Thomas Sowell vs. Noam Chomsky

by Michael K. Smith / December 22nd, 2020 In an interview with Peter Robinson, Thomas Sowell (Hoover Institution) criticizes the political work of Noam Chomsky on grounds that…

by Michael K. Smith / December 22nd, 2020

In an interview with Peter Robinson, Thomas Sowell (Hoover Institution) criticizes the political work of Noam Chomsky on grounds that make clear he does not distinguish Chomsky’s libertarian socialism from the technocratic and highly militarized state capitalism favored by liberal elites. Incredibly, Sowell lumps him in with the liberal intelligentsia Chomsky has long attacked, ignoring the glaring fact that liberal elites loathe Chomsky precisely because of the brilliant and unanswerable nature of that attack.

It is unclear if Sowell knows anything at all about Chomsky, as he cites nothing from his work and even mispronounces his name. His complaint is directed at intellectuals in general, and Chomsky by arbitrary inclusion, namely, that he, and they, go beyond their areas of specialized knowledge to ignorantly comment on society and politics, leading the unwary masses that embrace their ideas to catastrophe, when they otherwise might have achieved the best of all possible worlds by accepting the choices offered by the “free market,” supplemented by those presented in periodic political mud-wrestling contests known as elections. Embodied in these two institutions, apparently, is the greatest social and political wisdom of which the human species is capable, a rather nauseating thought.

In any event, here is the part of the interview that deals with Chomsky:

Peter Robinson: When you refer to intellectuals in Intellectuals and Society, whom do you mean?

Thomas Sowell: I mean people whose end products are ideas. There are other people with great intelligence whose end products are things like the Salk vaccine. . . . the engineer is judged by the end product, which is not simply ideas. If he builds a building that collapses it doesn’t matter how brilliant his idea was, he’s ruined. Conversely, if an intellectual who is brilliant has an idea for re-arranging society and that ends in disaster, he pays no price at all.

PR: (Quoting directly from Sowell’s book Intellectuals and Society): “The fatal misstep of intellectuals is assuming that superior ability within a particular realm can be generalized to superior wisdom or morality overall. Chess grand masters, musical prodigies and others who are as remarkable within their respective specialties as intellectuals within theirs, seldom make that mistake.”

PR (in his own voice): Noam Chomsky, whom you write about in Intellectuals and Society, whose work in linguistics — in the first place I can’t understand it — but as best as I can tell —

TR: Highly regarded.

PR: Exactly. Everyone who understands his technical work within the field, within his discipline in linguistics, considers him one of the great figures of the twentieth century. And his work in politics?

TR: Absurdity. The same could be said of Bertrand Russell and his landmark work on mathematics and other people in other fields, but they step outside their fields, and when you step outside your level of specialty, sometimes that’s like stepping off a cliff … If Noam Chomsky had just kept on, stayed in linguistics, neither of us probably would have ever heard of Noam Chomsky. He would have been just as famous around the world among linguists, nobody else would have heard of him.

*****

In short, he’s become famous because the stupid masses he appeals to don’t recognize that in venturing an opinion outside his academic specialty he’s peddling nonsense.

This critique of Chomsky makes little sense. In the first place, he was a political activist long before he was a linguistics professor, so the question is not why he left a field he was knowledgeable in to become a leading figure in a field he knew nothing about, but actually the reverse: How did the (broadly learned) activist Chomsky become a specialized linguist? The answer is that his father was an accomplished linguist himself, and young Noam read his work on medieval grammar, later developing ideas of his own that ended up revolutionizing the field. Then in the Vietnam years he was drawn into anti-war activism that nearly earned him a long prison term when he turned up on Richard Nixon’s enemies list, though he was saved at the last minute by the Tet Offensive. Be that as it may, Chomsky never attempted to use his specialized knowledge of linguistics to claim special insight into politics, and regularly corrected those who assumed he had special insight. Over and over he stated that he acted as an ordinary private citizen, just as others ought do, aided only by honesty and common sense, which he insists are the only necessary qualities for engaging in political work. Apparently, Sowell believes in the infallibility of established institutions, as he automatically labels protest against them “absurdity.” But what possible grounds can there be for such a peculiar belief?

Interestingly, Chomsky actually agrees with Sowell that intellectuals function as a secular priesthood whose ruinously destructive ideology is a mask for self-interest, and has advanced a far more thorough and penetrating critique of their illegitimate authority and moral bankruptcy than anything Sowell has on offer. His fundamental criticism, however, centers on the obvious (that social science isn’t really scientific):

I would simply like to emphasize that, as is no doubt obvious, the cult of the expert is both self-serving, for those who propound it, and fraudulent. Obviously, one must learn from social and behavioral science whatever one can … But it will be quite unfortunate, and highly dangerous, if they are not accepted and judged on their merits and according to their actual, not pretended accomplishments. In particular, if there is a body of theory, well-tested and verified, that applies to the conduct of foreign affairs … its existence has been kept a well-guarded secret … To anyone who has any familiarity with the social and behavioral sciences … the claim that there are certain considerations and principles too deep for the outsider to comprehend is simply an absurdity.

In other words, ordinary citizens’ educated guesses as to the nature of society and politics are as valid as anyone else’s. Just how is this an example of the “star power” of a public intellectual leading the masses to perdition? If anything, it demonstrates the opposite: a helpful reminder to ordinary citizens that they have at least as much insight into current events as the most brilliant intellectual, and need not defer to anyone else on politics. But Sowell grants Chomsky no credit for this sharp attack on the central fallacy of meritocratic intellectualism, preferring to mindlessly accuse him of being the embodiment of elite condescension, instead of its most powerful critic.

