Tale of 2 Dictionaries:Collectivism v. Invisible Hand
Here's an interesting article about the first English dictionary completed in 1755 by a single individual, Samuel Johnson, after 7 years of work, and the first French dictionary, completed in 1694 after 55 years of work by the 40-member French Academy:
For many centuries, the English and the French languages, lacking formally binding rules, evolved spontaneously, inconsistently, and idiosyncratically. With the advent of the Enlightenment, attempts were made to end this state of linguistic anarchy by standardizing grammar and spelling, most notably through the creation of grammar books and dictionaries. This article deals with two of the most notable of the early dictionaries; the French dictionary created by the French Academy and the English dictionary created by Samuel Johnson.
The two dictionaries were completed in different ways and at different speeds: the English dictionary was composed by a single man in seven years; whereas the French dictionary was composed by a body of 40 members in an agonizingly slow 55 years. This fact seems bizarre at first; many people, by dividing the work amongst themselves, surely should have been able to complete roughly the same task that one man was engaged in in less time than it took that one man.
Yes, Samuel Johnson was a genius, but the French Academy also had its share of geniuses; even if we were to make the wild assumption that Samuel Johnson had the mental powers of ten Academicians, Johnson would still have been outnumbered by four to one; so surely genius alone cannot explain the vast anomaly. I suggest that much of the contrast can be explained by the ineluctable differences inherent in a collective, government-sponsored effort and in one that is individual and profit-making.
MP: Never underestimate the power of self-interested profit-seeking activity. The invisible hand of self-interest is our most valuable resource. As Steven E. Landsburg remind us "It is something of a miracle that individual selfish decisions lead to collectively efficient outcomes."
Update: Originally posted in September 2006.