Liberty and Language
by Geoffrey Sampson

This is an all-out attack on Noam Chomshy's political and philosophical views by a linguist who acknowledges Chomsky's major contributions to linguistics. The best thing in the book is the explanation and defense of classical liberalism in Chapter 3. He bases his argument on social utilitarianism and follows Hayek.
Human languages all resemble one another in their basic syntactic pattern for the same reason that human faces all resemble one another in their basic arrangement of features. (21)
If we accept without question that a man's physical attributes, which lie relatively open to scientific enquiry and which in many cases are fairly well understood, are largely the product of inheritance, then why suppose that his mental organization, about which we know much less, differs radically in its origin? (23)
...if minds are infinitely adaptable, there should be no particular limits to the diversity of syntactic patterns found among different human cultures. But observation shows that, while human languages do differ syntactically, there are strict limits to their diversity. Therefore human minds are not infinitely adaptable: we inherit particular patterns of thought, and hence of language, just as we inherit a particular arrangement of facial features, or the disposition to jerk our leg when our knee is tapped. (23)
Progress, then, requires that there be winners and losers; but at the same time progress advances the interests of the losers as well as those of the winners. (47)
Sampson mounts a good attack on syndicalism (56):
So, even if people were selfless enough to make a Chomskyan, syndicalist system work without appealing to the federal government to resolve disputes, the result would be the same overall economic inefficiency and poverty which results from centrally planned socialism. (58)
The problem is that the policies which have to be applied to equalize rewards are policies which destroy the measure by which we can tell whether rewards are equal. (61)
If government intervenes to equalize individual's rewards, then prices automatically cease to correspond to any real property of goods. Thus, if the possessor of some rare and very valuable skill finds himself taxed at a disproportionately high marginal rate, it will be sensible for him to exchange some of his (effectively) badly paid working time for more leisure. (62)
So in practice the choice lies not between an unequal distribution of rewards in a free market and an equal distribution in an authoritarian system; rather, it lies between an unequal distribution in a free market and an unknowable (and therefore certainly unequal) distribution under authoritarianism. (63)
[Authoritarianism, by ending progress, goes a long way toward ensuring that future generations will not have better (and therefore unequal) living standards than earlier generations. The free market is not only unfair to people in this generation, it is unfair between generations because it permits future generations to enjoy higher and therefore unjust standards of living than earlier generations. (RH)]
Individuals cannot be more morally worthy simply by virtue of being born later. (64)
No one has the right to give away goods to which he himself has no title (a principle that is widely accepted except when the middle party is government). (66)
Clearly, if the 60 per cent taxation is legitimate, the answer must be that he is entitled to spend the rest of his money on himself only because the government happens to have decided to let him do so. In other words, on this view government is vested with the ultimate right to dispose of all goods, and an individual subject's 'property' is 'his' only in the sense that a slave's chattels are his, because his owner happens to permit him to keep them. (66)
It is progress that abolishes poverty, in the sense of raising the standard of life of the poorer members of society. The abolition of poverty in this absolute sense entails the retention of relative poverty--there must always be richer and poorer, if the poorer of tomorrow are to live like the richer of yesterday. (71)
I have argued that a liberal society is a just society on one concept of justice, whereas an authoritarian society must be unjust on any concept of justice (73)
Trial and error are the methods of empiricism and the market.
Thus, suppose I formulate a wish to spend the next half-hour swimming in a lake (as I well might); then for Bakunin and for Chomsky, I am unfree unless a lake materializes in the dry corner of Yorkshire in which I write. If Bakunin and Chomsky do not mean this, they mean nothing; and liberty of this kind is possible only in the world of daydreams. To attack liberal society on grounds that the liberty it provides is inferior to the kind of liberty Bakunin and Chomsky describe (which is perfectly true) is in the highest degree irresponsible. Since a liberal society is the freest society possible in the real world, the only possible practical effect of a successful attack on liberalism is to bring about some less free, authoritarian society. (75)
Conservativism differs from socialism as to how society should be organized, while liberalism differs from both these by denying that society should be consciously organized at all. (82)
Sampson shows that Chomsky's politics are authoritarian. Unfortunately, decentralized authoritarianism is not objectionable to Chomsky.
Incomes will be equal only if the federal government equalizes them by taxation or otherwise; by removing the rewards for successful innovation, such a policy would remove the incentive to progress (or even to maintain the progress achieved to date, since there would be no penalty for idleness or for failure to adapt to changing physical conditions). (84)
There may be some 'big technology' projects which only government has enough capital to undertake and which would be beneficial; but postponement of those projects until private holdings of capital become large enough to undertake them seems a small price to pay for avoiding the costly white elephants which often result from government enterprise. (101)
A Chomskyan society will be 'free', if I understand him, in that an individual's economic niche will be determined by a plan drawn up on the basis of his own as well as others' suggestions, rather than imposed on him without reference to his wishes; but for a liberal one is only free if one has the option of constructing one's own economic niche independently of any overall plan. (107)
Our instincts can deceive us. This needs to be addressed with regard to whether the moral sense fits. (See 123)

Sampson endorses cultural relativism, which seems inconsistent with his argument that market societies are better than nonmarket societies.

If a nation, because of its cultural traditions, has no serious chance of throwing up a liberal government from within itself, then it is far better for that nation to be governed liberally by aliens than to suffer authoritarian government by its own nationals. (164)
The E.E.C. promotes a kind of 'fair competition' by suppressing just that process of experimentation and innovation which is the main reason for regarding competition as desirable. (205)
Evolution has given Man the faculty of intellectual creativity; it has given us the ability to create -- among so many other things -- a theory as to how to govern ourselves in order to avoid frustrating that faculty; and it has given some of us, at least, the ability to detect the flaws in a plausible, superficially altruistic, but ultimately anti-human alternative theory of government. It would certainly be an extraordinary mischance if all these gifts are just not quite enough because there will always be a few too many people who fall for socialism. (208)
Unless 'equal' means 'identical', so that everyone gets a toupee whether he needs one or not, how does one decide whether two individuals' aggregate rewards are equivalent in value? (225)
If choice of job also were left open, we would have a society of fifth-rate novelists and poets for the short period before starvation set in. (227)
Liberals such as Hayek and Sampson see profit as the reward to the enterpriser for the production of useful economic knowledge. I see it as rightful property acquired through voluntary exchanges that need no further justification.

Year Read: 1997


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