What is “Libertarian Socialism”?

I don’t know, but I’m interested in finding out.  One YouTube video that is supremely unhelpful to that end is this one, taken from a Q&A session of a Noam Chomsky lecture apparently titled “Education & Democracy”.  I haven’t heard the whole lecture, and I don’t like to take this answer out of context, but I’ll respond to it as mr1001nights presented it:

Before seeing this video, I thought: “Well, I understand the ‘libertarian’ part.  If only I could get a handle on how ‘socialism’ fits into that, then I’d be able to appreciate this point of view.”  So here I stumble upon this video by the eloquent linguist Noam Chomsky, and I think: “Goody! My questions will be answered!”

No such luck.

Rather than expounding upon the ‘socialist’ aspect of ‘libertarian socialism’, Chomsky explains that the ‘libertarian’ aspect of ‘libertarian socialism’ is something different than the philosophy espoused by Americans who call themselves “libertarian”.  It is something that exalts ‘equality’ as a high virtue.  Basically he just says: “American libertarians, be gone.  There is nothing here that would interest you.”

In the course of doing this, he unapologetically misprepresents the views of American libertarians, especially with this quote:

Here, “libertarian” means “extreme advocate of total tyranny”. That’s what “libertarian” means here.  (applause). It means power ought to be given into the hands of private, unaccountable tyrannies—even worse than state tyrannies because there the public has some kind of role.

I understand that this is more-or-less an off-the-cuff response to a question, and therefore it probably should not be scrutinized too closely, but it is all I have at the moment.  I haven’t studied any works of Chomsky in which he has considered the subject more carefully.

Chomsky immediately resorts to the second fallacy:  He presumes that public economic regulators will always be less evil and vicious than private business owners.  His reason, I think, is that because the citizens “have some kind of role” in representative government, such governments are more “accountable” to the citizenry than private businesses would be.

Chomsky has always sharply criticized the American form of government and democratic system.  See, for example, this video:

So it is odd for me to hear Chomsky imply that he prefers even this bleak form of democracy—this “polyarchy”—to the “extreme tyranny” of American Libertarianism.  While the polyarchy is perhaps a “state tyranny”, in Chomsky’s view, the pathetic role that the average voter plays in that polyarchy shades it with enough “accountability” to make it slightly less awful than the libertarian society, in which private interests allegedly run roughshod with no accountability whatsoever.

Your polyarchal presidential candidates.

Your polyarchal presidential candidates.

And what about this accountability?  Every few years, Americans get to choose their representatives and leaders from between Thing 1 and Thing 2.  If the government gets really out of line, you can sue it in its own court, but only if it consents to such suit.  No conflict of interest there.  But at least that’s some accountability, right?

Private enterprises, Chomsky asserts, are “completely unaccountable”, and this is what makes them tyrannical.  Chomsky apparently does not consider the trillions of dollars worth of voluntary exchanges of goods and services across the national economy to be a “role” for the public that is worthy of mention.  That these corporations depend on consumer goodwill for their existence apparently doesn’t count, for Chomsky, as a form of “accountability”.   This is where American libertarians would naturally disagree with Chomsky.  It’s true that citizens under a libertarian system generally would not have the authority to order private business-owners—or those who would dare aspire to become business owners—around at gunpoint the way the American government does.  In that sense business owners in a libertarian system may not be as “accountable” to “the people” as Chomsky would have it.  But to assert that “private tyrannies” are completely unaccountable is a bit of a distortion of the libertarian worldview.

Libertarians still wish to prosecute crimes such as fraud and theft.  There are disagreements within the libertarian community as to how this ought to be done—whether through a privatized legal system, a limited democratic government, or otherwise.  Chomsky doesn’t consider this to be “accountability” either, which makes you wonder what, if anything, he does consider to be “accountability”.  I’m sure he knows a lot about libertarian theory.  He seems to be a pretty smart guy.  I’m sure he is just condensing his argument to answer the question as succinctly as possible.  But still.  If Chomsky wants to refute the libertarian theory of accountability, he is welcome to do that—but to carry on as if there were none is either ignorant or dishonest.

Here is another passage in which Chomsky apparently invokes unhealthy doses of both the fallacy of misrepresenting libertarianism, and the fallacy of assuming that private parties are naturally more evil than government bureaucrats:

The American version of “libertarianism” is an aberration, though—nobody really takes it seriously. I mean, everybody knows that a society that worked by American libertarian principles would self-destruct in three seconds. The only reason people pretend to take it seriously is because you can use it as a weapon. Like, when somebody comes out in favor of a tax, you can say: “No, I’m a libertarian, I’m against that tax”—but of course, I’m still in favor of the government building roads, and having schools, and killing Libyans, and all that sort of stuff.

