Published in the February 2003 issue of Liberty

Who Would Be a Free Man?

The Political Economy of Noam Chomsky

by Barry Loberfeld

An essay on radical behaviorist B.F. Skinner (and, to a lesser extent, nature-determinist Richard Herrnstein) was the last thing I expected to encounter when I picked up a copy of Noam Chomsky's classic political tract For Reasons of State. However, I soon recognized the worthiness of inclusion of "Psychology and Ideology," which I found most notable for its presentation of the MIT linguist's own notions of freedom and dignity -- and what constitutes their negation.[1]

For myself, Skinnerian behaviorism has long been a dead issue. It had always seemed to me that his conception of control required a definition of freedom, the validity of the latter that of the former. What would constitute -- for Skinner -- an entity with free will, a being whose behavior is governed by, not its environment, but what's "inside the skin"? For a while there, I thought the only candidate a wind-up toy, whose internal motivation operates irrespective of the environment. But I soon realized that even this fails to meet his standard: the toy is not "free" to walk forward if a wall blocks its way ... or a hole lies in front; its behavior is also determined by its environment. Understanding came quickly: interaction with an environment is "control" by that environment. "Freedom" could only be behavior that occurs apart from any environment, any external world -- i.e., apart from reality, which is precisely the status I immediately assigned Skinner's theory.

We need not rehearse the many (sound) points Chomsky makes against Skinner, only one being germane to our purpose: "The libertarian whom [Skinner] condemns distinguishes between persuasion and certain forms of control. He advocates persuasion and objects to coercion. In response, Skinner claims that persuasion is itself ... [a] form of control." Well put, Professor. This libertarian wholeheartedly agrees, which is why I was shocked to subsequently see Chomsky put forth a theory of behavior that itself confuses persuasion with coercion, the result a doppelgänger of Skinner's own.

"The most obvious form of control ... is differential wages.... Since the industrial revolution, [socialism] has been much concerned with the problems of 'wage slavery' and the 'benign' forms of control that rely on deprivation and reward rather than direct punishment." And: "There is, of course, no doubt that behavior can be controlled, for example, by threat of violence or a pattern of deprivation and reward.... Sanctions backed by force restrict freedom, as does differential reward.... [I]t would be absurd ... to overlook [as does Skinner] the distinction between a person who chooses to conform in the face of threat, or force, or deprivation and differential reward and a person who 'chooses' to obey Newtonian principles as he falls from a high tower."

The "most obvious" point of confluence with Beyond Freedom and Dignity is that Skinner says much the same thing: "Productive labor, for example, was once the result of punishment: the slave worked to avoid the consequences of not working. Wages exemplify a different [approach]: a person is paid when he behaves in a given way so that he will continue to behave in that way" (p.30, which, no, Chomsky doesn't quote). Both versions are equally clear: economic persuasion is not persuasion at all but "control" -- coercion -- and those subject to it are not free. Whereas the traditional taskmaster beat those who did not obey orders (force), today's marketplace employer simply fires them ("deprivation") -- or, if they do obey, pays them ("reward"). Capitalism controls all behavior by matching different behaviors with different wages ("differential reward"), with zero being the wage for some behaviors (again, "deprivation").

Susan Lopez wants to be a singer like her idol, Jennifer Lopez. However, she is not free to be one. No, she isn't thrashed when she opens her mouth. It's just that no one (including Professor Chomsky) will pay her to sing; she is "free" to sing only to the extent that she is "free" to starve. The distinction is irrelevant: both "forms of control" effect the same end. Consequently, she has no choice but to work at the only job for which people will pay her -- collecting bedpans at the retirement home. This is not what she wants to do at all, and she would prefer at the very least to work only part-time, but that means the loss of her medical benefits. For Chomsky, Susan Lopez is not free -- free to be "able to do as one pleases," which is the "natural goal" of a "decent society," one in which all the Susan Lopezes will have the same freedom as "those fortunate few [e.g., Jennifer Lopez] who can choose their own work generally do today." And as Providence would have it, the Professor knows exactly what will take us to this Promised Land: the redesign of our culture to approximate the "socialist dictum, 'From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.'" Presumably the first part will eliminate "reward," the second "deprivation."

