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On Chomsky and Intellectuals of the Far Left

Seth Goldin
The Paltry Press, June 11, 2009

Recently Noam Chomsky was interviewed on Citizen Radio. His position on the war on drugs is strangely wrong, and seriously misguided. LEAP, which is a wonderful organization that I praise, respect, love, and support, has a promotional image on their site of prominent figures from the left and right who "agree" on ending the war on drugs. I don't know about Barbara Ehrenreich or Howard Zinn, but I'm not sure that Chomsky's opinion is really in the same spirit as a libertarian like Milton Friedman or an old conservative like William F. Buckley. Chomsky is not a critic of the war on drugs like these critics are. While it's good to have another prominent critic of the war on drugs, the foundations of Chomsky's objections to the United States' current drug policy are so twisted and bizarre that I wonder if his voice is any help at all for advocacy of this important issue.

In the interview, Chomsky maintains the idiotic view that the government could get rid of drugs if that were the true goal, but this isn't happening because drug policy is actually a cover for a malicious scheme to justify military intervention in Latin America, to stifle leftist movements and make way for evil capitalists to invade and enslave the peasants, by wage slavery of course. There's a certain elegance to the consistency here, but like most things Chomsky says about politics, this all falls apart when examined against the facts. If all this sounds like I'm setting up a straw man, I'm not. The insanity from the far left really is this stupid. The belief in the efficacy of government action, particularly an enormous project like ridding the country of drugs, is a kind of secular mysticism.

Preaching about the ability of government to accomplish such a ridiculously enormous task should set off warning bells to even a minimally competent reader. The U.S. government has demonstrated for decades that it is totally incapable of limiting the supply of drugs in any meaningful way, wasting billions of dollars in enforcement, yet Chomsky thinks, "There isn't any war on drugs. If there was a war on drugs, the government would take measures which it knows could control the use of drugs." This blind faith in government is typical unreason from Chomsky and the far left.

In The End of Faith, Sam Harris excellently dissects the troubling latent religious foundation for the war on drugs. He explains that the morality characteristic of religion, morality that justifies authoritarian interference in personal choices is the true underlying cause of the war on drugs. This is useful insight. The authoritarian institution of the war on drugs is justified in exactly the same way as the authoritarian institution of religion. Many secularists find no objection to drug policy, because they see it as perfectly legitimate to use state violence to interfere with personal choices. I find Harris's account accurate and useful because when advocating for a change in drug policy, it's easy to get caught up in factual presentation of the costs associated with drug policy, costs that are disastrously higher than the stated benefits. Jumping to a cost-benefit analysis of government policy can be persuasive to intellectually honest policy wonks, but such analysis misses a more basic point that it is not legitimate to use state power to try to reduce or eliminate recreational drugs.

Chomsky's nonsense reads like a fringe conspiracy theory. He believes that the federal government is intentionally failing the stated goals of the war on drugs to pursue ulterior motives unrelated to the authoritarian moralistic case for cracking down on drugs. That moralistic drive, by the way, should seem perfectly acceptable to leftists who believe that government should act to enforce a collective will, and that better health could and should be achieved by preventing access to dangerous substances. Chomsky names those ulterior motives concerning drug policy, "Out-of-country operations are just a cover for counter-insurgency, or for clearing land in Columbia and driving out peasants so multi-national corporations can come in for mining, and resource-extraction, and agribusiness, and macra production, and so on." So, what explains the billions of dollars allocated domestically to curb the supply of drugs? Chomsky ignores all these inconvenient facts that directly expose his ideas as nonsense.

Economics and psychology have shown that people respond to incentives, yet leftists ignore individual response to incentives. One destructive incentive regarding drug policy is that part of the funding of police departments is directly linked to the amount of arrests they make for illegal drugs. There's no good reason to think that cops are malicious thugs who enjoy terrorizing citizens to stop them from experiencing pleasure. The rhetoric from Chomsky and other figures on the left is riddled with the fundamental attribution error, as if those in government are really just evil and love to oppress the masses. While I agree with leftists that there has been a lot to hate about George W. Bush in the past eight years, I've found it painful to hear leftists act as if Bush agreed with them on everything and did the opposite, just because he's evil. He's not evil. He's wrong. The visceral hatred of Bush in the past decade has been too acceptable in place of solid political reasoning in liberal and libertarian circles. It has induced the atrophy of substantive political discourse.

