Noam Chomsky on the coronavirus pandemic and government responses

The famous scholar is okay with lockdowns and related state-level policy responses

I’ve known Chomsky via various email conversations for two decades now, and have always found him to be refreshingly responsive to reasonable questions. I also met him briefly in real life at a conference in Tucson, Arizona, and he was kind and gracious to me and everyone else he interacted with.

Chomsky has long been a defender of a type of “left libertarianism,” or progressive libertarianism, which is wary of concentrations of power in all its forms, whether that power is government or corporate or some other entity. Power corrupts… as the saying goes.

After I finished law school in 2001, the momentous 9/11 attacks came later that summer. The world changed in many ways that all of us are familiar with, and in some ways that many of us are not aware of.

I’ve been inspired by Chomsky’s work over the years and have read a number of his books. I learned a lot about how the world works and U.S. history, the abuse of power, and different ways of thinking about good government. I’ve self-identified as a Chomskyan left libertarian for some time now. I am a progressive lefty because I care about people and the environment. We need to improve many things about the world. But I’m also very wary of power and its abuses. That’s why I’m a left libertarian.

In light of the coronavirus pandemic I’ve been innately skeptical of state and national government responses, which in many cases seemed at times to be unnecessarily severe, and not considering all of the public policy impacts that such policies can bring.

I interviewed Noam on these topics, by email, in early June. As you’ll see he’s not at this point worried about state-level lockdowns in response to the pandemic, viewing the pandemic as a real threat requiring strong government action.

TH: Hi Noam , I read a little about your thoughts on the government response to the coronavirus and was surprised to see you apparently are fairly supportive of lockdown approaches, with all of the civil liberties and potential for abuse of power such drastic approaches can bring. I have looked to your book Understanding Power as a sort of Bible for my own political thinking, with its equal admonitions to beware of the abuse of power by corporate entities as well as by government entities. Since you are historically a left libertarian I’m curious if you think in this case that such strong exercise of government power is warranted given the risk of the virus, or have you more generally relaxed your libertarian political philosophy to some degree?

NC: No change in my left libertarian views, but they do not justify a policy of letting people race around the streets shooting people at random with assault rifles — which is pretty much what is at stake [referring to some protests in Wisconsin and other states by gun-toting mostly conservative activists].

TH: Do you worry about the potential for abuse of power in the future by governments claiming public health emergencies to justify civil liberties crack downs? It’s hard, for example, not to see a connection between China’s new extension of mainland laws into Hong Kong as part of this trend.

NC: There is such a potential, just as there is in the assault rifle case. We have to be wary, not so much of the lockdowns as the new surveillance techniques that are being implemented

TH: I see the new surveillance policies (all voluntary in the US, for now, but that could well change) as part of the potential for abuse of power in Western states as well as more repressive ones like China. Since economic lockdowns have never occurred in Western states at anything like this severity (at least not in the last century) it seems that we should be certain of the severity of the threat — and the lack of other measures sufficient to address the threat while preserving civil liberties. This is a “scalpel not sledgehammer” kind of argument about the kind of policies we should be implementing. How do we, as observers and advocates for political progress, go about assessing threats identified by governments as being sufficient to justify such extreme measures like lockdowns or invasive surveillance? In other words, how can we know when to push back or when to go along because such extreme measures may be justified?

NC: You just have to think it through, case by case. Lockdowns are a response to an emergency, they will be lifted and provide governments with no permanent power. Surveillance and control is constant and expanding, primarily by corporate power though the state can get in the act.

TH: But isn’t history replete with temporary measures, justified by emergency or war or terrorism, that become permanent?

NC: Yes, but you have to look at their nature. The lockdown provides the government with no new authority, and to impose a lockdown at will — say to prevent an election — would be the equivalent of a coup, which can take place at any time.

TH: How do you think this will play out in terms of the upcoming national elections? Trump has been on the rampage about expansion of mail-in voting, even though recent research has found it will probably have no significant impact favoring either major party (due to changes in party allegiance across demographics). I guess I worry about Democratic governors’ willingness to impose extreme lockdowns as somehow a harbinger or gateway for Trump to exercise his own extreme policies against threats that he and his base perceive (rightly or wrongly).

NC: I suppose the lockdown will be used in the ultraright efforts to undermine any government interference with the rights to maximal profit and exploitation, like the astroturf operations now attacking state capitals.

The voting fraud lies are an old Republican tactic, part of their efforts to remain in the game as their voting base shrinks to evangelicals, white supremacists, and the like. It’s been disproven endlessly. I don’t think lockdown is a problem for the reasons I mentioned

TH: Please know that I adore you and your work but I’m being reminded of the critiques of Bush’s illegal drone war, mostly from the Left and justified (in my view), diminishing dramatically when Obama came into office and actually expanded the illegal drone war. If the political leanings of the governors who have pursued severe lockdowns were reversed do you think you’d feel the same way?

NC: If the Federal government tried to reverse a governor-ordered lockdown, I’d look into the circumstances to see if it’s justified, Republican or Democrat doesn’t matter.

TH: Just to be sure I was clear in my question: I was asking if the political party of the governors imposing lockdowns were Republican rather than mostly Democrat do you think you’d feel the same way in terms of accepting the necessity or wisdom of lockdowns?

NC: Makes no difference who they are.

Public policy, green energy, climate change, technology, law, philosophy, biology, evolution, physics, cosmology, foreign policy, futurism, spirituality