His program for clause one is quite simple: stop paying people to work. Apparently, that's it. No wage, no "wage slavery." Chomsky "is so vague about this notion" (a line he hurls at Skinner) that he doesn't tell us who will accomplish this how. Nonetheless, he is skeptical, even scornful, of the suggestion that people work for "extrinsic reward," be it money or "prestige [or] respect," and won't work (i.e., will "vegetate," in his characterization) without it. On the contrary, the "decent society" will have "no shortage of scientists, engineers, surgeons, artists, craftsmen, teachers, and so on, simply because such work is intrinsically rewarding."[2] Any intimation that "history and experience" might cast doubt upon this projection and its premise is dismissed as having "the same status as an eighteenth-century argument to the effect that capitalist democracy is impossible."[3] He insists that "from the lessons of history we can reach only the most tentative conclusions about basic human tendencies" at one (anti-empirical) moment, only to at another insist equally that "[w]e also find ... that many people often do not act solely, or even primarily, so as to achieve material gain, or even so as to maximize applause." Exactly where these "many people" are found and what "acts" (jobs?) are involved, the Professor, renowned for his copious footnotes, provides not even clue one. My own impression, again to borrow Chomsky's words against Skinner (as I'll continue to), is that "the claims are becoming more extreme and more strident as the inability to support them and the reasons for this failure become increasingly obvious."

"[I]nteresting and socially useful work is ... rewarding in itself." Socially useful -- determined how by whom, absent the mechanism of supply and demand? "Were we to rank occupations by social utility in some manner" -- what manner? The answer comes in the form of a question: "Is it obvious that an accountant helping a corporation to cut its tax bill is doing work of greater social value than a musician, riveter, baker, truck driver, or lumberjack?" It is indeed, if "social value" denotes how everyone allocates his personal resources. That's why the accountant earns far less than musician Jennifer Lopez but far more than (aspiring) musician Susan Lopez.[4] But what's equally obvious is that the Professor uses "social value" to denote how he would allocate everyone else's resources. What emerges is another, implicit "dictum": From each according to his own judgment, to all according to Chomsky's. It is a clear (if unacknowledged) echo of Skinner's behaviorist tenet (quoted by Chomsky) that "the control of the population as a whole must be delegated to specialists."

And how can Chomsky guarantee that the jobs that are "socially useful" (e.g., bedpan collection) will be the same that people (e.g., Susan Lopez) find "interesting"? He can't, which is why we're informed that in this "decent society, socially necessary and unpleasant work would be divided on some egalitarian basis." But the obligatory mention about "egalitarian basis" tells us only how people will (ideally) do the work; it doesn't tell us why they'll do it. Since the work is not "interesting," it cannot be "rewarding in itself." That leaves (by his own framework) only two alternative motivations: the button of "direct punishment" or the switch of "deprivation and reward." A self-professed "libertarian and humanist" who seeks to guide and free us from any manifestation of "authoritarian rule," Chomsky himself can find only sundry "forms of control" blocking all the exits.

It is intriguing to observe the difference between the Professor's conception of human nature and that of most other socialists. For the latter, people are selfish creatures who wouldn't give you even a smile unless you paid them and wouldn't toss a penny to the poor unless you forced them. But for Chomsky, people are selfless souls who are content to work for work's sake and are more than delighted to have the fruits of their labor given to others. These two divergent views, each a caricature in its own right, cancel one another. In any case, such one-dimensional models of motivation are superfluous, since the many different and complex members of humanity are able to speak for themselves in the forum of the market, where each man names his "price" and others take it or leave it. Of course, this subsumes the very "wage slavery" Chomsky denounces.

