Noam Chomsky: Money Grubbing Hypocrite?

Peter Schweizer reports in the National Post that anti-capitalist activist Noam Chomsky is putting his substantial personal wealth into capitalistic tax shelters.

One of the most persistent themes in Noam Chomsky’s work has been class warfare. The iconic MIT linguist and left-wing activist frequently has lashed out against the “massive use of tax havens to shift the burden to the general population and away from the rich,” and criticized the concentration of wealth in “trusts” by the wealthiest 1%. He says the U.S. tax code is rigged with “complicated devices for ensuring that the poor — like 80% of the population — pay off the rich.”

But trusts can’t be all bad. After all, Chomsky, with a net worth north of US$2-million, decided to create one for himself. A few years back he went to Boston’s venerable white-shoe law firm, Palmer and Dodge, and, with the help of a tax attorney specializing in “income-tax planning,” set up an irrevocable trust to protect his assets from Uncle Sam. He named his tax attorney (every socialist radical needs one!) and a daughter as trustees. To the Diane Chomsky Irrevocable Trust (named for another daughter) he has assigned the copyright of several of his books, including multiple international editions.

Chomsky favours massive income redistribution — just not the redistribution of his income. No reason to let radical politics get in the way of sound estate planning.

When I challenged Chomsky about his trust, he suddenly started to sound very bourgeois: “I don’t apologize for putting aside money for my children and grandchildren,” he wrote in one e-mail. Chomsky offered no explanation for why he condemns others who are equally proud of their provision for their children and who try to protect their assets from Uncle Sam. (However, Chomsky did say that his tax shelter is OK because he and his family are “trying to help suffering people.”)

Hat tip to Dean Esmay, who does not find this surprising. Nor do I.

Granting that I haven’t read much Chomsky lately, my take on him is that his is critical of capitalism as a system and tax shelters as government policy. His objections are moralistic, yes, but on a societal rather than an individual basis. Presuming my premise is correct, then Chomsky’s behavior as decribed by Schweizer is perfectly reasonable.

To take a silly example, I think the Designated Hitter is an abomination. Nonetheless, were I the owner or manager of an American League ballclub (or a National League club playing an interleague game), I would of course employ a DH. One plays the game by the rules as they exist even while working to change them.

To take a more relevant example, I would like to see the home mortgage interest deduction phased out (abolition would be unfair to those who made expensive economic decisions based on its existence). Given that the deduction is available, however, I not only claim it but make other financial decisions based on its existence.

I am, to say the least, no fan of Chomsky’s politics. This particular criticism, though, strikes me as unwarranted.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. M1EK says:

    Exactly. I’m a guy who argues for more and better public transportation in my city; and quite often people say that you’re a hypocrite if you do so while still driving your car. Same logic applies; I’m pushing for the implementation of something good enough for me to use; but in the meanwhile, taking a couple hours extra a day to avoid charges of hypocrisy is stupid.

  2. Mark says:

    I believe it was also exposed that George Soros – as much as he likes to dabble in American politics – keeps much of his wealth offshore and out of the reach of the IRS.

    Not that I am criticizing, but for the people who claim that some wealthy people are not “paying their fare share,” it is hypocrisy at the highest level.

  3. Mark says:

    oops – change “fare” to “fair” – hehe

  4. James Joyner says:

    Mark: I agree that it’s hypocritical to criticize people for doing something and then doing it yourself. If Chomsky is saying that it is morally wrong for rich people to shelter their money, he’s a hypocrite for doing so. If, on the other hand, he argues that the tax laws allowing shelters are immoral, taking advantage of them isn’t necessarily a problem.

  5. Steven Plunk says:

    James Joyner hits the nail on the head by pointing out the fact that many throw morality into the public policy debates.

    However, I would disagree with the portion excusing Chomsky’s behavior merely because he argues the law is immoral rather than the people who use the law to their advantage.

    Looking at the effects of Chomsky’s rants against the system we must realize that his followers do not see a difference and he generally does not speak about the difference. The hypocrisy is that he knows the damage his words are doing while not admitting that he himself takes advantage of the laws he condemns. He hides it as a shameful thing.

    But what of us that don’t see anything immoral about the law and we take advantage of it. Certainly he paints us as immoral because we believe in, and support politically, what he calls immoral laws.

  6. adsfadsf says:

    The hypocrisy is that he knows the damage his words are doing while not admitting that he himself takes advantage of the laws he condemns.

    What “damage” have the “words” of a little-read linguist caused? The guy is just an analyst–his words have caused about as much “damage” as those of Vin Scully.

    Get a grip.

  7. whatever says:

    I hate to say this, but if you condemn something, then take advantage of it “because that’s the way it is”, you’re a hypocrite. That goes for James and his DH as well as Chomsky.

    As Gandhi said “Become the change you want to see in the world.”

    What sort of message would James send if he didn’t use the DH that was available to him? That is putting your actions behind your beliefs, and if you’re not willing to do that, then shut the hell up about what you want changed.

  8. Jonk says:

    I just wish he would stick to what he was really good at, linguistic theory.

  9. kyochan says:

    To those who oppose his ideas, one should praise Chomsky as an entrepreneur of ideas only made possible in a free and capitalist society. Those who support his ideas, maybe it is time to reconsider.

    However, to this day hypocracy is still not a crime so I do not find Chomsky’s actions objectionable.

  10. Mythilt says:

    Jonk, from talking with friends in linguistics, Chompsky’s linguistic theories aren’t all that good either. Some of the stuff he did back in the early 60’s was quite good, but pretty much nothing since then. There is a reason he and his closest linguistic disiples will not formally specify his theories, nor allow them to be scientifically tested.

  11. Jonk says:

    I like his stuff from the early ’60s…I am still undecided on it. But I find him hard to stomach, so I find it difficult to be objective.