Noam Chomsky is a very intelligent person. I do have more than a hint of his brilliance in linguistics because I studied formal grammar and languages during my computer science days. It would be foolish to deny his stellar contributions to his field of expertise. It will be equally foolish to take him seriously in matters that are outside his field.
Insight, knowledge and understanding in some domain does not overflow into other domains, sometimes not even into neighboring domains. Shakespeare was a great poet and an acute observer and commentator on the human condition. But I would not trust him to teach me quantum mechanics.
It’s not possible to be both a great sprinter and a great sumo wrestler. They demand different anatomical features. A sprinter has to be built like a leopard; a sumo wrestler like a rhinoceros.
It is unlikely that a great physicist is also a great mathematician. Here the problem is not due to physical limitations but rather a temporal limitation. To be great in any intellectual domain, you need to not only have the raw brain power but you all have to devote all your time to it. That means that in domains outside your expertise, the best you can do is be an amateur.
Chomsky’s understanding of economics is much better than the average person’s for sure. But that’s a very low bar. The average person on the street has an abysmal understanding of economics.
Chomsky is a socialist. His views on economics cannot be taken seriously. His analysis of economic problems and his policy recommendations are beyond wrong. But then how does he appeal to so many people? All those millions of his fans can’t be wrong, can they?
Yes, the people can be wrong. Chomsky appeals to people because his analysis supports naive intuition, our innate distaste for inequality, our preference for fairness and justice.
Chomsky is not stupid. But he is out of his depth when it comes to economics. Too bad he did not read the likes of Hayek or Mises. He could not have because he only had 24 hours in a day, just like the rest of us.
Go to Chomsky if you wish to learn the theory of grammar, etc. Recommending Chomsky for economics reveals a basic lack of understanding of economics.
10 thoughts on “Chomsky, the Father of Modern Linguistics”
When you are at the peak of some expertise and you try to step outiside that peak you often encounter a deep valley.
I have never argued that Chomsky is a great economist. I have raised or cited him only when he made his assertions with reasons, which were sound to me.
Also, I don’t think one’s opinions should automatically become discredited by virtue of the mere fact that the person is not primarily a domain specialist in a particular field.
Chomsky may not have earned a degree in economics but some of his studies and opinions on matters economic are pretty revealing, not because he is a great linguist but because the reasons that he give are sound.
For instance, in his review of the bicentennial scholarly edition of “Wealth Of Nations” put out by the University of Chicago with an introduction by Nobel Laureate economist George Stigler, he shows how almost everything that he said about Smith was wrong.
And it’s kind of interesting how domain specialist economists misinterpret the founding father of their subject. They repeatedly use Smith’s phrases like ‘invisible hand’ and ‘division of labor’ without even bothering to read what Smith actually said.
So far as Mises is concerned, he is not even recognized by the present mainstream professional economists who have devoted most of their time to study Economics.So it doesn’t make sense to say that a person is out of his depth in economics because he has not read Mises.
So far as Hayek is concerned, I suspect that he has read Hayek and even Rand.
P.S.- 1.)I am not contending that Smith was a prophet of economics and that everything he wrote must be true because he wrote it. But it’s striking to witness domain specialist’s ignorance about Smith while citing him almost everywhere.
2.) Supporting some of Noam Chomsky’s assertions doesn’t imply that one has to agree with his worldview of Socialism. Also, the Socialism which Chomsky espouses is not the Statist Socialism, but Anarcho Syndicalism.
If you find Chomsky’s reasoning sound, we differ in our understanding of the world. Ideologically I am opposed to collectivism, socialism, and communism. I am ideologically opposed to coercion, aggression, and involuntary servitude. Chomsky does not realize that his policy prescriptions involve coercion and aggression; if he did, I am sure because he’s a decent person, he would not advocate them.
I find Chomsky’s reasoning flawed. Great men don’t have to be great and wonderful in all respects.
Chomsky is peddling bullshit, unadulterated bullshit, in that video you linked. Here’s what I suggest. Read what Adam Smith wrote, not what Chomsky claims. That will teach you to take Chomsky seriously. When you have done that, get back to me. Don’t waste time on reading my blog when you can actually learn something from Smith. With digital editions freely available, you can easily search the book for what Smith has to say about “division of labor.”