Indeed, if Chomsky is out to conquer the non-specialist with misapplied expertise, he has a peculiar method — unilateral disarmament. For as he openly states, specialized knowledge is irrelevant to developing political insight:

… to take apart the system of illusions and deception which functions to prevent understanding of contemporary reality, that’s not a task that requires extraordinary skill or understanding. It requires the kind of normal skepticism and willingness to apply one’s analytical skills that almost all people have and that they can exercise.

Which is why Chomsky is famous for clarity of expression in speaking and writing about politics. Leaving aside specialized terminology in preference for an honest exchange with ordinary people on issues of mutual concern, his reward is not a puffed up reputation based on intellectual grandstanding, but large, appreciative audiences who sell out his political talks years in advance throughout the world. For Sowell, these people can only be dupes of an unprincipled Chomsky lording his presumed intellectual superiority over the gullible masses. But what is this if not standard contempt for the allegedly stupid masses by an elite intellectual, in this case Sowell himself?

In any event, Chomsky would likely agree that much “consequential knowledge” (Sowell’s term, referring to knowledge necessary to society being able to function) is widely dispersed, not narrowly concentrated in the hands of the intelligentsia, which is why ordinary people need to come together to promote democratic policies that can overcome the self-serving ideology of elites, not passively accept as some kind of evolutionary limit the commodified choices offered in the shopping mall and voting booth.

Following Michael Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin, Chomsky criticizes representative democracy under state capitalism for having “a monopoly of power centralized in the State, and secondly — and critically — because representative democracy is limited to the political sphere and in no serious way encroaches on the economic sphere.” This leaves people “compelled to rent themselves on the market to those who are willing to hire them,” which subordinates them to vast concentrations of private wealth in a system that exhibits “striking elements of coercion and oppression that make talk of democracy very limited, if even meaningful.”

So the conservative call to protect individual freedom from the encroachments of the state is sadly inadequate to our plight. We must also, as Chomsky emphasizes, “dissolve the authoritarian control over production and resources” which lead to such grotesque wealth disparity that it “drastically limits human freedom.”

This can be done, says Chomsky, only if “workers … become masters of their own immediate affairs, that is, in direction and control of the shop,” but also by making “major substantive decisions concerning the structure of the economy, concerning social institutions, concerning planning regionally and beyond.” Naturally, such developments would require workers to obtain administrative knowledge currently monopolized by credentialed experts, the vast majority of whom, however, have no claim to scientific expertise. In short, such non-specialized knowledge might very well be transferred to ordinary workers, so that democratic self-management could evolve out of the current autocratic system.

Such economic democracy, of course, is exactly what Sowell means when he warns that intellectuals are inherently susceptible to adopting “an idea for re-arranging society that ends in disaster.” The problem for him, however, is that an all-enveloping “free market” disaster is already here, having delivered three economic collapses in a generation and promising more and worse to come in the future.

Not to mention that Sowell’s brand of “libertarian” economics represents an even more unrestrained form of private tyranny than the current neo-liberal nightmare, which, if implemented, might very well yield complete social collapse. Recall the Chicago Boys’ experiment on Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship, using the economic recommendations of Sowell’s mentor Milton Friedman: broad privatization, deregulation, and deep cuts to social spending, all allegedly demanded by the “natural” laws of economics.

The result? Inflation hit 375% in the first year-and-a-half, local business collapsed, unemployment soared, and hunger ran rampant. President of the National Association of Manufacturers Orlando Saenz, who had invited the Chicago Boys into Chile in the first place, called the results of their experiment “one of the greatest failures of our economic history.” He was replaced. And naturally the free market geniuses had a ready answer for criticism: their economic shock treatment hadn’t been thorough enough. More and faster social service cuts and privatization were needed.

In the midst of it all, Friedman arrived in Santiago to rock star treatment, calling for more cuts in government spending — 25% across the board — while simultaneously pushing a slate of pro-corporate policies designed to move towards “complete free trade.” Health and education took devastating hits. In 1975, the Pinochet regime cut public spending by 27% all at once, and kept cutting. By 1980, social spending was half of what it had been before Pinochet seized power. Even The Economist, a free-market cheerleader, called the cuts an “orgy of self-mutilation.”

The Chilean economy plunged into a deep recession. Nearly three-quarters of an average Chilean family’s income was needed just to buy bread. Free milk at school was increasingly unavailable, leading to fainting spells among the students. The school system was replaced by vouchers and charter schools, health care became pay-as-you-go, kindergartens, cemeteries, and Chile’s social security system were privatized.

Reality quickly made a hash of Friedman’s sunny predictions of short-term pain followed by broad prosperity. Deep poverty and high unemployment stubbornly persisted, and the crisis lasted for years. In 1982, Chile’s economy crashed amidst exploding debt, hyperinflation, and a staggering 30% unemployment rate. Pinochet was forced to nationalize many of the same companies socialist Salvador Allende had, and was saved from complete disgrace only by the state copper company that Allende had nationalized.

And all of this was in addition to the mass torture, murder, and terror that were used to make the noxious “free market” draught go down.

In short, the Chicago Boys’ insane ideas led to catastrophe, and the intellectual responsible for dreaming them up never faced any consequences.

Meanwhile, the admiring Sowell refrained from dismissing his mentor’s ideas as “absurdity.”

Image: Noam Chomsky Quotes

This post was originally published on Radio Free.


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