My name is Chris, and I’m a neoliberal. Well, at least I think I am. One can never be quite sure. The question of what defines a neoliberal and the significance of the term itself consistently drums up a somewhat bizarre debate with various points of view ranging from the idea that neoliberalism has dominated the world for the last 40 years (and literally the root of all our problems) to claims that neoliberalism is a completely meaningless term.
I don’t have any real stake in this debate – deciding what label should be used to describe people is almost always a fruitless exercise. It seems to me that neoliberal has been used primarily as an insult used by the Left to disparage people who think free markets are generally good, a point made in a recent article by Jonathan Chait. It is important to point out that neoliberal does not only refer to the hardcore libertarian end of the political spectrum. Clinton and Obama are lumped into the same label as Reagan and Bush. However, I think most people agree that the source of the so-called neoliberal movement comes from the strongest supporters of laissez-faire, market-oriented economics. Hayek, Friedman, and other big names in the libertarian community were the ones who set the neoliberal train in motion.
But as soon as they acknowledge the founding fathers of neoliberalism, many analyses of neoliberal thought tend to go off the rails. Perhaps the best example of the kind of thinking I am talking about is a 2014 article by Philip Mirowski entitled “The Political Movement that Dared not Speak its own Name: The Neoliberal Thought Collective Under Erasure.” Mirowski has dedicated much of his career to explaining the expansion of neoliberal thought. It is immediately clear that he opposes essentially all of its primary tenets, but of course anybody can be fascinated by a philosophy without agreeing with it. Unfortunately, Mirowski’s work paints (in my admittedly biased point of view) an incredibly misleading picture of not only what neoliberals believe, but also what their ultimate goals are.
Mirowski states his favored definition of neoliberal as “the dependence upon the strong state to pursue the disenchantment of politics by economics.” Hmm. Is that unintelligible to everybody or just me? Luckily, he also provides a longer list of principles he believes neoliberals adhere to (which he takes from Ben Fink):
(1) “Free” markets do not occur naturally. They must be actively constructed through political organizing. (2) “The market” is an information processor, and the most efficient one possible—more efficient than any government or any single human ever could be. (3) Market society is, and therefore should be, the natural and inexorable state of humankind. (4) The political goal of neoliberals is not to destroy the state, but to take control of it, and to redefine its structure and function, in order to create and maintain the market-friendly culture. (5) There is no contradiction between public/politics/citizenship and private/ market/entrepreneur-and- consumerism—because the latter does and should eclipse the former. (6) The most important virtue—more important than justice, or anything else—is freedom, defined “negatively” as “freedom to choose”, and most importantly, defined as the freedom of corporations to act as they please. (7) Capital has a natural right to flow freely across national boundaries—labor, not so much. (8) Inequality—of resources, income, wealth, and even political rights—is a good thing; it prompts productivity, because people envy the rich and emulate them; people who complain about inequality are either sore losers or old fogies, who need to get hip to the way things work nowadays. (9) Corporations can do no wrong—by definition. (10) The market, engineered and promoted by neoliberal experts, can always provide solutions to problems seemingly caused by the market in the first place: there’s always “an app for that.” (11) There is no difference between is and should be: “free” markets both should be (normatively) and are (positively) most the efficient economic system, and the most just way of doing politics, and the most empirically true description of human behavior, and the most ethical and moral way to live—which in turn explains, and justifies, why their versions of “free” markets should be, and as neoliberals build more and more power, increasingly are, universal.
So how many people would agree to all of the points above? I haven’t taken a survey, but if I did I can almost guarantee the result would be zero. The above description is not even a strawman of the philosophy of people like Friedman and Hayek (or me). On some points, it’s probably not too far off, but on others it’s either misleading or just blatantly false (I take particular issue with 1, 5, 7, 9, 10, and 11). Both the tone (of course all neoliberals regard people who complain about inequality as “sore losers or old fogies”) and the content are apparently designed to position neoliberalism as a front for the elites in society to retain their power. It is the unholy alliance of state and corporate power that drives the neoliberal doctrine.
Now, if you’ve ever read Friedman or Hayek (or my blog) and gotten a very different picture of what it means to be a neoliberal I don’t blame you at all (Note: I prefer to label myself libertarian, but again I’m not concerned about labels here – if Friedman and Hayek are neoliberal then so am I). While the state is certainly necessary to provide some of the features that neoliberals deem conducive to a prosperous society (property rights certainly seem to be a necessary condition), to claim that they “explicitly proposed policies to strengthen the state” is disingenuous. Mirowski gives two examples of such policies from Friedman: his plan to have the central bank grow the money supply at a constant rate and to replace public schools with vouchers. It’s certainly true that both of these policies require a state, but Mirowski chooses to avoid the fact that each requires significantly less state intervention than the current setup. Does he mean to argue that the state providing vouchers to attend private schools requires more state power than the government actually running the schools themselves? I can’t imagine.
