A few hours with Google, weekend edition

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yxbeyn2xMQE&feature=related, http://www.distantocean.com/2008/04/chomsky-on-libe.html, and http://adamsmithslostlegacy.blogspot.com/2009/05/misuse-of-adam-smith-quotation.html (for references)

Noam Chomsky has always been a difficult figure. On the one hand, he projects the calm candor desirable in political or religious public figures–he is a quiet orator with an understated delivery and tends toward compound-complex sentences in an era dominated by the bombast of Bill Mahr or Michael Moore. Chomsky is also perhaps the purest living polemicist, his outlandish assertions pronounced with such quiet conviction that they that they would stun a fundamentalist. Whether he is invoking the “remarkably relaxed and serene” beauty of war-torn North Vietnam, asserting that Usama Bin Laden’s videotaped “confession” to the 9/11 attacks (and presumably the martyrdom videos recorded by the hijackers themselves) was “rather like my confession that I won the Boston Marathon,” or interpreting Adam Smith as a proto-Socialist, Chomsky is notorious for committing the sins of absurdity that we might expect from Zack de la Rocha or Jerry Falwell, not an elder intellectual who crossed swords with BF Skinner and Milton Friedman, among others. That he maintains his renown in academia despite his tendency to rewrite human experience, past or present, in whatever light suits him, strengthens two of my personal convictions: first, that postmodern celebrity has become so self-sustaining that fifteen minutes of relevance can now spiral into a lifetime of notoriety, and second, that sincere dedication to principles can capture the hearts and minds of entire populations of ideologues, evidence be damned.

Earlier tonight I happened upon the Youtube recording linked above. I’ve transcribed part of the audio recording, which is apparently a response to a member of the audience asking Chomsky about his opinions re: laissez-faire capitalism. After asserting that laissez-faire capitalism (which Chomsky associates with cronyism and wage slavery) has only existed in third-world nations with predictably disastrous results, Chomsky continues:

“Like, in some mythical world, would I like to see some laissez-faire capitalism? Well, only under the conditions described by Adam Smith, the real Adam Smith, you know, the one who wrote Wealth of Nations. Not the one you worshipped before, but the one who wrote it. And if you look at his argument for markets, it’s pretty clear . . . the argument was . . . that under conditions of perfect liberty, markets will lead to perfect equality. That’s why markets are good, he said. They will lead to perfect equality, and they will not force people to subject themselves to outside orders so they become less than human so that, you know, the artisan recedes while the art improves, as Tocqueville put it. . . . But the goal was clear. The goal was a society based on Enlightenment values, which is just radically opposed to what today are called libertarian values here in the United States.”

First impressions: while Chomsky’s tone has become nastier and his derision for political opponents more pronounced over the years, these are talking points that he has rehearsed and rehashed for decades now. Chomsky is a veteran of the battle for the collective academic mind, one of the many benefits of being the most outspoken and omnipresent participant in leftist intelligentsia for more than 40 years. Chomsky’s depiction of Adam Smith as a kind of utopian economist who can be safely dismissed from our own real-world concerns is not a recent innovation for the good doctor.

Leaving aside for a moment what little debate the 20th century has left regarding the benefits of capitalism (whether the species advocated by Keynes or Friedman) vs. collectivism, let’s look at the particulars of Chomsky’s claim. When he presumes to speak for the “real Adam Smith” as opposed to the one trotted out by contemporary American libertarians and Cato-styled laissez-faire capitalists, who is it that he’s speaking of and for? What is it that the “real Adam Smith” meant when he wrote that markets operating under perfect liberty would lead to perfect equality?

From his rhetoric, it’s clear that Chomsky interprets “perfect liberty” and “perfect equality” in social rather than financial terms. It’s a natural inclination–when we speak of equality in the 21st century, we’re mostly concerned with social equality under the aegis of law–civil rights, gay marriage–rather than occupational equilibrium within the financial markets. Popular media and political discourse have conditioned us to hear the voice of Martin Luther King Jr. when we read the words “perfect liberty.”

In the interest of properly interpreting Smith as an 18th-century economist rather than a contemporary civil rights activist, I defer to Gavin Kennedy, author of the excellent blog Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy (all text and bolding his):

Chomsky’s assertion is an interesting comment in itself of his method.

It is quite clear from my post yesterday that I took, and I think most readers will have taken, Chomsky’s claim to Adam Smith on ‘equality’ was about equality in the general sense, as opposed to the phenomenon of growing inequality of 21st Century capitalism, and not about the tendency to the equality of market prices in a competitive economy.

Now I know, and I am sure that Chomsky knows, that Adam Smith did not advance such a proposition of society becoming more equal – he rarely made predictions about the future, perhaps because of his knowledge that events seldom work out as predicted (unintended consequences, and so on). Distributive justice was not agenda in mid-18th century Britain, other than in the classical philosophic tradition, which had little to do equality in the modern sense, and had more to do with distribution according to merit.

Adam Smith did not think markets were competitive in 18th century Britain, and not much has happened since to make them so, almost entirely from the non-competitive elements introduced, often by ‘merchants and manufacturers, of whom as a group, in the main he had severe suspicions about their motives, and the motives of legislators and those who influenced them, who followed the prescriptions of mercantile political economy – false doctrines of ‘jealousy of trade’, monopoly privileges, tariff protectionism, wealth defined by balance of payments surpluses, gold bullion, guild trades rights, chartered trading monopolies awarded by the King and parliament, colonies, and expensive wars for dynastic and trivial ends.

I suggest that Chomsky (and Andrew) read the rest of chapter X and appreciate how realistic Smith was about labour and capital markets. Smith did not expect equality to emerge from commercial society; he did expect, flaws and all, that to the extent that revenues from the great wheel of circulation, which made up a commercial economy, were directed to productive labour and the ‘annual output of the necessaries, conveniences, and amusements of life’, via wage employment of the labouring poor, would provide subsistence for the poor majority of the population in a manner superior to their destitution under all previous modes of subsistence. . . . It wasn’t equality in the Chomsky implied sense that Smith saw as possible – it was jobs with growth that would also grow population, enabling labouring families to survive longer, to breed and reach adulthood.

This is far from the first time that Chomsky has blatantly misrepresented a point of view that is not particularly difficult to understand, and Chomsky’s critics have filled entire books with examples of his misstatements. No one but Dr. Chomsky can say whether he engages in his brand of truth-stretch out of hubris or ignorance, but in my experience there is no difference between the two when you’re facing someone armored by the consolations of fanaticism. Like all such individuals, Chomsky believes that arguments are not accepted on the basis of ration or evidence, but on their proximity to the axioms he himself believes to be true. His primary article of faith appears to be that collectivism is superior to capitalism in the ability to ensure both individual liberty and standards of living. The bane of this particular assertion, of course, is the small matter of the 20th century, which provides us with several hundred million reasons to believe that real-world, warts-and-all capitalism tends to secure significantly more happiness, wealth, and liberty for those living under it, not to mention freedom from execution or gulags. To be sure, 20th-century capitalism did not provide a utopia free of undue suffering, but at this point there is no real-world evidence that even flawed, corrupt capitalism (Keynesian or laissez-faire, take your pick) is not vastly superior to Chomsky’s preferred alternative.

I have to wonder what influence Chomsky’s age and status as elder statesman of the apologist left has had on his political ossification. Had he been born in 1978 rather than 1928 and had he witnessed the collapse of the world’s most prominent state-controlled economies as a young man rather than a senior citizen, I suspect he might have had time to switch sides without losing face. As is, however, it seems that Chomsky will go to his grave continuing to insist that the oldest heresies are the best heresies.

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