I’m a neoliberal. Maybe you are too
Sam Bowman
28461

Fully agree that neoliberalism is a complex and contested term, but it has a rich theoretical history behind it, which this article seems either unaware of, or (more likely) perfectly willing to obfuscate? Your stipulative definition wouldn’t be of much use, and probably an actual hindrance, in trying to pick through the scholarship on neoliberalism within political theory, IPE, economics, etc. For instance, right at the top you imply that neoliberalism is something fresh, emerging, growing, perhaps a little bit inchoate and exciting. Which is just silly! There may be something that is fresh, emerging, growing, etc., but attaching that to a word that has been around for yonks just pointlessly muddies things.

Of course sometimes terms like these fork a little bit, and can mean one thing in a journalistic context, something slightly different in policy circles, something slightly different in academia, etc. But it’s worth trying to keep those meanings fairly close.

Also, is neoliberal really the best term for what you want to say? What you’re describing pretty well fulfills what I might call a “market fundamentalist”? Perhaps that would be a better term to reappropriate, if you absolutely have to reappropriate one? Or perhaps “market liberal”? Or “right social democrat”? (Although maybe none of those quite captures #4? Not sure).

Or perhaps what you’re trying to do here is reconcile a tension within your politics: between an at least quasi-dogmatic faith in markets, on the one hand, and a commitment to open-minded pragmatism shaped by scientific inquiry on the other. Perhaps it would be better to recognize this tension in your politics as something that must be negotiated on a day-by-bay, case-by-case basis, rather than declare it to be resolved by fiat in a “Ten Fun Facts You Didn’t Know About Me!” kind of way — and then, just to make sure you never really have to think about it again, label this ‘resolution’ with a word that often comes up when your analysis faces criticism, so that you can seize on the word being used ‘inaccurately,’ rather than listen out for the merits of that criticism.

Some more nitpicky stuff: I think your bolding is a bit suspect, e.g. point #3 isn’t really about you caring about the poor as some kind of differentia specifica or whatever; it’s about social welfare functions and marginal utility.

Some of this article is of course just vacuous self-aggrandizement: the implication that non-neoliberals don’t really care about the poor, or that hope and optimism, or a commitment to scientific method, are peculiarly neoliberal features. But then again, that’s a rhetorical trade-off you probably have to make, maybe alienating a few potential converts by trying to annex territory which everybody knows is not yours alone, while at the same time being vaguely inspiring to a few readers who are basically already in agreement with you (“Woooo! We are the hard-nosed, rationalist, hope-filled, cosmopolitan, people who truly care! MARKETS! MARKETS! MARKETS!”)

(By the way: another accidental implication, that neoliberals are not “the poor” or that “the poor” are not neoliberals, is maybe more instructive? There seems to be a tacit “us and them,” there, which makes the article feel at best somewhat paternalistic, and at worst completely fraudulent or psychotically delusional and self-deceiving? Not sure. Of course, some people will find the whole premise of the article disgusting or boring or hilarious: the notion that neoliberal is a term of “abuse” which needs to be “reappropriated,” with the explicit precedent of the Suffragettes, and tacit comparisons with the reclaiming of words of violent persecution like f*ggot and n*gger. How many neoliberals get tortured to death just for being neoliberals? I’m sure you don’t mean it that way, but intentions aren’t magic, and it does come across that way, a bit!).

And I think it’s interesting you mention “market-like systems,” which seems a step in the right direction: indicating that there are a huge variety of economic, sociological phenomena that often get elided together as “markets” or “the market,” in political arguments. It does perhaps have the downside of implying that there can be “pure” markets, completely free and disembedded from law, tradition, cultural norms etc., and therefore also the downside of confirming misconceptions about some hard trade-off between markets and government, for instance (as in, “more” government means “less” market and vice-versa). But maybe that’s too nit-picky of me.

It’s interesting that libertarians should think you too statist, and it might be worth saying more about that.

For what it’s worth, I have days when I think markets are bloody great, but on the basis of this article, you don’t sound like you know what they are, how to use them, or how to recognize when they’re not doing what they’re supposed to. You don’t sound at all like somebody I’d trust to speak to me about the virtues of markets.

I might be far more interested in a sequel to this article or better yet, a revision, that actually talked about your sense of the variety of markets, the limitations and risks of markets, and of how markets are constructed, constituted, regulated, and embedded in society. You know: a little bit of basic economics from any old sixth form textbook (words like “externality” and “perfect competition” don’t come up at all) and a little bit of economic history, and a little bit of introductory economic sociology. If you want to identify as somebody who “tries not to be dogmatic” then you’ve got it backward if you begin “we like markets — a lot.” Instead, you should say “we care about markets — a lot,” and strive to be as vigilant or more vigilant than the Left as to the ways in which market forces really do unfold in the world.

Maybe the role you’re envisaging is really an updated of a bit of classic liberalism, along these lines: “The danger of modern liberty is that, absorbed in the enjoyment of our private independence, and in the pursuit of our particular interests, we should surrender our right to share in political power too easily. Markets are only too anxious to encourage us to do so. They are so ready to spare us all sort of troubles, except those of obeying and paying! They will say to us: what, in the end, is the aim of your efforts, the motive of your labors, the object of all your hopes? Is it not happiness? Well, leave this happiness to us and we shall give it to you. We must not leave it to them. No matter how touching such a tender commitment may be, let us ask the markets to keep within their limits. Let them confine themselves to being just. We shall assume the responsibility of being happy for ourselves.”

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