Noam Chomsky: Classic Libertarian

Against the Current, No. 60, January/February 1996

Peter Stone

World Orders Old and New
by Noam Chomsky
New York: Columbia University Press, 1994, $24.95.

A GROUP OF free marketeers known as Advocates for Self-Government has created something called the World’s Smallest Political Quiz, a brief test designed to measure your libertarian tendencies. As amusing and small as this quiz is, I’d like to propose an even smaller one. To show just how libertarian you really are, just tell me what you think of Noam Chomsky.

Granted, Chomsky would probably not score very well on the World’s Smallest Political Quiz. He does not fit in very well with the people who claim the Libertarian label today, a rather bizarre sect that considers free trade its watchword and private property its sacred cow. He fails several of their litmus tests, by opposing NAFTA and GATT, for example.

Moreover, most of today’s so-called “libertarians” wouldn’t score very well on my test, I imagine. They would prefer to label Chomsky a Marxist, and thus write him out of the civilized world.

Nevertheless, I think my test works pretty well, and Chomsky’s recent book, World Orders Old and New, proves it. For no one has more consistently and resolutely defended the libertarian ideal than Noam Chomsky. World Orders Old and New continues this defense, which he has carried on for over a quarter of a century.

The libertarian ideal represents the best of the Enlightenment. To believe in this ideal is to recognize the inherent worth and potential of every human being. It is to realize that people need certain things to realize their potential, such as meaningful work, intellectual stimulation, self-expression, and fulfilling relations with others.(1)

A true libertarian stands up for this ideal, and aspires to a world where people can realize their potential. However, political and economic institutions may stand in the way of this realization. Therefore, the libertarian must seek out institutions which deny human beings the chance to fulfill their needs, and challenge them whenever possible. Only by such challenges can the libertarian ideal be advanced.

In World Orders Old and New, Noam Chomsky stands up for the libertarian ideal, subjecting the modern capitalist order to a scathing critique. Based on a series of three lectures given at American University in Cairo, World Orders continues a train of thought developed by Chomsky is such earlier works as Deterring Democracy (New York: Verso, 1991) and Year 501: The Conquest Continues (Boston: South End Press, 1993).

His first lecture, which lays out his overall view of the world, makes the following points:

1) For the past 500 years, the elites of the First World have been creating a political and economic order that increasingly engulfs the entire world.

2) These elites have acted ruthlessly to prevent any part of the world from escaping from their control, and to contain any threat, whether it comes from abroad or appears at home, to their power.

3) The so-called Cold War did not qualitatively change the behavior of the West’s elites. The Soviet Union–because of its attempts to become independent of the global order, not its internal politics or ideological pretensions–was simply an exceptionally large threat, one that the West tried to eliminate right from the start.

4) Because the same elites remain in control of the post-Cold War era, there is no reason to expect any dramatic change in their behavior.

A Free Market Catastrophe

Chomsky’s second chapter looks at the catastrophic results this world order has had for most of the world’s population. With his Egyptian audience in mind, Chomsky devotes his third and last chapter to the Middle East, particularly the current situation and prospects for the immediate future.

Chomsky’s analysis resists the hard and fast rhetoric about “free markets” and “big government” so typical of the people who claim the libertarian label today. These so-called “libertarians,” he argues, remember only the letter, but not the spirit, of the watchwords of the Enlightenment.

True, the classical liberals did voice their opposition to “big government,” but they said a lot more than that. Adam Smith, for example, opposed British mercantilism and favored free trade, but he did so for a reason. He argued that the rich had created these policies for their benefit at the expense of everyone else.

The rich, Smith warned, follow “the vile maxim of the masters of mankind,” which declares, “All for ourselves, and nothing for other people” (quoted in Chomsky, 5). Their machinations must be resisted for the benefit of all.(2)

In short, there’s a class struggle going on out there. Adam Smith knew it, Noam Chomsky knows it now, but most “libertarians” simply refuse to see it. And so they blithely equate state policies crafted to benefit the rich with the few meager concessions won by the working class from their “vile masters.” To them, a minimum wage and a corporate bailout stand equally condemned as violations of the sacred “free market.”

