Neoliberalism one more time

Regular readers will be familiar with the long debate on the term “neoliberalism” – where it comes from, what it means, and whether it’s possible to use it in any useful or coherent way. If you want to get up to speed on the topic, you can read my survey of some of the history here, with later updates here and here.

In the first of those pieces, written for Crikey in 2017, I refer to an article by Sam Bowman, the then director of Britain’s Adam Smith Institute, who tried to reclaim “neoliberalism” as a description of pro-market thinking that was also universalist, empirical and non-dogmatic. On another occasion he described his project as trying to “build a new identity for like-minded people who are sickened by the libertarian flirtation with the alt-right and want to be able to identify themselves as open-minded, liberal believers in the power of markets to improve the human condition.”

Now Bowman is back with some thoughts on the lessons of the Covid-19 crisis.* He sees a distinction between “self-declared libertarians” who have mostly become “Covid deniers” or “lockdown skeptics”, and “neoliberals” like himself who are “fairly supportive of government measures to control the spread, while being critical of measures imposed that seem to have little basis in what we know about the disease.”

From this he draws a more general moral:

The underlying difference between libertarians and neoliberals here reflects a key political division of the internet age: extreme, at times pathological, skepticism of authority information sources on the fringes of both the left and right. This kind of extreme skepticism is often useful—authority information sources are often basically just making things up, as we saw with early public health advice against wearing masks and, in the US, we continue to see with advice against vaping. But when you only apply skepticism to authority information sources and allow conspiracy theories and quacks to pass through your filter without any scrutiny, you’re in trouble.

Hence the need for the sensible sort of free-market liberals to distinguish themselves from the “right-wing Jacobins” who are “drifting towards nationalist, conspiratorial ways of thinking.”

Whether or not you like Bowman’s terminology is a side issue. The key thing is that I think he’s identified a very real and growing divide. It’s a divide that’s always been there to some extent – back in 2014 Jeffrey Tucker distinguished between humanitarian and brutalist libertarians – but with the rise of Donald Trump it’s become much more salient.

The health crisis has exposed this very starkly. If you have any humanitarian instincts at all (and thankfully most of us do), it’s hard to reconcile yourself to sharing a platform with people who see the whole thing as a giant opportunity for trolling. Suddenly they no longer look like harmless provocateurs, but like killers. Something has to give.

As long as different people think of themselves as fundamentally on the same side, a lot of disagreements on specific policy and even philosophical issues can be papered over. What one might call the “pro-market” movement has mostly retained that sense of itself for a long time; longer than I think it should. Now, however, it seems to be coming apart.

The challenge that the Trumpists are posing to liberal democracy is not something that can be compromised with or swept under the carpet. People and organisations are having to take sides, and many are shocked to find that those they thought of as friends and allies are now on the opposite side.

Bowman identifies three issues that could form the core of the “neoliberal agenda”: overcoming barriers to urban housing supply, support for immigration and introduction of carbon pricing. It’s surely no coincidence that the last two are among the most hated targets of the Trumpists, and even the first is starting to arouse their opposition as well.

My point is not that Bowman is deliberately defining a program so as to alienate Trump supporters and their fellow-travellers (although perhaps he is). Rather it’s that the issues that divide the two sides – exclusiveness vs inclusiveness, nationalism vs cosmopolitanism, exploitation of the environment vs conservation – can no longer be waved aside as peripheral concerns. Like it or not, they have become central to political debate.

I agree with all three of Bowman’s suggestions, but I fear that there is a still more urgent priority, namely the defence and reinforcement of the basic institutions of democracy. We are in for the fight of our lives, and if democracy falls, housing prices will be the least of our worries.

* Thanks to Nigel Ashford for drawing this to my attention.


7 thoughts on “Neoliberalism one more time

  1. Is it possible to be an ‘open-minded … believer’? Surely a natural part of the meaning of describing somebody as a believer is an exclusion or at least a limitation of open-mindedness.

    Separately, to suppose that the expression ‘basic institutions of democracy’ is meaningful is to ignore a powerful underlying source of tension. It will often be the case that defending democracy and defending an institution (or institutions) happen to coincide, but for any given institution there is an ever-present possibility of the institution coming into conflict with democracy. The impulse to defend an institution as such is an anti-democratic impulse.


    1. Thanks J-D. Yes, we certainly sometimes use the word “believer” in such a way that you’d have to say it limited open-mindedness. But I don’t think that’s the only use; I think Bowman is just talking about people who have certain beliefs (about the efficacy of markets, etc), rather than having a sort of religious adherence to them. You can certainly have beliefs but still be open-minded.

      As to the second point, yes, I suppose in principle any particular institution could at some point come to conflict with the demands of democracy. But I think in the reality of our present circumstances, certain institutions – notably free elections, a free press and the right of peaceful protest – can fairly be described as fundamental to democracy. Not in all possible worlds, but in all likely ones.


      1. I suppose there doesn’t _necessarily_ have to be a contradiction between ‘believing’ in the power of markets to improve the human condition and being ‘open-minded’ about the power of markets to improve the human condition, but they also aren’t automatically consistent, so in order to judge whether Sam Bowman’s position is coherent it would be necessary to know more in detail about the ways in which he believes and the ways in which he is open-minded.

        I observed in general that defending an institution and defending democracy will often coincide, and this is true (that they often coincide) with particular reference to the specific institutions you mention: once again, to know whether they coincide in a particular instance it is necessary to know more in detail about what they’re being defended against, how they’re being defended, and what the circumstances are that make the defence a priority. In the US right now, for example, both Democrats and Republicans would claim that they are defending free elections against their opponents, but in order to judge whether their behaviour is consistent with the defence of democracy it’s necessary to judge whether the threats against which they claim to be defending free elections really are threats to democracy.


  2. > On another occasion he described his project as trying to “build a new identity for like-minded people who are sickened by the libertarian flirtation with the alt-right and want to be able to identify themselves as open-minded, liberal believers in the power of markets to improve the human condition.”

    Alas, Sam Bowman has failed to remain true his own standards. In January he tweeted that he’d prefer Trump to Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.


    1. Oh dear. No, I hadn’t seen that. I can sort of understand how a liberal free-marketer might come to prefer to Trump to Sanders (altho I disagree strongly, and said so at the time), but certainly not Warren.


  3. The Niskanen group delivers pretty much what Bowman wants in the US, or for a slightly more traditionalist version, the Bulwark group (Charlie Sykes and others). But as soon as they cut loose from Trumpism, these groups rapidly realised that the entire Republican party is rotten, and that it’s necessary to support (almost) any Democrat against any (no exceptions) Republican.
    In the UK, I guess the Liberal Democrats come pretty close to what he want, except that their only actual function (given the operations of the UK system) has been to support and re-elect Trumpist governments.
    There really is no political space for what I’ve called hard neoliberalism any more.


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