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Echoes and Mirrors» Blog Archive » Whoa

Whoa

Question Period: Noam Chomsky on being censored, CHRC censorship, Ayn Rand, Robert Nozick and libertarianism

PJ: Pushing aside the Canadian Human Rights discussion for a moment, I was curious why you call yourself a “libertarian”?

I call myself that, too. Except when I use it, I mean to say that I believe in private property rights, in a free and open market, and in ridiculously small government (sometimes I like to think that getting rid of the state entirely would do all of us a lot of good).

But I don’t ever get the sense that you have sympathy for Friedrich Hayek, Robert Nozick, Milton Friedman or Ayn Rand.

There’s two parts to this question. For one, I’m curious just what you mean when you call yourself a libertarian and, for two, I’m curious why you continue to use the label, even though most people now associate it with the Nozick/Rand/Hayek type of political philosophy? (I don’t call myself a “liberal,” although I would prefer to, because it doesn’t mean what it used to in Canada and the U.S.)

NC: Actually I don’t think I’ve ever called myself a “libertarian,” because the term is too ambiguous. I do often call myself a “libertarian socialist,” however.

The term “libertarian” has an idiosyncratic usage in the US and Canada, reflecting, I suppose, the unusual power of business in these societies. In the European tradition, “libertarian socialism” (“socialisme libertaire”) was the anti-state branch of the socialist movement: anarchism (in the European, not the US sense).

I use the term in the traditional sense, not the US sense.

I strongly dislike the figures you mention. Rand in my view is one of the most evil figures of modern intellectual history. Friedman was an important economist. I’ll leave it at that.

Nozick, who I knew, was a clever philosopher. He did call himself a libertarian but it was fraud. He was a Stalinist-style supporter of Israeli power and violence. People who knew him used to joke that he believed in a two-state solution: Israel, and the US government because it had to support Israeli actions.

Hayek was the kind of “libertarian” who was quite tolerant of such free societies as Pinochet’s Chile, one of the most grotesque of the National Security States instituted with US backing or direct initiative during the hideous plague of terror and violence that spread over the hemisphere from the 60s through the 80s. He even sank to the level of arranging a meeting of his Mont Pelerin society there during the most vicious days of the dictatorship.

Quite apart from practice, I don’t suggest that they understood it, but in their “libertarian” writings these figures were in fact supporting some of the worst kinds of tyranny that can be imagined: namely private tyranny, in principle out of public control. Traditional European libertarian socialism addressed this issue. I often found myself agreeing with US-style libertarians — not those you mention, but many in the Cato Institute, for example; in fact I could only publish in a journal of theirs for years. But we had fundamental differences, specifically, about the nature of freedom.

I’m not trying to convince you. Merely to respond to your question, and explain why I’m comfortable with the terms I use, “libertarian socialism” — which to US (and I suppose many Canadian) ears sounds like an oxymoron.

(hat-tip to Brian Leiter)I’ve never associated Chomsky with libertarianism. I’m glad to see him giving a shout out to the Cato Institute, whom I consider to be one of the best libertarian groups, period.

My philosophy class this semester deals almost exclusively with Nozick and Rawls and should be a blast. I’m seriously looking forward to it. The textbooks for the course are Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia and Rawl’s A Theory of Justice. I can only imagine what the handouts are going to contain. I’ve mentioned this professor before, and the course is basically his PhD dissertation. Which makes me happy knowing that he’s well versed in the material and can lead a stimulating discussion. There are only 6 other students enrolled. The first day of class is tomorrow evening.

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