What about clause two -- "to each according to his needs"-- the other half of the moral formula to free us from such "slavery"? Here Chomsky's "argument ... collapses entirely," which is to say, he provides none. We are not told what practical policies will implement the principle (and thus eradicate "deprivation"). The Professor "leaves us completely in the dark as to what he has in mind" -- something he admits can’t even be said of Skinner (regarding the “design of a culture”). Apparently, if any sense at all is to be made of this, we must make it ourselves.

One item that virtually suggests itself, being a standard in the Left's repertoire, is some type of guaranteed income or ration of basic necessities. In contrast to the free market, the free lunch will free Susan Lopez to sing full-time without starving. Let us put aside the question of specifically how the government of the "decent society" will acquire the wealth for this distribution and instead focus on that of how said distribution meets Chomsky's own standards. Fortunately, here "history and experience" undeniably offer answers -- viz., socialist dictatorship and social democracy. The first is the easier to dispose of, since Noam Chomsky would be the last person in the Free World not to concede that Communist governments, in their monopolization of all resources, employ "deprivation and reward" as a means of exacting obedience from their subjects. The welfare state, that marriage of "redistribution of income" to a measure of private property, is a more engaging example. Does such a government (as a matter of "positive rights") simply give people what they need, no questions -- or obligations -- asked? A decisive no comes from, of all places, the Left itself: 1971's Regulating the Poor by Piven and Cloward, which so happened to be well-received also by many libertarians. The thesis is straightforward and unsparing: welfare programs arise "from the need to stem political disorder during periods of mass unemployment, and to enforce low-wage work during periods of economic and political stability. The institution of relief is thus best understood, not as charity, but as a system for regulating the poor." So, "when the destitute become disorderly and tumultuous, often on a scale which threatens political stability," the amount of a welfare payment is raised in order to quiet them down ("reward"). "Once turbulance subsides," the amount of a payment is lowered to sub-wage levels ("deprivation") and the poor "are forced off the relief rolls and into the low-wage labor pool." Yes, "wage slavery"!

The only remaining political option is the one in fact most associated with Chomsky: "anarcho-syndicalism."[5] Here we must run our own Gedanken experiment. Let us imagine that there are no ethical or economic problems in a situation where the kids who were hired at a Big Burger outlet Monday, take over the store Tuesday. They kick out the manager and break all ties with the corporate home office, and no property rights-enforcing police respond to these actions. Having truly seized the means of production from the bosses, these workers have at last freed themselves from "wage slavery" and the concomitant "deprivation and reward." Or have they? The fact is, they still must arrive for work on time, look presentable, keep the place clean, cook the right food the right way and be courteous, or else they won't get paid -- by the only real boss: the sovereign consumer, who pays (or doesn't pay) the salaries of all the employees of Big Burger (from its CEO to the guy working the fryer) and all businesses, big and small.

Fundamentally, Smith either gives something -- food, clothing, medicine, money, acknowledgment, friendship, consent, cooperation, approval, sex, love -- to Jones ("reward") or not ("deprivation"). What isn't either "deprivation" or "reward"? Chomsky's terms cover (and condemn) all of the give-and-take inherent in human interaction -- "a handy explanation for any eventuality." That's what he says of Skinner's theory, and it's especially appropriate to quote it, since his own terms are, too obviously, merely commonplace synonyms for Skinner's technological-sounding "negative reinforcement" and "positive reinforcement."[6] And like Skinner's, Chomsky's contention that we are "controlled" by this either-or, "given the vacuity of the system[,] ... can never be proved wrong."