Regarding Mises. Mises is from a tradition which is different from the neoclassical tradition. It’s called the Austrian School, which is associated with Menger, Bohm-Baverk, et al. Mises, Hayek, Rothbard, Kirzner belong to it. Fellow travelers of the Austrian School are James Buchanan, etc. Neoclassical economics is not the whole of economics, although most universities teach only neoclassical. That’s a sorry state of affairs. That the neoclassical economists don’t value Mises is hardly a great put down on Mises.
I followed your advise and I did look for a digital copy of Wealth Of Nations to find out whether Smith really said what Chomsky claims in the video on ‘Division of Labor’:
Here is the passage from Book V of Wealth of Nations on page 602(the digital copy I used had all five books combined so the page turned out to be 602):
“In the progress of the division of labour, the employment of the far greater part of those who live by labour, that is, of the great body of the people, comes to be confined to a very few very simple operations, frequently to one or two. But the understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgement concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life. Of the great and extensive interests of his country he is altogether incapable of judging, and unless very particular pains have been taken to render him otherwise, he is equally incapable of defending his country in war. The uniformity of his stationary life naturally corrupts the courage of his mind, and makes him regard with abhorrence the irregular, uncertain, adventurous life of a soldier. It corrupts even the activity of his body and renders him incapable of exerting his strength with vigour and perseverance in any other employment than to which he has been bred. His dexterity at his own particular trade seems, in this manner, to be acquired at the expense of his intellectual, social and marital virtues. But in every improved and civilized society this is the state into which the labouring poor, that is, the great body of people, must necessary fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it.”
I have never heard anything even remotely associated with this passage while citing Smith for sermons on Division of Labor. I don’t know on what grounds you are saying that Noam Chomsky’s reading of Wealth of Nations on ‘Division of Labor’ is wrong. He says in the beginning of the video that everyone is familiar with Smith’s earlier passages praising Division of Labor, but when he continues some hundreds of pages later, he sharply condemns Division of Labor. The above passage, that I have cited from Smith’s book, is indeed a sharp condemnation of Division of labor.
So far as Austrian Economics is concerned, Hayek said it somewhere, though I am not able to recollect where he said it, that Austrian School of Economics no longer exists simply because it’s tenets have been absorbed into the mainstream Economics.
Speaking of the present Austrian Economics, it’s hardly anything more than an attempt to revive what Mises, and only Mises(Not Hayek) wrote, most of which is outdated and is simply wrong.
For instance, they insist on Austrian Theory of Trade Cycle of Mises(Developed fully by Hayek) which is outdated and was wrong even in the era in which it was formulated, for instance in explaining the Depression of the 1930s.
As a matter of fact, it was this theory which was one of the many factors responsible for discrediting Hayek as an economist. Yet, Rothbard, who is the father of modern Austrian movement, reused that theory to explain depression of 1930s when even Hayek, who was one of the makers of the theory, admitted that it was caused due to secondary deflation.(One of the closest friend of Hayek, Gottfried Haberler of Harvard, in an interview with Mises Institute remarked :
“You may remember that we published at AEI a little pamphlet, A Discussion with Friedrich von Hayek (1975), where I tried to get him to admit that it was the secondary deflation which made the Great Depression such a disaster rather than large real maladjustments, and I think Hayek would now agree with that. He said it in so many words in that publication.”
Rothbard and Mises both insulated themselves from the criticism of their theories by claiming that Economics is an a priori study and that economic theories cannot be empirically refuted, another outdated view of Mises, which present Austrian School maintains.
Neither Hayek, nor any other student of Mises at his ‘Private Seminar’, including stalwarts like Fritz Machlup ever agreed to his ‘a priori’ contention.
Austrians argue, like Mises, that recessions and even depressions are caused by fractional reserve banking system.
Austrians are obsessed with only one goal, which is worthy to be obsessed with, namely Liberty. But there are other noble goals too and Austrians, embedded in the religious preservation of tenets of Mises and Rothbard, disregard everything else for the sole purpose of preservation of liberty. They would argue that taxation is coercive and in violation of liberty, but they have no answer when confronted with the fact that the amount raised through voluntary charity is not enough to meet the needs of weaker sections of society. In that case, Austrians will argue the way of savages to let poor die out of scarcity of resources in preservation of sacred liberty of individuals.