Even Mirowski admits that the rhetoric of the neoliberal movement is aimed at promoting the freedom of the individual and limiting the power of the state. But here’s where it gets interesting. Instead of taking neoliberals at their word, Mirowski claims that all of this talk of liberty and freedom is really just a way to “postpone the truth as long as possible when it comes to the nature of the society they are dedicated to bring about.” All of those videos on Youtube of Milton Friedman exquisitely extolling the virtues of a free society? Yeah he doesn’t really believe any of that. The only reason you think he does is because you haven’t “devoted years of their lives to reading the neoliberals, as I [Mirowski] have.”
I think a more accurate statement might be that you haven’t spent years reading the neoliberals and doing everything in your power to find ways to make them look bad. As another person who has spent years reading the neoliberals, I’m almost sure that Milton Friedman believed every word of what he said in those Youtube videos. Mirowski continues in a footnote:
I am always shocked to find the infrastructure of the Neoliberal Thought Collective is always far more developed than any of my private paranoid fantasies. Not only is Free to Choose available on the ubiquitous YouTube, but there is also a slick dedicated website called FreetoChoose.tv, with extended unedited tape from the series…It also includes video lectures from many other neoliberal figures
This comment confuses me. The “infrastructure” of the neoliberal conspiracy is so highly developed that it even has videos on Youtube and *GASP* even a website?! There are two explanations. Either Mirowski has been so engulfed in his study of neoliberalism that he doesn’t realize we are in the 21st century, or he hasn’t had time to look at literally any other topic in the world. I don’t know what his “private paranoid fantasies” consist of, but if you can’t find a website dedicated to them, they must be pretty darn weird.
Jokes aside, Mirowski’s surprise at the lengths the neoliberal movement has gone to promote its message make more sense if we consider it in the context of his broad message. If the freedom rhetoric of the neoliberal movement is really just a front for its desire to strengthen the state and please the elites, his concern makes a lot more sense. For him, the tools of the “Neoliberal Thought Collective” are about as powerful and almost as terrifying as Nazi propaganda. Of course, there’s a far less pernicious reason why the reach of the free market movement extends so far: Its supporters truly care about its message and believe that it will lead to a better world.
And this point seems to be the one that those on the left have such a hard time grasping. They simply can’t believe that anybody honestly believes free markets would lead to a better society. The only explanation is that there is some grand neoliberal conspiracy driving it all. The elites (usually the Kochs take a starring role here) and their economist cronies put on a nice show. They bamboozle the public with nice words like freedom and liberty to draw support to their cause, but their real goal is to be the architects of the society they desire (and probably line their pockets while they’re at it).
Nancy Maclean’s recent book on James Buchanan is an excellent example of such a story. In her account, Buchanan carried out a “stealth plan” to destroy democracy and enact his own vision for the United States (which happened to include many racist policies). I haven’t read Maclean’s book, but I have read several interviews and I find her thesis very odd. Weren’t many of the civil rights victories only possible precisely because of limits on democracy? This post is already long and since I am not an expert on Buchanan and I haven’t read the book I don’t want to comment too much on Maclean’s point specifically (see here, here, and here for some reviews by people who do know what they’re talking about). But I think it does tie into exactly the same kind of thinking illustrated by Mirowski. Never is any probability given to the possibility that Buchanan actually just wanted to improve the system of government in the US. Since his methods were different than progressives, he must be racist and selfish. And since he can’t say those things outright, he had to hide them.
I can’t speak for Buchanan. I don’t know what was really going on in the brains of Friedman or Hayek. Maybe they are all just frauds. But I do know with certainty that there exists at least one person that supports free market policies because he actually thinks they are good (full disclosure: I have received Koch money to attend conferences at the Koch funded Institute for Humane Studies – but I got that money because I am libertarian, not the other way around). I’ve met many other people who are either great actors or are genuinely convinced that markets work well and are beneficial for the vast majority of society. They aren’t hiding those beliefs. They aren’t huddled behind closed doors trying to devise ways to lead everyone else into a trap. There is no hidden meaning behind their words. There is no neoliberal conspiracy.