The Adam Smith Institute, an influential British free-market think-tank, has decided to replace the word “libertarian” with “neoliberal” when describing its general worldview. Many of those familiar with the non-profit were unsurprised at this change, which was largely motivated by the work and beliefs of its President Madsen Pirie, Executive Director Sam Bowman, and Head of Research Ben Southwood.
I admire the boldness of the move, and I’m glad that those who use neoliberal as a vacuous synonym for anything they dislike must now address a real group of people with a concrete set of policy proposals that are (often) excellent. Sam was the person who influenced my shift from rights-based defences of liberty to consequentialist ones, and (along with Ben) he is the someone who exemplifies how I hope to approach questions of public policy in my future work.
However, I don’t think this rebrand is the right move. Whilst I’m sceptical of long, drawn-out infighting between advocates of free markets and social liberalism, I’m going to do it anyway: partly for self-indulgence, but also because there are very good reasons for neoliberals, as defined by Sam, to call themselves libertarians instead.
In Sam’s expository piece on the subject, he highlights eight key aspects of neoliberalism. I will briefly explore each in turn and explain why I don’t think he presents a compelling case for abandoning the libertarian moniker:
“We like markets — a lot.”
So do libertarians.
We’re off to a good start!
“We are liberal consequentialists.”
So are many libertarians, at least in practice and rhetoric.
Whilst rights-based justifications for libertarian policies can be the last port of call (mainly in America), libertarian discourse is still dominated by explaining and condemning the negative consequences of government policies. Of course, many libertarians are consequentialists. Whilst there’s truth to Jeffrey Friedman’s contention that libertarianism sometimes hovers between rights-based and consequentialist arguments to the detriment of both, this actually highlights the broad range of attempted justifications for libertarianism. The libertarian that advocates for liberty only as a result of natural rights does exist, but such a figure is confined to a small number of irrelevant Facebook comment warriors. Leading figures in the natural rights libertarian tradition such as Lysander Spooner, Ayn Rand, and Murray Rothbard all spent much of their lives talking about the beneficial consequences of free markets.
When consequentialists who want to reduce the size and/or scope of government deride their friends who support liberty because of a belief in natural rights, they’re often making a mountain out of a molehill. I don’t want to deny the Adam Smith Institute’s lived experiences of encountering solitary “No True Libertarian” types on Twitter who sneer at their support of a Negative Income Tax solely because it violates the Non-Aggression Principle, but there’s plenty of consequentialist arguments deployed by natural-rights libertarians against such policies.
I support a Negative Income Tax, school vouchers, NGDP targeting for central banks, and a Singaporean style healthcare system as improvements on the current state of affairs. So do many libertarians. I might personally want to ride the Freedom Train all the way to market anarchism, but plenty of libertarians would be content with the Adam Smith Institute’s policy proposals as the endgame. My experience with UK libertarians (especially the younger generation) appears to be markedly different from Sam’s; plenty reject the “burn it all down” immediatist mentality for consequentialist reasons.
“We care about the poor.”
So do many libertarians.
Whilst “bleeding-heart libertarianism” (BHL) has not yet become the dominant rhetoric of the libertarian movement in the UK or the US, it’s (happily) growing in influence. Virtually every libertarian is “bleeding-heart” in the weak sense; there are very few of us who think free markets hurt the most marginalized in society. More pertinently, there are also many bleeding-heart libertarians (e.g. Matt Zwolinski, Jason Brennan) who support free markets only because they help the poor. These “strong” BHLers are simply emphasizing one aspect of their liberal consequentialism, and the previous points on this topic apply. And of course, there are also prominent bleeding-heart libertarians (such as Gary Chartier and Roderick Long) who reach radically different conclusions about the proper role of the state to the Adam Smith Institute.
“We care about the welfare of everyone in the world, not just those in the UK.”
So do many libertarians.
If one defines “welfare” in the consequentialist sense, this point is simply an applied example of the fact that many libertarians are overwhelmingly consequentialist in practice and increasingly so in principle. Even natural-rights libertarians adopt a universalist outlook of sorts: every individual in the world possesses such rights. With the notable exception of Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s idiosyncratic case against immigration, many plumbline natural-rights minarchists and anarcho-capitalists support open borders.
Interestingly, Sam recognizes that the American libertarian movement embraces the tenets of the ASI’s neoliberalism to a greater extent than its UK equivalent. If it can work in America, why not Britain? I’d argue that a truly globalist outlook takes account of the meaning of libertarianism across the world, rather than just in the UK. Compare this to global perceptions of neoliberalism and the choice of terminology seems clear.
We base our beliefs on empirics, not principles.
So do plenty of libertarians.
