The front page of Saturday’s National Post confronted one of the idols of Canadian politicsÂ in raising questions about the Official Languages Act, the law that institutes bilingualism.Â Authored by Kathryn Blaze Carlson, the article mostly took a utilitarian approach by weighing the benefits and costs of bilingualism policies. While such a cost-benefit analysis is helpful in comprehending all the implications of mandating bilingualism,Â we classical liberals cannot forget that freedom is the ultimate value that government must defend.
So how does the Official Languages Act stand up to this obligation? It’s glaringly obvious that it poses a problem. People should be free to use any language they wish in their affairs subject only to the constraints entailed by the voluntary linguistic choices of others.
The most blatant violation of this principle in Canada’s bilingualism policy is the requirement that businesses label their products in both French and English, irrespective of the language their customers are likely to prefer. As Herbert Grubel, Professor Emeritus of Economics at Simon Fraser University, points out in the Letters section of today’s National Post, the costs of this — in terms of the trade barriers raised against foreign companies that cannot afford bilingual packaging to serve the relatively small Canadian market — are large. Then, too, there is the fact that a unilingual person seeking to work for the government is forced to learn another language even for roles in which very few, if any, of the citizens being served are likely to want to communicate in that language.
Yet one cannot simply leave it at saying that a government should be neutral about language in the same way, for example, that it ought to beÂ about religion. The state doesn’t have to side with a particular religion. But it does have to communicate. In doing so, it must side with one or moreÂ languages against all the rest. And as Ludwig von Mises implied, opting for just one language is a problematic move in a country with people of multiple national backgrounds. In Liberalism: The Classical Tradition (Ch. 3, Sec. 4), he wrote:
To be a member of a national minority always means that one is a second-class citizen. Discussions of political questions must, of course, be carried on by means of the written and spoken word, in speeches, newspaper articles, and books. However, these means of political enlightenment and debate are not at the disposal of the linguistic minority to the same extent as they are for those whose mother tongue, the language used in everyday speech, is that in which the discussions take place. The political thought of a people, after all, is the reflection of the ideas contained in its political literature. Cast into the form of statute law, the outcome of its political discussions acquires direct significance for the citizen who speaks a foreign tongue, since he must obey the law; yet he has the feeling that he is excluded from effective participation in shaping the will of the legislative authority or at least that he is not allowed to cooperate in shaping it to the same extent as those whose native tongue is that of the ruling majority. And when he appears before a magistrate or any administrative official as a party to a suit or a petition, he stands before men whose political thought is foreign to him because it developed under different ideological influences.
By keeping the state to a strictly limited role in society, Mises argues that this disadvantage of linguistic minorities can be minimized. For then the state ceases to be a political prize offering the wherewithal for victorious national groups to oppress other communities. Yet Mises admits that the problem is not thereby completely eliminated, since even the minimal state is apt to speak a language alien to certain national groups. In Classical Liberalism, at least, Mises doesn’t seem to offer a solution to this dilemma.
Here is an idea: for a particular good or service, have the government adopt the language, or languages,Â that a free market provider of those same goods and services would be compelled to use in meeting people’s demands. Â The result would be, depending on whether it was the issuance of a passport in Lethbridge or the publication of parliamentary debates for the entire country,Â a mixture of unilingualism, bilingualism, and yes, even multilingualism.