There’s a new book out featuring that very protean notion, “neoliberalism” – Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism, by Quinn Slobodian. I haven’t read it yet, so my summary is based on the review by Patrick Iber in the New Republic, who basically endorses Slobodian’s point of view.

About this time last year, I wrote about the history of the term “neoliberal”, and said this:

As the term acquired greater currency from the 1990s on, it lost whatever precision it might have had. It came to cover indiscriminately two different things — support for the free market, and support for policies that distorted the market in favour of business interests — and its use was often a sign that the writer lacked the conceptual equipment to distinguish between the two.

Iber acknowledges the force of this sort of criticism, but insists that we nonetheless need the term: “the world today works in a distinctive and relatively new way, and those workings need a name.”

What Iber and Slobodian have to say about the intellectual pedigree of free market ideas is very interesting (although, as I’ve pointed out before, the Walter Lippmann Colloquium is a red herring). The strategy of trying to make sense of the term by looking at a particular group of individuals rather than a set of ideas in the abstract is a promising one. Hence we read about Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, W.H. Hutt, and others.

But this raises an obvious question that Iber ignores: is our modern world, with its crony capitalism, its monopolies, its stifling of democracy and its governments controlled by vested interests, really what von Mises and the rest were aiming at? Is it something they would recognise as corresponding, even roughly, to their ideals?

In support of an affirmative answer, one could cite the fact that many people who call themselves disciples of these free-marketeers seem quite comfortable with the way things have worked out. But I remain unconvinced; there’s nothing unusual about a movement whose founding ideals are betrayed by a later generation.

Even if the answer to my question is “No”, that does not necessarily let von Mises and Hayek off the hook. Even if they didn’t realise or intend what would happen, it could still be true that their ideas have brought us to our somewhat unsatisfactory state.

And I think they do have a case to answer. Many liberal thinkers have had an unhealthy scepticism, even hostility, towards democracy, and have flirted with various forms of authoritarianism – from von Mises’s nostalgia for the Austro-Hungarian empire down to Hayek and Friedman’s visits to Pinochet’s Chile. They hated fascism, but at times they seemed to suggest that it could be a lesser evil than socialism. We are dealing today with the noxious growth of some of the seeds that they planted.

But the picture is more complicated than that: many of these same thinkers were friends to human freedom at a time when that was a lonely business. Iber mention’s Hutt’s pessimistic advocacy of a property-based franchise in post-apartheid South Africa, but he fails to point out just how radical and thoroughgoing was his critique of apartheid in the first place. The same goes for Friedman’s attacks on conscription and on drug prohibition.

As for Hayek, Jacob Levy put it well last year in the course of demolishing Trumpist “libertarians”:

Not to put too fine a point on it, Hayek thinks the danger of socialism is that it leads to something like fascism … One cannot get from there to the conclusion that it is worth allying with fascists in order to prevent socialism. You don’t defeat a slippery slope by jumping off the cliff and taking the shortcut to the bottom.

Iber, paraphrasing Slobodian, says that these thinkers wanted “a global system that sufficiently ordered the world so that capitalism would be safe from certain forms of political interference.” But it’s a mistake to label that project as undemocratic; it’s common ground to liberals of all sorts that rights need to be protected, if need be even against democratic governments. That’s why we have bills of rights and courts to enforce them.

You can certainly say that the free marketeers had their priorities wrong about which rights were most in need of protection, but the fact that they included rights to private property and freedom of trade and enterprise in their catalogue doesn’t of itself make them enemies of democracy.

You can also argue that they were often blind to structural injustices, and especially to racial and gender issues: Iber remarks that “What neoliberalism misses or ignores is that a world of apparently neutral rules is still a world of power inequalities.” The selective vision of some individuals, of course, is not the same as a philosophical failure, but I think it’s absolutely true that free marketeers have to do more to show that their thinking has the resources (as I think it does) to deal with those structural questions.

To sum up: there really was a radical free-market strand of thinking (which never called itself “neoliberal”) that identified serious problems in the mid-twentieth-century Keynesian/mixed-economy/welfare state synthesis. From the 1970s onwards, some of its remedies were adopted – with great success and to the considerable benefit of humanity – but many were not.

Instead, due to the way the political dynamics of the time played out, the retreat of social democracy was accompanied by the rise of right-wing politics that were unfriendly to liberal values in general. Many free-marketeers, from a variety of motives, made their peace with those politics and became apologists for crony capitalism, imperialism and all the rest.

With that centre-right mainstream now in turn under threat from the populist far right, it’s more important than ever for liberals of all stripes, “neo” or not, to pull together to defend the values of freedom and equality. The arguments about the relative efficacy of markets and state intervention, important though they are, are not the main game now. They can wait for another day.

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