economy, including a list of all (types of) resources, a prioritization of all possible uses of those resources, a bureaucratic procedure for the assignment of people to various jobs, a specification of the basic needs shared by all citizens, and so on.
And what, ultimately, would they learn? They might, if I defined the constraints clearly enough, grasp the idea of trade-offs. If I specified the parameters of current production technologies, they might also discover the notion of diminishing returns. If I put them in competition with other students to maximize their economy’s aggregate production (somehow defined), they might discover the usefulness of division of labor and specialization according to comparative advantage.
Those are, of course, all topics I cover during the first week of class. True, the students might get a stronger intuitive grasp if they had to discover and apply the concepts themselves. But here’s the rub: Any plan for an entire economy designed by a committee of undergrads – or for that matter, professional economists – would deserve a big fat F. Not for lack of effort or talent, but because designing an economy is literally impossible.
For a real economic system to work, it must confront and absorb an uncountable number of facts – about preferences, talents, skills, technologies, and resources. These facts cannot conceivably be written down or even summarized effectively. They are local (possessed by individual minds, not one big one) and often tacit (incapable of being expressed in language). That means two things. First, I could not possibly describe a plausible economic reality for the students to deal with. And second, even if I could, I would seriously mislead them by doing so, because in the real world a planning committee would not and could not possess that information. As usual, Hayek said it best:
The economic problem of society is thus not merely a problem of how to allocate “given” resources – if “given” is taken to mean given to a single mind which deliberately solves the problem set by these “data.” It is rather a problem of how to secure the best use of resources known to any of the members of society, for ends whose relative importance only these individuals know. Or, to put it briefly, it is a problem of the utilization of knowledge which is not given to anyone in its totality.In other words, by giving my student planners all that information, I would blithely skip over the single most important problem any economic system must solve. For a functioning system to develop, its participants must be confronted with the real-world problems of ignorance and incentives. They would need to try new strategies, test new technologies, experiment with different schemes of reward and punishment. Some approaches would fail, others would succeed. Over the long haul, some semblance of order might emerge.
And I contend that a similar process of confrontation with the real world would be required for a language to emerge. The rules of English syntax, the meanings of English words, etc., all evolved to address the everyday needs of human beings trying to communicate. The optimal size of a vocabulary cannot be assessed by a committee; it flows from the expressive needs of speakers. The optimal complexity or simplicity in grammatical rules does not follow from a priori considerations; it arises from the types and variety of ideas people wish to convey to one another.
Fish’s assignment asks students to design what cannot, in principle, be designed competently: a spontaneous order. If the assignment succeeds in teaching that one lesson, it could be worthwhile after all.