Now, there are consistent libertarians, people like Murray Rothbard—and if you just read the world that they describe, it’s a world so full of hate that no human being would want to live in it. This is a world where you don’t have roads because you don’t see any reason why you should cooperate in building a road that you’re not going to use: if you want a road, you get together with a bunch of other people who are going to use that road and you build it, then you charge people to ride on it. If you don’t like the pollution from somebody’s automobile, you take them to court and you litigate it. Who would want to live in a world like that? It’s a world built on hatred.19

There’s not much to say here other than that Chomsky apparently believes that charging people to use roads is a “hateful” thing to do—more so than forcing people to pay for roads whether those people use the roads or not, which is what we do now.  We already have some toll roads, like the PA Turnpike.  Does anyone really believe that those who maintain and operate the turnpike are teeming with hatred for Pennsylvania travellers?  Chomsky is a tough guy to please.

Is it always “hateful” to charge people for the goods and services that they use?  If so, I hope he and those who re-package and resell is ideas are giving away their books for free.  I certainly hope that they are not demanding money from their publishers.  That would be “hateful”, under Chomsky’s own standard.

Also under this reasoning, libertarians would want to live in a world without books.  If Noam Chomsky were subjected to life in a libertarian dystopia, what reason would he have to sit around and write books full of stuff he already knows in the first place?  And why should he have tens of thousands of them printed up?  What on earth would he do with all of them?  Build igloos?

When Noam Chomsky wants to write a book, would he “get together with a bunch of people who are going to read that book”, write it, and then charge those people for it?  I don’t want to be presumptuous.  I don’t know what Noam Chomsky does when he wants to write a book.  But if he did this, I would not consider it to be “hateful”—even if he failed to consult his audience before writing a book that he is under no obligation to write—or even if he failed to write it at all.

Ultimately, simply alleging that a libertarian world would be “hateful” is a very poorly developed rebuttal to the tenets of libertarianism.  I need a little more to go on.  If Chomsky would have attempted to impugn the practicality of Rothbard’s vision with thought experiments and real-life examples, he could have made a decent case.  To rebut, I’d have my work cut out for me.  But simply to assert that Rothbard’s vision is “hateful” requires only that I assert that it would be no more “hateful” than the world we live in today.

If Chomsky is suggesting that our present society is not already hatefully litigious, well … I don’t know.  That would be a novel suggestion.  Chomsky doesn’t quite explain why a libertarian society would be more hatefully litigious than the one we presently have.  If he wants to sue his neighbor because that neigbor’s car emits noxious fumes, I can assure him that there is presently nothing preventing him from doing this.  If he suddenly found himself living under the repressive Libertarian regime of his nightmares, would he suddenly become unable to suppress the urge file suit?  Winning the suit is another matter.  Chomsky does not explain why he feels that litigators would be more likely to win frivolous lawsuits in a libertarian society.  Nor does he explain why he feels such litigators would be likely to win enough in such petty lawsuits to make them worth the trouble.

At least he doesn’t explain these things in the quoted passage.  He might explain it elsewhere.  If you know where he explains these things, please leave a link in the comments….

Chomsky does reveal a style of anti-capitalist argument about which I have not yet written.  I can’t label it a “fallacy”, because it isn’t really a failure of logic (not that I’m an expert in logic, but we’ll roll with it….).  Chomsky lastly argues against capitalism by alleging different historical facts than libertarians do.  Consider this passage from 2:25 of the first video:

The idea of the unsubsidized—not state-subsidized—capitalism, we don’t even have to bother talking about that.  It has existed.  It exists in a good part of the third world, which is why the third world looks the way it does.  It has never existed in any developed society for a very simple reason: the wealthy and the powerful won’t allow it, just as Adam Smith understood.  They would use the levers of power to make sure that state power subsidizes them.  That’s why England developed.  That’s why the United States developed. … In fact every developed society developed just that way.  It’s one of the cliches of economic history.

Compare that to this excerpt from a recent interview with Austrian economist Thomas E. Woods (at 21:45):

Look at those countries in the world where the gap between the rich and the poor is the widest, and those are the countries that are the farthest away from the free market.  That’s always the case. … Look at Africa.  The only place in Africa where you’ve got anything approaching a free market is Botswanna—and, by the way, Botswanna—here’s a big surprise. Botswanna is one of the richest countries in Africa.  Big surprise there, right?  … Otherwise, its a bunch of extremely awful dictators who have—free maket?  Come on.  They just run the country the way they want and they’ve got magnificent palaces while everyone else is eating dirt.  In fact, if you look at the countries of the world, and you just want to see: In what countries are the poorest people doing the best?  Which countries, so to speak, have the ‘richest’ poor? They are always the free-market countries.  Would you rather be poor in Bangladesh, or would you rather be poor in Hong Kong?  And this holds true consistently as a rule.