Chomsky is really smart, or at least widely respected, and yet he so blatantly promotes some of the most backwards, wrong ideas that it would seem he must be doing so willfully. He harps on negative externalities, as if this is a huge problem with the foundation of capitalism, yet he doesn't advocate for Pigovian taxes or efficient tort. He just writes this off as one more reason why capitalism is immoral. That he ignores the obvious solutions is evidence of intellectually dishonest, ideological blathering.

His claim regarding "private tyrannies" commits the fallacy of composition, if his argument is that because private companies have top-down management, a society with an economy comprised of such companies is similarly repressive and dictatorial. Ben O'Neill points out that the more basic reason that his claim is wrong. The relationship to a government is not voluntary. An agreement with a specific company is a voluntary contract between the employee and that company. Leftists get this so wrong. In a free market, private companies do not have institutional legal protection to directly coerce their employees or their customers, though indeed it is problematic when big companies buy off political power. Governments are different; governments grant themselves legal protection to use violence where they see fit. Still, in the wacky world of the far left, private companies are considered oppressive.

Paying taxes is not a voluntary action that demonstrates either a collective will or consent to a social contract, no matter how much leftists say that it is or want it to be so. If you don't pay your taxes, a representative of the government will show up to your home and forcefully imprison you against your will. Chomsky demonstrates so clearly that he doesn't understand the crucial distinction between a private company and a government:

The most extreme banning of a book I've ever experienced -- or for that matter heard of -- was in the US. The first book that Edward Herman (economist at the U Penn business school, Wharton) and I wrote together was published in the early 70s by a small but flourishing textbook publisher. It was called Counterrevolutionary Violence. They printed 20,000 copies, and started publishing ads. One of the ads was seen by an executive at the conglomerate that owned the publisher, Warner publications, now part of Time-Warner-AOL. He didn't like it, asked to see the book, and when he saw it, went berserk. He ordered the publisher to withdraw it, and when they refused, he closed the publisher down, destroying all their stock.

I brought the matter to the attention of civil libertarians, but they didn't see any problem. Ideological fanaticism in the US considers only government interference with freedom of speech to be illegitimate. Private tyrannies can do what they want. Warner also tried to prevent us from publishing it elsewhere, claiming copyright, etc. It was a bit of a legal hassle, but their claim was so absurd that we finally just went ahead and published a much extended version (Political Economy of Human Rights).

His error, which is typical from the left, is to conflate negative and positive rights. A government that bans a book violates the right to free speech, but a company that refuses to publish a book does not. In fact, using the government to force a company to publish a book, a leftist "remedy," violates the property rights of the people in that company. Even those on the far left who don't believe in property rights can still recognize that compelled speech is a violation of freedom as well, yet they fail to connect that this is exactly what it would mean to force a company to publish a book. The cognitive dissonance from these leftists must be unbearable.

Chomsky's conception of "private tyrannies" is quite misguided, but his frequent usage of the term "private tyranny" is interesting for another reason. He's well qualified as a linguist to criticize certain uses of language in political discourse that frame issues deceptively, but by promulgating the term "private tyranny," he's trying to deceive with language as well. The term is concise and memorable. It's a rhetorical shortcut that skips over a giant claim that requires much more explanation. Of course, if the actual argument is stated clearly and dissected, it is easily seen as the elementary philosophical error of conflating negative and positive rights. Furthermore, if the top-down management of private companies really embodied tyranny, the oppressive dynamic would be self-evident, and his attempt to influence political discourse with a hyperbolic, sophomoric talking point would not be necessary. He pretends that he's a dispassionate commentator about power structures encoded in language use, but he's very much involved in the game.