I'm reminded at this point of the wonderful cartoon that has one mouse in the Skinner box saying to the other, "Have I got this guy trained! All I have to do is press on this bar and he gives me food." Similarly, who's enslaving whom in "wage slavery"? That last example -- am I, the consumer, controlling the kid behind the counter through "deprivation" by withholding my money (which he needs for food) if he doesn't "take my order"? Or is he controlling me through "deprivation" by withholding the burger (which I need for food) if I don't obey his demand for a specific sum of money (for which I had to work)? Is my doctor coercing me into working (for wages) by denying me medical care if I don't pay him, or am I coercing him into working (as a doctor) by denying him money (for food, clothing, etc.) if he doesn't treat me? Susan Lopez and the retirement home? The very logic of "wage slavery" casts every man as both slave and master.[7]

How could it be otherwise? Freedom, for Chomsky, could only be behavior that occurs apart from any social environment -- i.e., one's fellow human beings, whose every response to one's every action constitutes either "deprivation" or "reward," the chains that bind us all. Almost as impossible as the man who exists apart from existence, the man who survives apart from society would have to provide his own food, shelter, modern medicine, companionship(!), etc. in order to liberate himself from those men-forged manacles.[8]

For money and definitions alike, bad drives out good. Absurdist conceptions of freedom serve only to undermine valid ones, which in turn exposes us to the kind of political schemes proposed by Skinner and Chomsky. Consider how the "theory" of thirty years ago has become the "practice" of today. While Skinner's name may not have the currency it once did, his environmental determinism has actually become the de facto psychological ideology of the "social constructionist" Left, which also, in the wake of Communism's demise, has adopted an "anarchist" persona mirroring Chomsky's.

But as just touched upon, there is a slight difference between the two thinkers. Skinner's implicit vision of who would be a free man is as unimaginable as a square circle, yet Chomsky's can (to some degree) be conceived and has, in fact, recently been dramatized: Tom Hanks in Cast Away. But whatever might be said of such a life, it has never been one that men of freedom and dignity have sought.


[1] This worthiness was recognized also by editor James Peck, who included an abbreviated version in 1987's The Chomsky Reader. As Clemson University psychologist Robert L. Campbell has observed, "Once Chomsky put forth these arguments, the demise of behaviorism ... [was] assured. B.F. Skinner never answered Chomsky's arguments in print...." (

[2] Chomsky believes he's making a point when he asks whether a Harvard psychologist "would become a baker or lumberjack if he could earn more money that way." Personally, I'd like to ask whether Chomsky would trade the money, prestige and respect of an MIT professorship for a post at (a random example) Brooklyn Polytechnic.

Also, looking at the last item on this list, we might ask why the NEA and AFT are forever telling us that we must raise salaries if we want more (and "better") people to go into teaching. Will people suddenly recognize the "intrinscally rewarding" nature of education once "differential reward" (i.e., the lure of better-paying jobs) is eliminated?

[3] If the Professor still "awaits a rational argument" for the importance of "extrinsic reward" (i.e., incentives, monetary and otherwise), he'll find possibly the best in James D. Gwartney and Richard L. Stroup's What Everyone Should Know About Economics and Prosperity, 1993. As for "history and experience": "The early history of the Soviet Union provided the most dramatic empirical refutation of the Marxian assumption that management of economic enterprises is something to be taken for granted as occurring somehow. When economic incentives were drastically reduced or abolished in the heady egalitarian period following the Bolshevik revolution, the Soviet economy ground to a halt. Widespread hunger and a halt to vital services forced Lenin to resort to his 'New Economic Policy' that restored the hated capitalistic practices." Thomas Sowell, Marxism: Philosophy and Economics, 1985, p. 193.

[4] This is not to affirm that prices are the only values. For an important clarification, see "Market Value" in Harry Binswanger (ed.), The Ayn Rand Lexicon: Objectivism from A to Z, 1986, pp. 280-1.

