The economics of Latin

Last weekend, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced that the teaching of Latin, currently a niche subject, was going to be expanded. Like almost everything these days, Williamson’s announcement immediately led to fierce debates on social media.

Admittedly, the benefits or lack thereof of Latin is not a natural topic for the IEA blog. With differences in degree, most free-market liberals (myself included) believe that schooling should largely be left to the market, with only a residual role for the state to play. In a market-based system, arguing about whether schools should teach Latin would make no more sense than arguing about whether JD Wetherspoon pubs should offer Shipyard American IPA. This is a matter for them, and ultimately, their customers, to decide. It is irrelevant what you, or I, or some politician thinks about it.

So this is not a “pro-Latin” or an “anti-Latin” article. But what I have noticed is that every time the subject comes up, defenders of Latin succumb to a series of popular economic fallacies. And these are, of course, very much the bread-and-butter topics of the IEA blog.

The opportunity cost of Latin 

First of all, it is notable that Latin aficionados usually ignore opportunity costs. They merely spell out the benefits of knowing Latin, and then leave it there. Of course, other things equal, knowing Latin is better than not knowing Latin. Other things equal, more knowledge is always better than less knowledge. If we could simply upload Latin to our brains, in the way the characters in the movie The Matrix upload various skills to theirs, we should do it.

But as things stand, learning Latin takes time, and, unless you are exceptionally talented, effort. An hour spent studying Latin is an hour you no longer have available to study other things, such as maths, modern history, or, of course modern languages.

So rather than “Latin is good”, the argument that Latin aficionados should be making is “Latin is better than the most likely alternative”. It is not sufficient to show that Latin has some benefits – of course it has, but so has the activity it displaces. If you want to convince Latin-sceptics, you will have to show that it is worth that loss.

Economies of scope: Latin and modern Romance languages 

Nothing annoys a Latin aficionado as much as the suggestion that Latin is a “dead language”, and therefore “not useful”.

They could, of course, simply retort that to them, the ability to read classic texts in the original is enjoyable in its own right, and that it need not have any practical benefits beyond that. Learning Latin, then, is acquiring a consumption good, not an investment in human capital.

That would be an entirely fair argument. But in my experience, Latin fans are rarely content with this more limited case for Latin. They are, instead, determined to find an alleged practical benefit of Latin.

The most common one is to present Latin as a springboard to modern Romance languages (Education Secretary Williamson also alluded to this). Once you have mastered Latin, any living language derived from it will come much more easily to you. In economic terms, they argue that there are economies of scope in language-learning.

This is a bit like saying that it makes sense to travel from Central London to Slough, because once you have travelled to Slough, it is quite easy to continue from there to Windsor. This is true, but if your aim is to get to Windsor, would it not be easier to just travel to… you know, Windsor? Directly, without the detour via Slough? Likewise, if your aim is to learn French or Spanish, would it not be easier to just learn French or Spanish?

It is, of course, true that there are economies of scope in language skills. How big they are depends on the degree of similarity between the language you already speak, and the language you want to learn (which can be approximately measured – see the “index of lexical distance”). For example, speaking German is extremely helpful if you want to learn Dutch, quite helpful if you want to learn Danish, Swedish or Norwegian, somewhat helpful if you want to learn English, not especially helpful if you want to learn French, and not helpful at all if you want to learn Russian. Unfortunately, the index is not available for Latin, but I’d be extremely surprised if Spanish, French or Portuguese were closer to Latin than to modern Italian.

So the economies of scope are there, but they are not specific to Latin, and probably not even that large in the case of Latin.

Economies of scope: Latin and history, Latin and English 

There are two additional, commonly heard arguments in favour of Latin, which are effectively about economies of scope:

  • “Studying Latin is a great way to learn about history.”

  • “Studying Latin helps you to understand you own language better, because English has also absorbed a huge number of Latin-derived words.”

Again, this is not wrong. But the alternatives also offer economies of scope, and of a similar magnitude.

For example, I did not learn much about French history or French politics in my history classes. But I did learn quite a bit about them in the French classes. It makes sense to teach languages in that way: once you get beyond the basics, you do not use your rudimentary language skills to talk about random subjects, you use them to talk about issues specific to the countries where that language is spoken. I have long forgotten most of my school French, but still remember quite a lot of what I learned about France in that indirect way.

And while Latin may indeed tell you things about the English language you did not previously notice, this is true of modern languages as well. If you study a modern Romance language, you will notice that some words are similar to their English counterpart, while others are not. This gives you a good idea about which English words have a Latin root, rather than a Germanic one.

Selection bias and scalability

Some people clearly do enjoy studying Latin, and benefit from the experience. I suspect that if you polled former Latin students in Britain about whether they would recommend the subject to others, many of them would say yes. Indeed, advocates of Latin often highlight their own positive experience, apparently assuming that if more people studied Latin, more people would be able to replicate that experience.

But does that really follow? Latin, as mentioned, is currently a niche subject. If you went to a school that offered Latin, chances are that your parents thought you were the sort of pupil who would benefit from it, and deliberately picked the school on that basis. This means that there is a high degree of selection bias. If Latin were more common, you would get a very different result.

I went to school in (West) Germany, where Latin was very widely available (almost every Gymnasium offered it), and where it was semi-compulsory (you could choose between Latin and French, but both alternatives were similarly unpopular) to take it. I can guarantee you that if you polled former Latin students there, the majority of them would say that to them, it mostly meant crushing boredom, and that that they had since forgotten all of it anyway. (Although that, to be fair, might also be true if you polled those who chose French).

Yes, some students love Latin, and benefit from it. But it does not follow that their experience can be easily scaled.

Again, this is not an article “against Latin”. I believe in greater choice for parents, in greater autonomy for education providers, and in greater pluralism across the education sector.  Libertas perfundet omnia luce, and all that. But Latin aficionados would help their own case if they tried to think like an economist, every now and then.


Head of Political Economy

Dr Kristian Niemietz is the IEA's Head of Political Economy. Kristian studied Economics at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and the Universidad de Salamanca, graduating in 2007 as Diplom-Volkswirt (≈MSc in Economics). During his studies, he interned at the Central Bank of Bolivia (2004), the National Statistics Office of Paraguay (2005), and at the IEA (2006). He also studied Political Economy at King's College London, graduating in 2013 with a PhD. Kristian previously worked as a Research Fellow at the Berlin-based Institute for Free Enterprise (IUF), and taught Economics at King's College London. He is the author of the books "Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies" (2019), "Universal Healthcare Without The NHS" (2016), "Redefining The Poverty Debate" (2012) and "A New Understanding of Poverty" (2011).

3 thoughts on “The economics of Latin”

  1. Posted 03/08/2021 at 09:12 | Permalink

    As a Classics graduate and IRA Fnuder I grew with you!

  2. Posted 03/08/2021 at 09:13 | Permalink

    That should of course say IEA….

  3. Posted 05/08/2021 at 10:37 | Permalink

    Another important dimension of yet a further government spending initiative is whether, in this case, it is strictly necessary or indeed, is a rather muddled intervention. There is a charity, Classics for All, that has been ploughing this field for some time (and of course benefiting from the normal tax breaks that feed the booming charitable sector). It has helped to establish Latin in over a 1000 state schools (far more than the government hopes to add with its initiative). We are used to the government squeezing-out the private sector from varying dimensions of the economy. The worrying aspect here is whether this will prove to be an example of the government using the proceeds of compulsory taxation to do the same with the voluntary sector (which is still an exercise in consumer preferences, albeit with some distortion from tax breaks).

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