Polls, Free Markets & Vietnam

Below is Noam Chomsky’s response to a question in the Z Sustainer chat board where Noam hosts a forum.   

ZSustainer: Hi Noam, I was wondering what you thought of the poll results recently released by PIPA, which showed a "striking consensus" on the statement, "the free enterprise system and free market economy is the best system on which to base the future of the world, with an average 61% agreeing.     

Noam Chomsky: The poll was interesting, but one has to look at it carefully.  First, just to mention the conclusions, the major ones were:     

(1) "a striking global consensus that the free market economic system is best"

(2) "an even greater consensus in favor of more government regulation of large companies."

(3) Large majorities agree that "Large companies have too much influence over our national government." In the US, 85% agree, 59% strongly. 

So the respondents are calling for more government regulation of large businesses, which undermine democracy.  And are also calling for a "free market," that is, one with no government regulation of businesses.

That raises the question what people mean by "free market." They can’t possibly mean what exists in the US, or anywhere else in the world (except impoverished countries subject to structural adjustment and neoliberal rules instituted by force, as in Haiti, for example).  Just to take the US, departure from free market principles is extreme.  Just take what you and I are now using: computers and the internet.  Like most of the "new economy," they largely derive from the state sector of the economy.  And that’s just the beginning.   

Presumably people mean something like the economies of the rich industrial countries, that is, some kind of state capitalist economy, which developed by radical violation of free market principles for centuries.  Counter to doctrine, to be sure, but perfectly familiar to economic historians.  And when they say that’s what they prefer, in comparison to what?  Very likely, in comparison to the statist economies of the Soviet sphere — which, awful as they were, raised third world countries to the "second world" of developed societies.  It’s unlikely that respondents know enough recent history to be aware of the great growth period of the modern world: from World War II to the mid-1970s, the period of import substitution and state intervention in much of the South, and of capital controls and regulated currencies in the industrial world.  Few would be aware that the partial imposition of "free market" principles in the "neoliberal" period that followed led to decline in standard macroeconomic indices and other negative effects, more extreme to the extent that countries followed the rules (e.g., Latin America), while growth took place, sometimes spectacular growth, in countries that ignored the rules, as in East Asia.

More careful polling could answer the many questions that arise about what people meant.  But it wasn’t done.  That’s common, and a problem that should always be kept in mind about polls.  I’ve often discussed it.   

To take one case of considerable interest, and current significance, that I’ve frequently discussed, consider attitudes towards the Vietnam war.  The educated classes strongly supported the war, but began to turn against it by the latter part of the 1960s, on grounds that it was a "quagmire," undertaken with noble objectives but becoming too costly to us.  Mainstream debate about Iraq keeps to much the same ground rules. At the left-liberal extreme, Anthony Lewis wrote that the war began with "blundering efforts to do good" but by 1969 it was clear that it was a "disaster," too costly to ourselves.  So we should do what the business community by then preferred and withdraw, leaving the countries in ruin.

Public opinion was also sampled in 1969.  About 70% held that the war was not "a mistake" but was "fundamentally wrong and immoral," a position virtually inexpressible in the mainstream.  That persists.  Public opinion remained about the same until the most recent polls by the same major polling institution, the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, 30 years later.  And the position remained (and remains) virtually inexpressible in the mainstream.  Consistent results over 30 years have considerable credibility.   

What do the results mean?  The director of the study, a respected political scientist, interpreted the results as meaning that respondents felt that too many Americans were being killed.  Possible, but not an obvious interpretation.  On that assumption, for example, why did the vast majority hold that the war was not a mistake? Another possibility is that people meant just what they said, and that it cannot be comprehended within the elite intellectual culture.  It would have been easy enough to find out through the 30 years of polling on these matters, but no attempt was made, to my knowledge. 

Polls are of great value, and tell us a lot.  Particularly when attitudes are consistent and coherent over long periods, as they typically are; a valuable study on this is Benjamin Page and Marshall Bouton, The Foreign Policy Disconnect (2006).  But they always have to be used with caution, particularly when results appear internally contradictory or otherwise obscure.


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