In another context, defending evolution from intelligent design, Eugenie Scott coined the term "Gish gallop" to describe a frustratingly effective rhetorical technique. The offender puts forth so much nonsense and gibberish that the person constrained by reason and logic does not have time to effectively communicate their position. I suspect that Chomsky's enormous output of political writing over his career is sloppy, beyond admirable prolificacy; I suspect that this career is a form of the Gish gallop, over a lifespan.

In my experience, when I have explained political power as force to statists, they get uncomfortable yet cannot substantively object. Haidt's Social Intuitionist Model seems to explain these interactions well. Humans generally don't actually reason to get to a conclusion. We just come up with reasons to justify our intuitions. This is an important clue as to why intellectuals lean left.

After Chomsky's nonsense can be exposed for it's incorrectness and intellectual dishonesty, a larger question remains. Why do intellectuals lean left? When I first considered this question, I considered it very a very important question and quandary, because it appeared to me that the smartest people leaned left while I supported free markets. What could I have been missing? I was wrong for a few reasons.

First, it's fallacious to rely on a claim that libertarian ideas are wrong because many smart people say so. This would be a fallacious argument from authority. The claim is wrong for another reason as well. Intellectuals are not the smartest people. They are only the vectors of ideas. During the Bush administration, the smartest people opposed Bush vehemently. Most people opposed Bush, and the smartest figures on the left could easily attack Bush's shenanigans. Bush did not represent a principled case for free markets, so it was easy for the left to gain influence by calling his disastrous fiscal policy "deregulation," no matter how inappropriate that description actually is.

Jonah Goldberg, in his talk at U.Va. this past year, mentioned that the Republican Party has two elements, the economic libertarians and the social conservatives. This is true, but Richard Posner broke the elements of the party down further than that on his blog. Posner describes a third element, the war hawks, and these three groups are in conflict. Both Posner and Becker have written much about the dynamics of the Republican Party, which really has been a shaky coalition for decades. It's obvious that the social conservatives have been dominating the party for decades now. With such a dynamic, it's easy to see why conservatism can be framed as stupid. Social conservatives have crowded out the smart, intellectual defenders of the free market. Members of the left aren't smarter than members of the right; the real intellectual ideas on the right have been widely misrepresented when Republican free-marketeers were totally absent. The economic prescriptions from the left are really as mystical, stupid, and unacceptable as the social prescriptions derived from religiosity on the right. Of course, there exists plenty of that same religiosity on the left, alongside the secular legacy of Marxist traditions.

Perhaps another reason why prominent intellectuals generally lean left is that more smart free-marketeers gravitate towards the business world, realizing that they can earn more money than they would in academia. The leftists remain in academia to become the intellectuals. That's not the whole story though.

The leftist intellectuals have only ever known academia, and academia really conditions them to view solutions to problems in ways inconsistent with the economic theory of a market economy. Central planning seems to work in the classroom, and people accomplish lots of things absent of the profit motive. In the mind of the leftist intellectual, the evolved capacities for empathy, altruism, and reciprocal altruism are extended beyond the point of what is actually feasible. Individual response to incentives is ignored.

Chomsky's "Gish gallop" is really amazing because he has incorporated a technique whereby he can just ignore facts and make up his own version of the events he describes, by referencing the propaganda model. Somehow, magically, he has the rationality to interpret the news and separate fact from fiction, but the public is manipulated by a hierarchy, and public opinion is subverted to corporate interests. It all sounds like a really bad conspiracy theory. The propaganda model of course contributes to common leftist fears of media concentration. The model is really a feat of mysticism. In response to a question after one of his lectures on Gaza, Chomsky actually describes his access to truth about politics through the propagandized news by comparing it to acquiring knowledge through the scientific method.

Chomsky claims that he aims to liberate people from oppressive power structures, but it is clear that he is just another totalitarian, and his anarchism is faux.

Extreme leftism will be around as long as religion is. Naive minds will try to apply evolved cognitive capacities for cooperation to the political process far beyond what is actually feasible or desirable. Because of this and the Social Intuitionist Model, it's best to enjoy the debate, but keep in mind why reason alone won't obliterate disastrous leftist ideas.