This blanket condemnation of government intervention does nothing to improve the human condition; furthermore, it clouds the picture, making it harder to see what’s really going on. Chomsky’s work goes a long way towards dispelling such clouds.

NAFTA’d, GATTed and Shafted

Take the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), for example. Contrary to official opinion, NAFTA has little to do with free trade. Rather, in the words of Columbia University economist Jagdish Bhagwati:

“(I)t is evident that the main motivation [for NAFTA] is protectionist: Mexico becomes America’s preferential market, with Japan and the EC [European Community] at a disadvantage” (quoted in Chomsky, 108).

Of course, this is not the sort of protectionism normally decried by free market zealots, the sort that is supposed to protect American jobs. Rather, it is protectionism designed to protect one segment of the “vile masters” against others, to the common detriment of both Mexican and American workers.

The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) also demonstrates the hollowness of free-market “libertarian” thought today. Free trade rhetoric reached new heights of absurdity in the months preceding the vote on GATT. Peter Passell, for example, opened a front page article in the New York Times that supported GATT with the following clever argument:

“Free trade means growth. Free trade means growth. Free trade means growth. Just say it fifty more times and all doubts will melt away (New York Times, December 15, 1993, A1).

When all else fails, try mindless repetition. Interesting concept.

Yet GATT agreements often threaten freedom of trade. For example, the United States has fought hard to increase protection for patent rights worldwide. Specifically, it wanted patent rights to cover products, not just processes.

This represents a severe attack on free market principles. Many nations in the past have restricted patent rights to processes only, in hopes of stimulating competitors to create new and better processes, all in good free market fashion. India, for example, has used such liberal patent laws to develop a thriving pharmaceutical industry that can undersell western firms.

Recent GATT restrictions would undermine such competition, conveniently enriching western firms at India’s expense. Once again, the “vile maxim of the masters” is hard at work.

How do Rulers Rule?

However penetrating his analysis, Noam Chomsky’s book falls short on a few points. World Orders Old and New does present Chomsky’s case in a more organized fashion than either Deterring Democracy or Year 501. Yet all three books leave much of Chomsky’s theory implicit.

He does not explain why governments serve the interests of economic elites, or how these elites maintain control; rather, he takes this control as given and examines the results. That’s all well and good for the converted. But the unconvinced deserve a little more careful examination of the political and social institutions of the West and the order its elites have created.

Chomsky has provided such an analysis at least once before, when he co-wrote with Edward Herman Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (New York: Pantheon, 1988). This book provides a model explaining how the media functions in an advanced capitalist society. Might we look forward to “The Political Economy of” other American institutions?

To be sure, Chomsky’s examples sometimes clarify his theory even when he does not explicitly state it. And Chomsky provides examples in abundance. World Orders Old and New demonstrates the “vile maxim” at work in 18th-century India (113-116), in 1940s Egypt (197), and in Nicaragua today (131-136).

Unfortunately, Chomsky spends very little time examining any one struggle between the powerful and their victims. Even NAFTA and GATT receive consideration sporadically, at several different points in the book.(3) Only in the last chapter, when Chomsky discusses Israel, the United States and the Palestinians, does he give one of his examples the close attention it deserves.

However, perhaps I ask for too much of one writer. The sort of in-depth analysis I call for is badly needed today, and even Chomsky cannot provide it all. If more social scientists displayed the vision and insight demonstrated in World Orders Old and New, then the libertarian ideal would be in much better shape today.


  1. Chomsky provides an excellent account of the libertarian view of human nature in “Notes on Anarchism” and “Language and Freedom,” both published in For Reasons of State (New York: Pantheon, 1973).
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  2. Chomsky also points out that free trade, like mercantilism, can favor the rich. The British ruling class tolerated free trade roughly from 1840 to 1930, roughly coinciding with their period of economic hegemony. Businesses are always in favor of free trade–provided, of course, they are sure they can beat their competitors. (115)
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  3. Fortunately, World Orders Old and New contains an extremely good index, which makes finding particular examples fairly easy.
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ATC 60, January-February 1996