If anything, one should not take present Austrian School seriously.
P.S.- You may find former Austrian School follower, Bryan Caplan’s essay ‘Why I am not an Austrian economist’ an interesting reading.
Henry Hazlitt is an example of person who was not a domain specialist(In economics) and yet you suggested reading his book “Economics In One Lesson” on your blog.
I found his book “The Failure Of New Economics” more scholarly and quite interesting.
Should one abstain from citing him just because he never took a degree in economics or because he was never recognized as an authority on matters economic by mainstream professionals?
Perhaps you may argue that he had read both Hayek and Mises, but then the argument really becomes that Hazlitt had read and agreed with writers whom you like and therefore he should be taken seriously.
Please note that my claim was that domain expertise does not travel across domains, and that it is unlikely that someone has expertise in multiple domain. Unlikely but not impossible. Also I did not claim that non-experts cannot ever make meaningful observations. Hazlitt was a journalist and he knew how to comprehend and present material. He did not introduce groundbreaking theories of his own in “Economics in One Lesson.” He was doing the job of an author, not the job of an original inventor or discoverer. Degrees in economics are not the salient qualification; it’s whether one is correct in one’s economics.
Chomsky has very important things to say about linguistics. He had nothing much of value to say in political economy. He’s an amateur who is biting off more than he can chew. His reach has far exceeded his grasp.
I have never contested the fact that domain expertise does not travel across domains. Nor have I ever cited Chomsky because of his authority in linguistics or because he is an acclaimed public intellectual. I have cited him only because I had heard from him the ideas that I was putting forward on your blog.Just that.That’s just honesty in not giving reader the impression that the ideas are my own, howsoever absurd they may apparently seem, but that they are of someone else.
Non experts can make meaningful observations, and it was precisely due to this that I put forward some of his comments. Not that I support his worldview or everything he says on Economics. I have heard many of his talks on Economics and found some of it pure moonshine. But those are not often connected to his other comments on the same subject.
So take for example his reading of ‘Wealth of Nations.’ He was absolutely correct in his observation about existence of passage in Smith’s book condemning Division of Labor. That passage is nowhere cited by economists giving talk on Smith.
Another observation was the context in which ‘invisible hand’ is once used in Wealth Of Nations. Now these observations and his Anarcho-Syndicalism thinking are not connected. And so you cannot discard what he says by saying simply that Chomsky doesn’t know anything because he is a Socialist. He is not a domain expert and other ad hominems.
P.S.- I have read Henry Hazlitt, some works of Hayek and Mises too and I admire their works. As a matter of fact, I run a page on Instagram( @pureeconomics ,if you care) with Mises’ picture as the display picture of the page. I use it as a trademark on the pictures that I upload. Nevertheless, there are areas where they were completely wrong, for instance, Hayek in his disregard for Game Theory in his interview with Jack High, Mises’ complete disregard of Econometrics and statistics, et cetera. I may refer to some of them in your future blog posts.
I think you miss my basic point. The point is not that Chomsky is inherently incapable of sound judgement in matters outside his domain. I maintain that a person’s reputation in one domain cannot be used to validate his opinions in other domains. It is not logically necessary but is often the case that the opportunity cost of domain expertise is lack of expertise in other domains.
Be that as it may, Chomsky is wrong in his economics. Many people are wrong about economics. As Rothbard pointed out, “It is no crime to be ignorant of economics, which is, after all, a specialized discipline … But it is totally irresponsible to have a loud and vociferous opinion on economic subjects while remaining in this state of ignorance.”
The average person may not realize that Chomsky is wrong because we are generally decent human beings and want the general welfare. The average person does not realize that what Chomsky recommends would have lead to the opposite effect than the one intended. This is what a study of economics teaches anyone who makes the effort.
I trust Chomsky’s linguistics but not his economics. I trust Hayek’s economics but if he’d ventured into linguistics, I would have not have taken his linguistics seriously.
Here is Thomas Sowell about Noam Chomskey.
Thanks. Please see my post on Nim Chimpsky.
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