Neoliberalism as a term of abuse
By Alberto Mingardi
Vincent Geloso has an interesting piece at the AIER website, arguing that “the use of the term “neoliberalism” is strongly correlated with punditry”. I think that is very true. Neoliberalism is, at the same time, a term of abuse and a sort of way to refer to what someone finds more or less vaguely dislikable about the status quo. In a book (in Italian, alas) that uses the term, I distinguished between neoliberalism “in a proper sense” and neoliberalism “in a broad sense”. If you try to take neoliberalism seriously and to define it properly, you cannot escape the fact that “neoliberals” (such as German Ordoliberals) were actually trying to amend, sweeten, soften 19th-century classical liberalism.
In the common discourse, particularly but not only among left-wingers (I suspect perhaps the most vocal critics of neoliberalism are, today, right-wing nationalists), the assumption is that actually the opposite is true: neoliberalism is classical liberalism on steroids, a semi-anarchistic ideology which has swiped away the “rights” of workers in modern social democracies and the welfare state altogether. Geloso rightly reminds us that you can use the word “neoliberalism” and be serious about it. I am a bit surprised that he does not mention Michel Foucault, who, with his The Birth of Biopolitics, is the Godfather of all contemporary neoliberalism-bashers, albeit with a depth of thought that is on an altogether different level.
The problem with “neoliberalism in a broad sense”, with this narrative of deregulation and unfettered competition destroying all the “conquests” of one century of successful taming of the capitalist beast, is that there is limited empirical evidence of it. On this point, like David Henderson, I can’t but warmly recommend this piece by Russ Roberts, on a variation on the neoliberal rant: the bizarre view by which Milton Friedmanesque ideologues ruled and rule the world. Writes Roberts that “it is absurd to think that somehow Friedman’s free-market ideology triumphed and the time has come to roll back his policies. Most of them have never been tried.” Read the whole thing, it is really worth your time.