[5] It would be quite an understatement to say that Chomsky's actual position vis-à-vis anarchism and statism is somewhat "problematic." Can he really somehow be both a socialist and an anarchist -- or does logic force him off the fence? In Class Warfare (1996, pp.122-3), he declares, "[R]ight now I'd like to strengthen the federal government. The reason is, ... in this world there happen to be huge concentrations of private power which are as close to tyranny and as close to totalitarian as anything humans have devised [viz., business corporations,] ... [s]o you end up supporting centralized state power" to fight that "private power." This is a wholly unremarkable statement: socialism, the suppression of private enterprise, operatively requires "centralized state power." Who, from Lenin to Rothbard, would object? Even more along these lines, he (in a September 1999 interview with The Progressive) decries privatization as a crusade to destroy "every aspect of human life and attitudes and thought that involve social solidarity." What kind of libertarian, let alone anarchist, considers state coercion, not mutual consent, the foundation (indeed, the whole) of "social solidarity"? Worse yet, our New Left radical is parroting "corporate liberal" Robert Kuttner, who too uses "social solidarity" to label the meta-value supposedly evinced by welfare state programs (The Life of the Party: Democratic Prospects in 1988 and Beyond, 1987, pp.16-7). But compare all this with the fact that Chomsky regularly identifies himself as a "classical liberal" and earnestly bemoans how liberalism, a term that once stood for opposition to (or at least limitations on) state power, has been "perverted" to mean "a commitment to the use of state power for welfare purposes." He even fancies himself a kind of "[Old Right] conservative, like [Sen. Robert] Taft, [who] wants to cut back state power, cut back state intervention in the economy -- the same as someone like [Sen.] Mark Hatfield -- to preserve the Enlightenment ideals of freedom of expression, freedom from state violence, of law-abiding states, etc." (quoted in Milan Rai, Chomsky's Politics, 1995, p.188 n.24). Now compare that with his conviction that "New Deal liberalism ... [and] its achievements, which are the result of a lot of popular struggle, are worth defending and expanding" (The Common Good, 1998, p.5). If this is still not enough, I give you the lagniappe of a "socialist" who worries about the danger that corporations -- social bodies -- pose to individualism, since "[t]here's nothing individualistic about corporations" (Keeping the Rabble in Line, 1994, p.280). Though if that's true, then wouldn't these corporations be veritable fonts of "social solidarity" -- not "private power" -- which would consequently obviate the need for their suppression by "centralized state power"?

My "conclusion" is that Chomsky's political vocabulary, like Skinner's techno-cant, is a dialect of Newspeak that I'll "happily leave to others to decode."

[6] Skinner seems to anticipate this when he writes, "What the layman calls a reward is a 'positive reinforcer'...." (p.31)

[7] The term "wage slavery" is generally associated with Marx's prediction that wages under capitalism would eventually fall to rock bottom, so that the worker, much like a slave, would be laboring for subsistence -- hence, "wage slavery." (Marx actually falsified data to support this prophecy; see Antony Flew in the July 2001 issue of Ideas on Liberty. Engels, for his part, eventually "conceded that workers may earn more than subsistence wages." Mark Skousen, The Making of Modern Economics: The Lives and Ideas of the Great Thinkers, 2001, p.163.)

But near the end of his essay, Chomsky writes, "An increase in wages, in Marx's phrase, 'would be nothing more than a better remuneration of slaves, and would not restore, either to the worker or to the work, their human significance and worth.'" (Original emphasis.) So, whereas subsistence wages drive the worker into "misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality [and] mental degradation" (again, Marx), even ever-increasing wages deny him his "human significance and worth," the absence of which we evidently must acknowledge like the presence of the Emperor's nouveau apparel. Wages plummet, wages soar, wages stagnate -- it's all the same "slavery." Capitalism is not judged by any real standard but is arbitrarily deemed intrinsically evil, thus leaving only the tautology capitalism is bad because capitalism is bad. At this point, our socialists seem to be reduced to moral gibberish -- to paraphrase the Professor.

The moral obscenity lies in Marx's grotesque analogy between the slave driver's whip and the consumer's dollar -- and in Chomsky's quoting of it, which adds an unconscionable analogy between history's brutalized slaves and today's well-paid employees.

[8] Elsewhere in the book (p.390), Chomsky reveals that he (like Marx in "On the Jewish Question") agrees when "Rousseau argues that civil society is hardly more than a conspiracy by the rich to guarantee their plunder."