Neoliberalism in the 21st Century
Since the 2016 presidential election, the term neoliberalism has come to be used as an all-crushing epithet. George Monbiot, for example, suggests that neoliberals are literally the root of all our problems. Yet, a brave few are willing to stand up and be counted as neoliberalism’s defenders. The Niskanen Center’s Samuel Hammond, for example, was recently interviewed in Vice on what it means to be a neoliberal.
“Neoliberalism” refers to a set of overlapping political and philosophical commitments, rather than a precise ideology. As modern Whigs, we are free market globalists, and evangelists of the amazing power of trade liberalization to create wealth, eliminate disease, lift hundreds of millions of people from poverty, and end the pre-conditions for war. At the same time, we are more pragmatic and consequentialist than our utopian and deontological libertarian counterparts… We believe free markets and commercial capitalism are the tools of social justice, rather than the enemy.
The Vice piece is the latest in a round of hand-wringing over who exactly deserves the condemnation implied by the term neoliberal. Jonathan Chait kicked off the affair by suggesting, perhaps, no one is to blame.
The ubiquitous epithet is intended to separate its target — liberals — from the values they claim to espouse. By relabeling self-identified liberals as “neoliberals,” their critics on the left accuse them of betraying the historic liberal cause.
And so the term neoliberal frames the political debate in a way that perfectly suits the messaging needs of left-wing critics of liberalism. The uselessness of “neoliberalism” as an analytic tool is the very thing that makes it useful as a factional messaging device for the left.
Yet, I think Corey Robin gets something right in his sardonic take on the neoliberal mind.
We, the heroic few, are willing to look upon reality as it is, to take up solutions from any side of the political spectrum, to disavow anything that smacks of ideological rigidity or partisan tribalism.
That Peters wound up embracing solutions in [a Neoliberal’s Manifesto] that put him comfortably within the camp of GOP conservatism (he even makes a sop to school prayer) never seemed to disturb his serenity as a self-identified iconoclast. That was part of the neoliberal esprit de corps: a self-styled philosophical promiscuity married to a fairly conventional ideological fidelity.
There is something fundamentally hybrid about neoliberals. I embrace the term, yet my intellectual background and native sympathies lie on the right, not the left. Neoliberalism most readily brings to mind a certain type of libertarian who never quite bought the discarded philosophical case for liberty. It’s someone who was more enamored by Milton Friedman than Murray Rothbard; liked Nozick but preferred Rawls; and saw the failures of Eurosclerosis as just as relevant to the case for free markets, as Cold War-era anti-communism. It’s the cast of mind described in a Medium post by Sam Bowman, the executive director of the Adam Smith Institute.
Crucially, it also connotes the type of libertarian who saw free-market liberals as heroic bedfellows. Their heroism lies in the courage to overcome the anti-market bias of the left. Ours was in embracing them and so transcending the anti-left bias endemic to the right. Together we are a muddy middle of liberal philosophy and libertarian policy solutions.
In practice, this implies that we’re suspicious of regulation, but embrace redistribution. I often tell my more conservative friends that I’ve made my peace with the welfare state. That, however, isn’t entirely honest. The truth is that I wholeheartedly embrace the welfare state as a tool for empowering people to live happy, fulfilling, self-directed lives. My primary concern regarding the welfare state is making it less intrusive in the choices of individuals, families, and communities.
In part, I think this is important because intrusion is domineering and unpleasant. Even when it begins with the best of intentions, paternalism too often turns into an opportunity for those writing the rules to show off—or, in econ nerd terms, to “signal”—how virtuous they are by imposing virtuous behavior on others.
Even more importantly, top down intrusion tends to have what my colleague Jeffrey Friedman would call a “homogenizing effect” on civil society. It constrains the diversity of life paths and approaches that folks take to meet their goals. This is harmful because none of us, even the most sophisticated thinkers and social scientists, really knows the best method to deal with society’s varied problems. Indeed, we don’t even know what we don’t know. Not only science and technology, but culture and norms are constantly evolving in ways that open up new avenues to the good life. Top down rules constrain that exploration process and lock us into antiquated modes of living.
The liberalism that neoliberalism embraces most deeply is the diverse, pluralistic, churning of a liberal society. It is one that is, in some sense, always on the edge, in search for what’s next, but at the same time containing pockets of traditionalism; small enclaves in which people preserve and pass on the elements of civil society they find most valuable.
Put simply, neoliberals desire to enact the sort of open, trial-and-error society, that both pushes the limits of human progress while maintaining space to preserve what works. If it seems like neoliberalism has something for everyone, it’s because that’s the point. We don’t pretend to know any individual’s best life-path. But we will fight to the death to preserve the system we believe enables each and every individual to discover the good life for themselves.