Speaking of Liberty


Liberty and Language, by Geoffrey Sampson, New York: Oxford University Press, 1979, 262 pp., $17.95.

Although scientists with a libertarian orientation are becoming more and more common these days, it is always a pleasant surprise to find one in one's own field. Geoffrey Sampson does theoretical linguistics, a relatively new discipline and one that is not well known outside the university (and often even within it). Linguistics is the scientific study of language—language as a human characteristic and as a human activity. Although it employs concepts from sociology, psychology, anthropology, and even physics and physiology, it has also developed its own complete conceptual structure and a number of competing theories.

The founder of what is perhaps the most widely accepted linguistic theory today, transformational grammar, is Noam Chomsky, a professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an outspoken, activist member of what used to be called the New Left (he was on Nixon's "enemies list"). Chomsky is a socialist anarchist, and what is unusual about his political beliefs is that he claims that they flow out of his discoveries about the nature of human language. Sampson's purpose in Liberty and Language is to show that Chomsky's view of language, to the extent that it is correct, supports a libertarian rather than socialist political arrangement.

Sampson is English, and he espouses a set of views that he identifies as liberalism. It is clear that he means the set of beliefs that in the United States have come to be called libertarian. As intellectual support for his position, he cites Karl Popper and F.A. Hayek exclusively (an unfortunate lapse, as we shall see).

Chomsky's philosophical position is rationalism. He believes that much of our knowledge of the world is innate—provided not by divine gift but through evolution. In particular, he claims that the nature of human language is entirely determined by built-in structures of the mind that are present at birth. The evidence for this, Chomsky (and Sampson) claims, is that the grammars of all languages, no matter how different the languages, share certain fundamental characteristics that are not logically necessary but nevertheless turn out to be universal. From this fact, Chomsky concludes that the rationalists were right all along that the human mind is equipped with structures for understanding the world.

Since empiricism—the view that all our knowledge is gained by experience—is the fundamental philosophy of liberalism (libertarianism), says Chomsky, that must also be wrong. He virtually equates behaviorism with empiricism and goes on to claim that empiricism leads necessarily to totalitarianism: "If in fact man is an indefinitely malleable, completely plastic being, with no innate structures of mind and no intrinsic needs of a cultural or social character, then he is a fit subject for the 'shaping of behavior' by the state authority, the corporate manager, the technocrat, or the central committee" (Chomsky, For Reasons of State, p. 184).

But are extreme empiricism or extreme rationalism the only alternatives? Of course not. Sampson shows not only that empiricism does not require behaviorism but also that Chomsky's particular brand of nativism is very likely to be fodder for racism and imperialism of the worst sort. If most of what we consider to be intelligence is inherited, as Chomsky believes it to be, then, like all other genetic characteristics, it is likely to vary among racial groups, giving additional scientific credibility to all sorts of possible racist mischief. Sampson himself believes the claim that blacks are, on the average, less intelligent than whites (and also that orientals are more intelligent). He also makes the correct observation that such facts are interesting but ought to have no consequences for public policy.

After pointing out that Chomsky's rationalism cannot be used to defend the kind of political system that he advocates, Sampson goes on to the most interesting part of the book—a demonstration that the nature of language itself provides strong evidence for the necessity of a libertarian society. Sampson's argument rests on the fact that human beings are ignorant, that they are continually discovering new facts about the world and inventing new theories to explain them. Such theories achieve acceptance through what amounts to a marketplace of ideas, which can only exist in a society organized along libertarian lines, where each idea is free to compete for the loyalties of everyone involved. Sampson then shows that intellectual freedom is impossible unless it exists in a matrix of economic laissez-faire as well. If the government owns the means of production, it owns the printing presses and all other means of disseminating ideas.

Coupled with the inherent ignorance of human beings is their ability to be creative, to think of things in a new way and to use their language to express those innovations. As the vehicle for human creativity, language allows us to state concepts that were previously inconceivable. Sampson cites the example of the following (now) true statement: "The elements of which water is composed burn furiously." Three hundred years ago, when water was one of the elements, this statement was nonsensical. Now it makes perfect sense. It is the very flexibility and creativity of language that makes possible the kind of scientific, philosophical, and even artistic exploration that human beings depend on to survive.

While the argumentation is intriguing and the book develops many new ideas, it does have some drawbacks. First, because Sampson relies exclusively on Hayek and Popper, he is led to some very unlibertarian conclusions. He believes that trade unions should be outlawed because they are monopolistic and one of the functions of government is to limit monopolistic trade practices. Readers of this publication can easily write their own disproofs of that claim. Second, he has a very interesting view of classical imperialism: he is in favor of it. He believes that free countries have the right to administer foreign lands if those lands were previously run by authoritarian native leaders. "If a nation, because of its cultural traditions, has no serious chance of [developing] 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."

While this argument will no doubt be repugnant to many American libertarians, especially those espousing total nonintervention, it would be beneficial for all of us to take a good look at his claim. Is self-determination really an ideal equal in status to that of free trade and freedom from government interference in the lives of its citizens? For example, would an independent, but socialist Quebec be a better place to live than a "colonial" but capitalistic province of Canada? And whatever the answer, what are its implications for free countries? These are questions that deserve more careful study than libertarians have recently been willing to give them.

I would recommend this book for a number of reasons. First, because it is likely to be read by nonlibertarian linguists (as a linguist myself I can attest to the fact that they are in the vast majority). Second, because it contains some very interesting and original ideas on the nature of rationalism and empiricism and the question of innate ideas. As a brief for libertarianism it is not terribly good—Rand, Rothbard, even Nozick, are better introductions. As a scientific argument, however, put forward by a person relying on results in his own, relatively unknown field, it is a valuable contribution to the literature of liberty and contains much food for discussion.

Geoffrey S. Nathan is a professor of linguistics at the Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.