Chomsky and Adam Smith?

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed Dec 5 08:49:30 MST 2001

Adam Smith's identity crisis
Scholarly tug-of-war: Left wing lays claim to founding father of the free

Jeet Heer, National Post

Although Adam Smith is usually considered to be the founding father of
right-wing free market economics, a rising chorus of left-wing academics
are claiming him for their own. The scholars, who argue Smith was a radical
critic of the establishment of his day, would place the famed Scottish
economist next to Jean Jacques Rousseau and Karl Marx and the pantheon of
left-wing thinkers.

Smith is usually associated with conservative politics. In England, the
Adam Smith Institute is a bulwark of Thatcherism. In the United States, The
Leadership Institute markets an Adam Smith necktie that is proudly worn by
such conservative luminaries as House Majority Leader Dick Armey, former
U.S. attorney-general Edwin Meese, Nobel laureate Milton Friedman and
National Right to Work Committee president Reed Larson.

But in the recent book Chomsky on Miseducation, the well-known linguist and
political radical Noam Chomsky describes his own world view as belonging to
"the Left libertarian tradition" which he traces back to Adam Smith.

Chomsky, who has long criticized capitalism, sharply distinguishes between
Smith and his conservative followers, writing that: "It's quite remarkable
to trace the evolution of values from a pre-capitalist thinker like Adam
Smith, with his stress on sympathy and the goal of perfect equality and the
basic human right to creative work, to contrast that and move on to the
present to those who laud the new spirit of the age, sometimes rather
shamelessly invoking Adam Smith's name."

Chomsky's own invocation of Smith is part of a larger trend where scholars
writing from a variety of left-wing perspectives argue that Adam Smith's
ideas have been wrongly appropriated by free marketers. For example, the
May/June issue of the New Left Review includes an article by Michael Watts,
a University of California, Berkeley geographer, who notes that "in his own
day Adam Smith was considered a friend of the poor, a free-thinker ... a
voice for liberty -- not just of trade -- in the widest sense."


Louis Proyect
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