What the Romans can teach us about the value of Welsh
The Roman Empire was pre-eminent in terms of trade, agriculture and international networks of information and trust.
Not until industrial times did the earth see a city as large as Rome, and as needing such huge quantities of food – and wine. How was it that the Roman empire was able to sustain a population of 1 million people in a city – a population that required nearly 250,000 tonnes of grain annually? And how could it sustain itself at that population for half a millennium?
In principle, transactional costs at each step of the way, say from the food-producing regions of the Nile, through to the trading houses at Alexandria, and on to Rome, should have crippled this market, and Rome should never have become a pre-industrial metropolis.
And yet, in the face of informational uncertainty, and these transactional costs, the city survived – and indeed thrived – for hundreds of years. Not until the London of the 19th Century did a city become bigger.
It was estimated that the additional cost premium of moving grain from Spain to Rome, rather than from obtaining it close to Rome itself, was just 16%, which was a pretty remarkable achievement for the time.
Part of the reason for this success was the ability of the Roman state to eliminate transaction costs at certain parts of the supply chain, through (effectively) a salary, or the promise of gifts due to services rendered.
The benefit of transactional cost efficiency, however, comes at the price of moral hazard – in other words, a misalignment between the interests of the people who want the profits, and those who generate the profits.
For example, people making bread in Rome had to pay for future deliveries of grain at an acceptable price, and they had to do that at risk – for what was to stop the farmer at the far end of the supply chain from reneging on their part of the agreement? One must have considerable confidence in the likelihood of generating a return on capital before it is going to be put to work in a far-off land.
The Romans solved this problem partly because they had an efficient and functioning legal system which could be used to verify the contracts. However a strong legal system – on its own – is insufficient for constraining agency costs. This formal legal system was underpinned by an informal ‘moral contract’ of behaviour which was embedded in the relationships between slave owners and freed men who mutually gained from the reputation of the other.
Trust and reputation therefore acted as a way of constraining systemic agency costs in Roman times, just as it still does today – although it is transferred and imbued in very different ways.
Which brings me to the Welsh language.
The Welsh-speaking community is relatively small within the UK context, and extremely so within the international context. This means that the ‘six degrees of separation’ concept – the idea that any two people on the planet are, on average, six or fewer social connections from one another, shrinks to maybe two or three degrees of separation within the context of Welsh-speakers.
This creates a relatively higher level of social risk associated with acting in bad faith, or fraudulently, within the context of the Welsh language, than in the English language.
In the same way as a trader within a small village lives – or not – by the quality of their service and their reputation – traders who embrace the Welsh language are making a commitment to the quality of their product or service within the ‘village’ of the Welsh language.
This reputational alignment brings benefits to organisations both small and large. Small companies benefit from provision of Welsh language services by demonstrating their understanding of, and commitment to, language issues, which could arguably be seen as a proxy for their commitment to Wales as a national entity. Large organisations who offer services in Welsh – whether based in Wales or not – benefit from the perception that they have invested sufficiently within the language to understand the value of it to the people of Wales, and further that they value it sufficiently to employ people to be able to deliver their services through the medium of Welsh.
In other words, using Welsh in the world of commerce reduces the risk to the purchaser that the supplier will provide sub-par products or services.
There’s another benefit – to the ‘resilience and prosperity’ parts of Wales – related to organisations domiciled in Wales, and paying local and national taxes, because companies trading through the medium of Welsh are overwhelmingly likely to be domiciled within Wales, and furthermore to be of an insufficient scale to avoid paying their taxes here.
So by using Welsh as a preferred language of commerce – for those of us privileged to be able to do so – we are both reducing our risk as users of products or services, and increasing the likelihood that the profits retained from our purchase of said services will be taxed within Wales. For those of us who aren’t able or confident enough to use our Welsh, we can still benefit from the increased levels of trust in those companies that are providing their services through the medium of Welsh.
Do I personally buy all my products or services from companies with a Welsh-language service? No, and partly because that information isn’t readily available. Whilst the likes of Ffônlyfr from Menter Caerdydd are helpful local tools, what Wales needs is a location-based map, response for mobile devices, where you can search for your nearest cafe, pub, hairdresser or professional service that can deliver that service through Cymraeg. This is my challenge to Wales’ vibrant developer community!
And I think that there’s a sound business model for such a product. For example, my own company, Afallen, would happily pay a monthly subscription for inclusion in such a directory.
I believe that the growing confidence and numbers of Welsh speakers will have a small but positive impact on our society and economy, and particularly for those organisations who can offer all their services through the medium of Welsh.
Now – where’s that app for Welsh language businesses… I fancy a take-out coffee.