From the “Equality and the New Global Order” Conference

Jon Mandle over at Crooked Timber posts some notes from the Kennedy School’s conference on “Equality and the New Global Order”. (The conference web site has downloadable papers, including those by Allen Buchanan, Dani Rodrik, Kaushik Basu, Branco Milanovic, Mathias Risse, my old teacher Thomas Pogge, Ruth Macklin, Norman Daniels and Angus Deaton.) Philippe van Parijs–one of my favorites, a founder of a project I’ve long supported, but who unfortunatley did not provide a downloadable paper–appears to have unsurprisingly given quite an interesting talk as well.

I. “Linguistic Justice and Global Justice” by Philippe Van Parijs.

Let me [Mandle] say right off that I don’t know much of the literature on this topic, but it seemed that Parijs was taking a rather unorthodox position. He began with a fundamental premise some kind of equal opportunity for welfare holds at a global level. A shared language is a kind of public good, so it raises the issue of distributive justice because of the possibility of free-riders – in this case, those who benefit from the existence of a shared language without paying any of the cost of creating such a lingua franca – namely, the native speakers of that language. Sometimes the benefits of being able to be understood are very large – when you are traveling in a foreign country and say, “I believe I swallowed my spoon,” you very much want to be understood. So, he gave a specific account of how to calculate the amount that the native speakers of the lingua franca must be taxed to subsidize the learning of that language by non-native speakers – there should be an equal cost/benefit ratio, taking into account the number of speakers involved on each side. An actual global tax regime is not likely to be on the table any time soon, so he advocated “reciprocal free riding” – for example, “plundering the intellectual property on the web” (much of which is in English).

He then responded to a number of criticisms, many of which were directed against those who would say that acceptance of English as the lingua franca was itself an insult to the dignity of native non-English speakers, and to subsidize their becoming bilingual would be no consolation. One version of this criticism says that languages are associated with certain perspectives or ideologies. His reply was that English has the word “not” available…. A more serious version of this criticism says that this contributes not only to the arrogance of the native speakers of the lingua franca but to its completely taking over. The only real reply, he suggested, was to have territorially based languages that involve coercive rules that impose education and the public use of the native language in that territory (in addition to learning the lingua franca). This is to extend the Quebec solution worldwide. Finally, he emphasized that the existence of a lingua franca is necessary as a mechanism for collective reasoning and justification – for a global civil society – which is itself necessary to underwrite – both motivationally and normatively – global justice.