So Chomsky and Woods each look at third-world countries and see completely different things.  I’m no encyclopedia of world statistics and facts so I can’t say who here has the more accurate assessment of the third world.  I’m not even sure what Chomsky is getting at, really, when he asks us to ponder why third-world countries look “they way they do”.  I imagine that he doesn’t think they look good, but he doesn’t quite say why—at least not here.

So yes, there is way to argue against the free market that does not involve either misrepresenting it or arguing that government regulators are more wise and virtuous than private parties.  It involves alleging a different set of facts to underlie you reasoning.  Because I’m no historian, I’m not so good at refuting that sort of thing…

But anyway, back to the question that is the title of this blog.  What is “Libertarian Socialism”?  I still don’t know, and this short excerpt from Chomsky’s talk did not help.  I understand, though, that the libertarian socialist has different ideas for property rights than do American-style libertarians, and I’m interested to know what they are.  I’m not actually convinced that American-style property rights—or even Locke’s theory of property—ought to be accepted.  I’m interested to hear other opinions about this.

For a more complete critique of Chomsky’s views on libertarianism, written by folks more learned than myself, see this article at mises.org.


6 Responses to What is “Libertarian Socialism”?

  1. Dan says:

    I’ve read at least a dozen of Chomsky’s books and will give you my take on his “Libertarian Socialism”. Libertarian in the sense that government does not interfere in peoples right to the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. In other words, Libertarian social policy – people are free to do what they please as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody else. And Socialism in terms of fiscal policy. The argument is that we already have socialism for the wealthy in the form of military spending (so-called war on terror and massive useless expenditures) and the prison system (see war on drugs). The “Socialism” policy interpretation is that fiscal policy would follow public demand for spending on programs that benefit society. (see single payer health care, public funded higher education and job training, etc.)

    • autofyrsto says:

      “Libertarian in the sense that government does not interfere in peoples right to the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. In other words, Libertarian social policy – people are free to do what they please as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody else.”

      But this is the core of American libertarianism. The thrust of Chomsky’s answer in the first video was to dissociate “Libertarian Socialism” from “American Libertarianism”. I believe he used the phrase “extreme opposite”, but I’m willing to accept that as an embellishment. Perhaps he is willing to concede some core similarities between the two theories?

      In the first video, Chomsky seems to exalt “equality” of some kind over the mere freedom to do what one pleases as long as it does not interfere with the same freedom of others. He does not elaborate too much on this “equality”, other than to assert that the voluntary performance of wage labor violates it. This idea is indeed foreign to American libertarianism. In Chomsky’s libertarian-socialist society, how does one go about preventing the voluntary performance of wage labor?

  2. Little Alex says:

    Better source of what you’re looking for: http://littlealexinwonderland.wordpress.com/libertarian-socialism/

    For the record, I’m not a libertarian socialist, but Chomsky’s been a email-friend of mine for a couple of years — mostly bouncing questions and trading sources back and forth regarding international affairs. I’ve traded words with him on economics and what I see in most of his criticisms are the same flaws I see in casual talks with Mises Institute Fellows — libertarian capitalists misuse “socialism” and libertarian socialist misuse “capitalism”.

    In serious talks on the actual subject of capitalism, Chomsky says in many lectures that what we call “capitalism” isn’t free-market capitalism as recently as recently as last week: http://littlealexinwonderland.wordpress.com/2009/03/11/chomskys-lectern-state-intervention-common-in-free-market/

    Hope this material sheds a bit of light to what you’re asking.

    • autofyrsto says:

      Thank you for your insight!

      I do get the sense that capitalists misuse “socialism”, but I don’t know enough about “socialism” from the socialist/libertarian-socialist perspective to be able to call them on it.

      I remain Libertarian, though, because whenever I do tune in to socialist/communist outlets, such as Workers World, I find that their arguments are unresponsive to capitalist arguments and/or have ready capitalist responses.

      I still have hope for “libertarian-socialism”, though the first Chomsky video dashed them to some extent. I’m interested to learn more. Thanks for the links. I will peruse them!

  3. Little Alex says:

    The misconception is due to Marx and obviously the USSR. Socialists before Marx (namely, in France) used to align with laissez-faire, classical liberals in solidarity against the Statists. In the Spanish Civil War, libertarian socialists fought the fascists along side the classical liberal republicans.

    Personally, I believe that class warfare is a distraction on both sides because of the USSR. There’s room for economic plurality, but not without a decentralized State. My opinion: decentralization — not demonizing capitalism or socialism — should action item #1.

  4. autofyrsto says:

    I’m not a fan demonizing either. It seems to me that if you ask five different people what “socialism” is, you’ll get seven different answers. Because I don’t believe I’m familiar with all seven answers, I’ll hesitate to say something as broad as: “Socialism is a flawed theory because _________.” I’m in the process of learning that a similar thing is apparently true for “libertarianism”.

    I much prefer to critique very specific, concrete arguments where I feel that there is a misunderstanding great and common enough to warrant special attention.

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