On Chomsky: Are Libertarians Just Senseless Utopians?

Mason Mohon | @mohonofficial

The libertarian tradition has been slowly but steadily growing in the United States since the 1970s. From Rothbard to Gary Johnson and from Ron Paul to John McAfee, the movement has been kept alive. Yet obviously, the libertarian social order doesn’t yet exist. The theoretical foundation is already here. Libertarians know what they want broadly speaking. The pragmatics of libertarianism, though, are in their infantile stage. Chomsky seems to think this is because libertarians believe in a senseless utopia.

Chomsky and the Assumption of Human Nature

Noam Chomsky, a professor of linguistics, explained the view of human nature that goes behind any particular social order. He says that any theory surrounding social sciences relies on particular assumptions about human nature. Particularly, he investigates the classical liberal tradition of free markets and free exchange. In the tradition of Adam Smith, Chomsky explains, there is an assumption that “human nature is defined by a propensity to truck and barter, to exchange goods”. This assumption fits very well in line with any form of capitalist social organization.

He then makes clear that the classical liberal premise of human nature is not very credible. Chomsky posits that we have no reason to believe this is an accurate description of human nature. “If you accept that premise, it turns out that human nature conforms to an idealized early capitalist society, without monopoly, without state intervention, and without social control of production.”

Chomsky is somewhat right in his assessment. If the classical liberal assumption is correct, then humans would all immediately conform to the perfect liberal order. Its the way humans are supposed to act, so why wouldn’t they? We must realize that the classical liberalism of Adam Smith is not the libertarianism of today. Smith’s theories were used to colonize the entire world, but that doesn’t mean its the libertarianism that carries on today.

Revising Libertarianism

Ludwig von Mises recognized this problem when he revolutionized economics. Instead of taking a view of the world and applying it onto human nature, he starts from the very beginnings of human action. He bases his understanding of humans on synthetic apriori truths instead of empirical observation. This means that his knowledge of human nature comes from introspection that humans cannot deny, instead of watching humans and then making shaky assumptions.

The new economic libertarianism of Mises starts from the premise that man acts. It is the most basic starting point for economic analysis. From this, he is able to deduce other irrefutable economic axioms. We are able to understand supply and demand for a similar reason that we understand the Pythagorean theorem. We don’t have to go out and measure a million triangles. Similarly, we don’t have to go out and measure a million markets. The laws of economics (and math) simply just make sense through logical deduction and cannot be disproven.

Because we have a new assessment of the libertarian view of human nature, we can move forward with this understanding. The libertarianism of Mises has extended into the libertarianism of Rothbard, and with it has come a new understanding of how the humans of today interact with a hypothetical libertarian world.

The Same Humans as Always

Because Mises started with humans and then reached a social order, this means that the new form of libertarianism stands in stark contrast to that of Adam Smith and the classical liberals. Jason Kuznicki explains Rothbard’s view on human nature:

Many, of course, deny that mankind has a nature. The implication here is obvious: without a nature, all claims of a normative natural law would be void. The problem with such denials, as Rothbard notes, is that their proponents so often end either by contradicting themselves or by employing something suspiciously like natural law anyway.

The trouble with denying that man has a nature is that it runs into problems in the area known as argumentation ethics: The act of advancing an argument is a speech act that all by itself implies that the arguer believes certain things. If the content of the argument contradicts these things, the arguer has a problem.

As we can see, Rothbard stands in line with Mises’s understanding of human action stemming from synthetic apriori truths. This is a complete reversal from Chomsky’s understanding of how a capitalist social order functions. He explained that Adam Smith took his social system and then from that found a human nature that fits. Rather than doing that, Rothbard and Mises start from the first principles of human action, avoiding any sort of libertarian utopia pipe dream. If all humans have to act in a specific way for libertarianism to work, it will never happen. Rothbard and Mises show us this is not the case.

Instead, modern libertarianism takes humans as they are and finds what the best social order for them is. This does not mean everyone shall just fall in line and embrace a libertarian society. The pragmatics of libertarianism is another question. But this does mean that libertarianism can exist without having to wholly change what it means to be human, thus making it not utopian.