Put simply, libertarian think-tanks in the UK and the US are wonkish as hell. Whilst principles such as property rights, spontaneous order, and even power relations often inform libertarian empirical arguments, our sexy policy PDFs that will only ever be read by two people are full of charts, modelling, meta-analyses, and more. Again, this just seems like an applied case of liberal consequentialism, and libertarianism passes with flying colors.
There’s a deeper point here, too. “Empirics vs. principles” is a false dichotomy. Aside from the trivial truth that a commitment to empirics is itself a principle, the role of principles in effective empirical arguments is significant. Rule consequentialism is a well-established approach to ethics. Pointing towards a minority of libertarians’ extreme disregard for consequences is weakmanning those who see principles and pragmatism as complements, rather than substitutes.
We try not to be dogmatic.
So do many libertarians.
Open-mindedness is undoubtedly a virtue. However, being open-minded definitely does not imply arriving at the ASI’s viewpoints on policy, which I think is implied by the inclusion of this point. For those who subscribe to the ASI’s ideas on the role of government, abandoning one’s cherished beliefs can (and I think should) lead to radical libertarianism and market anarchism.
Being unpopular with fellow-travellers who are committed to expanding the role of government is an area of expertise for libertarians. Abandoning one’s cherished beliefs in the face of superior arguments is a rare occurrence for anyone with strong political views, but growing support amongst libertarians for gradualist policies such as NIT suggests that over time, we are capable of changing our minds. One example of this is the rationalist movement, which includes a substantial amount of libertarians.
We think the world is getting better.
So do libertarians.
One of the most prominent strategies that libertarians employ to demonstrate the superiority of free markets is pointing to positive indicators of progress. If partially free markets can lift hundreds of millions out of poverty, imagine what further moves towards limited government can do!
Whilst it’s true that libertarians could spend more time defending what free markets have already done to improve wellbeing across the world, the impulse to continually criticize that which holds back further progress is equally important. The world may be getting better, but that doesn’t mean settling for the status quo.
We believe that property rights are very important.
So do libertarians.
But we’re comfortable with redistribution, in principle.
So are many libertarians.
If you’re a consequentialist, you’re comfortable with anything in principle. Of course, there are plenty of libertarians who make consequentialist arguments against state redistribution, including those who support limited state redistribution as a transitory measure towards expanding the role of civil society in this area.
So far, I’ve written a lot about why you can call yourself a libertarian and maintain Sam’s “neoliberal” commitments. There are several reasons why I think you should call yourself a libertarian rather than a neoliberal, each one of which I think is sufficient in itself:
Negative historical associations
Libertarianism might make people think of old white men wearing bow-ties and pot-smoking Republicans, but neoliberalism’s clear historical association with aspects of political authoritarianism blows this out of the water. Whether it’s the obvious case of Pinochet’s Chile or the less obvious examples of Thatcher’s Britain and Reagan’s America, people associate neoliberalism with authoritarian, crony capitalist, anti-labour policies and regimes.
One commenter on the ASI’s “Coming Out As Neoliberals” blog post sums it up:
“It’s a bit complicated in Spanish. I live [sic] en Chile, and here the word ‘neoliberal’ means anyone who support free markets policies made under the totalitarian regime, that have cost the life of 3000 people.
‘Neoliberal’ is used by the socialists as an insult, and the common people don’t understand the difference.”
Division and Outgrouping
A movement with internal disagreements is a healthy movement. The key word here, however, is “internal”. Whilst neoliberals in the style of the ASI undoubtedly remain members of the broad coalition that supports free markets and social liberalism, explicitly distancing themselves from the libertarian label erects barriers to productive discourse. The contemporary libertarian movement is becoming more consequentialist in practice, more bleeding-heart, and more globalist; this is the worst time to forsake the many fellow-travellers who could be persuaded of this new and productive direction.
Some neoliberal positions are wrong, on neoliberal grounds
Providing comprehensive, evidence-based arguments against certain neoliberal positions is not the aim of this post, but it is worth detailing a few areas of disagreement:
- The neoliberal view of privatization is wrong.
- The (arguably) neoliberal view that Britain should remain in the European Union is wrong.
- The neoliberal view that one should be comfortable with the idea of a minimum wage is wrong.
- The neoliberal view that there is a legitimate role for the state is wrong (I’ll admit this one might be a tad controversial).
Bonus reason: the neoliberal aesthetic sucks
Neoliberalism isn’t cool. I want to be cool.
Libertarianism is a big-tent ideology. The Adam Smith Institute and those who are aligned with its worldview can make more of a positive impact by sitting inside the tent, rather than depriving us of their welcome presence and needlessly getting their shoes wet by standing outside it.
Ironically, I don’t envision self-declared neoliberals changing their minds upon reading this. What I do hope for is a recognition that libertarianism is a broad, diverse movement, and a renewed willingness to consider radical proposals on pragmatic grounds.