The Power of Independent Thinking

Stay Connected
Get the latest updates straight to your inbox.


Show Linguists the Money

The president’s "broad-gauged initiative" to teach Americans through language training to be more culturally aware of exotic countries—in order to spread democracy there—would distort the market for specialty linguists and be a waste of tax dollars.

Federal security agencies might very well need to have more people versed in specialized languages. To recruit these people, however, the government merely needs to raise its salaries for the speakers of particular languages, and the market will produce them.

How the president’s amorphous program, subsidizing language training from kindergarten through college, would translate into a tangible expansion of specialty linguists in the security services is left vague. In the future, if the private sector outbid the government for the newly minted linguists—for example, because of booming commerce between the USA and China or the USA and India—shortages in the government could still result.

The slogan that the program would help American students remain globally competitive probably masks further federal interference in what should be state and local control of education. Americans should want U.S. businesses to remain globally competitive. But when the international marketplace demands that businesses become more fluent in specialized languages, they can get such linguists in many ways—raising their salaries for such jobs, sending employees to Berlitz or other adult courses, hiring natives of the countries concerned, etc.—without the government subsidizing language training in schools.

Also, initiating broad programs to educate Americans about far-flung countries through language training would create inefficient bureaucratic overhead and interest groups that would demand subsidization long after some of these countries and their languages are no longer of vital interest to the United States.

The government should minimize interference in the market for linguists. It should confine itself to hiking salaries for categories of language skills needed, enabling it to reduce them in the future if, for example, Pakistan or North Korea are no longer hot spots.

Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at the Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office.

New from Ivan Eland!
ELEVEN PRESIDENTS: Promises vs. Results in Achieving Limited Government
A candid reassessment of the presidential scorecard over the past 100 years, identifying the hypocrisy of those who promised to limit government while giving due credit when presidents lived up to their rhetoric.