Two Cheers for Chomskyism
Julian's Lounge, ca. 2000
Libertarians aren't supposed to like Noam Chomsky. For many classical liberals, mere mention of his name is enough to provoke a visceral rage, matched in intensity only by the fawning adulation he receives from so many of my crunchy comrades at NYU. But for years, his books have been a guilty pleasure of mine. So how could a nice free-market boy like me find himself curled up in bed (figuratively speaking) with the radical left's most notorious demagogue?
Let me answer by way of anecdote. I recently attended a 15th anniversary gala for FAIR, the ultra-left media watchdog group, at which Chomsky was the keynote speaker. He was introduced by the spectacle of Phil Donahue, visibly humbled after his ouster from stardom by the likes of Oprah and Springer, and clearly yearning, despite his professions of radicalism, to return to the womb of the Democratic Party. Old Phil was flung from the political mainstream, he explained, by his conversations with Chomsky, which began with a single sentence, still vivid in Donahue's mind: "Never trust . . ." Big corporations? Exploitative capitalists? Nope: "Never trust the state!"
This was an "applause line," but the crowd's response was palpably lukewarm: their animus was towards capitalism, and only secondarily towards the (current, ostensibly capitalist) state. Unlike his acolytes, who play at revolution by flying to WTO protests on daddy's credit card, Chomsky is the genuine article: an anarchist. (Well, a tenured anarchist, but close enough.) And believe it or not, that puts him a hell of a lot closer to libertarians than he or his groupies dare admit.
Don't buy it? Pop quiz: what magazine has Chomsky described as "for years the only journal I could publish in as long as it existed," with which he had "lots of beliefs and interests in common"? Some left wing rag, surely? Actually, it was Inquiry, published by the notoriously pinko Cato Institute, and edited by such dyed-in-the-wool communists as Ralph Raico, Doug Bandow, Williamson Evers, and Sheldon Richman . What about Chomsky's lecture Free Market Fantasies? That must be a thoroughly anti-libertarian polemic, right? Well, it's not exactly The Virtue of Selfishness, but oddly enough, his main argument is that many market advocates aren't consistent enough. The same business leaders who trumpet the benefits of laissez faire when seeking deregulation, Chomsky complains, are only too happy to run to mommy-state for bailouts or subsidies at the first sign of trouble. Chomsky seems much less concerned with the faults of capitalism as such, than with the extent to which current markets fall short of the ideal. In another lecture, Capital Rules, Chomsky faults libertarians for failing to see that corporate America is the "substance" of which overreaching government is merely the "shadow." There's a certain degree of truth there, and libertarians might've gained a valuable ally if Chomsky hadn't stopped short of realizing that the remedy isn't the abolition of markets, but rather a government too limited in power and scope to be worth buying on the market.
Turn to Chomsky's specialty, foreign policy. Admittedly, Chomsky is frequently hyperbolic, and focuses one-sidedly on the sins of the U.S., without looking at the context--particularly the context of Soviet aggression--in which many of them were committed. Still, much of his critique is difficult to distinguish from what a principled libertarian might say. With the bluntness of a Murray Rothbard, Chomsky relentlessly points out that terrorism and mass murder do not become any less heinous when practiced by governments, even our own, however many euphemisms our leaders coin for them. Chomsky says his guiding principle is that states should be held to the same standards that apply to individuals. Exactly right.
I don't mean to deny that Chomsky subscribes to (and promulgates) plenty of absurd and tiresome lefty dogma. (It's hard to keep a straight face when he suggests that the U.S. is hostile to Cuba because it fears poor countries will imitate Castro's "good example.") I do want to point out that the Chomskyite set may not be the irredeemable hive of evil they initially appear to be. In fact, many of them have the most essential characteristics of a proto-libertarian: a sense that mainstream politics is royally screwed up, and what Chomsky calls the "instinct for freedom."
Let me close with a final anecdote. A few summers ago, as an intern in Washington D.C., I joined a group of other young libertarians in a "counterprotest" of a Sierra Club demonstration. The crunchies were initially convinced that we were some sort of paid corporate shills. But when I engaged a few of them in calm conversation, they seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say. Nobody had ever suggested to them that market forces, unsullied by political jockeying for control of federally owned land, could protect the environment better than the EPA. Nobody had exposed them to an argument for free trade or "globalization" that wasn't a pathetic strawman. And what about a libertarian argument for third world debt relief? Why demonize corporate creditors when the most pertinent fact is that those debts were mostly incurred by despots, and not the people? These possibilites were, to them, new and fascinating.
Libertarians have spent so much of the last decade cozying up to conservatives that the snide characterization of us as "Republicans who smoke pot" is beginning to feel uncomfortably apt. This strategy has had some degree of success (in getting funding for our think tanks, at least), but has also left plenty of "low-hanging fruit" unplucked among the ranks of the student left. How many of these kids are only a copy of Economics in One Lesson away from realizing that markets, rather than statism in the guise of "democratic social justice", are the last, best hope of the world's poor? Remember, the late and very brilliant Robert Nozick started out a socialist, only to be brought around by a libertarian friend. For all we know, his successor is standing on a protest line now, waiting to be turned. If we don't soon get over our myopic focus on the right as a source of potential allies, we may have another Chomsky to grapple with instead.