Friday, January 03, 2020

Neoliberalism and libertarianism

Noah Smith and Brad DeLong want to distinguish neoliberalism from libertarianism. Smith, as always, comes off as a pompous douchebag, capable of only the most superficial analysis; DeLong thinks a little more deeply and identifies the core problem with neoliberalism, that neoliberalism is just libertarianism with good intentions. And that's not enough, not enough to distinguish neoliberals from libertarians, and not enough to earn neoliberalism a place on the left.

Smith points to DeLong's defense of neoliberalism, summarizing it as an ideology policy program that "protects markets as the basic engine of production [emphasis added]" with a welfare state (somehow) added "on top" of these markets.

DeLong expands Smith's summary, citing John Stuart Mill's and Adam Smith's deep and probably sincere concern with the poor. It's telling, perhaps, that DeLong chooses not to cite anyone in the twentieth century.

In contrast, DeLong argues that libertarianism holds that a market society embodies justice whatever distribution of income exists, whatever poverty people might suffer. DeLong asserts that libertarians hold that today, "poverty is probably your own fault", either your own moral fault or your "bad genes". DeLong fails to cite any sources (bad), but his understanding broadly matches my own: libertarians are reluctant to put their ideology so baldly, but the "I've got mine, Jack, so fuck off, loser" subtext is pretty clear to anyone who looks with any degree of critical thought at libertarianism.

But good intentions is not enough to distinguish neoliberalism from libertarianism. There are, of course, always fine distinctions within any school of thought or policy practice. There are Rothbard anarcho-capitalists, Nozick minarchists, Randians, etc., all of whom could be called libertarians, an all of whom fall on the "right", broadly defined. These fine distinctions are relevant to scholars and political scientists, but for practical leftist political purposes, they're all just slightly different flavors of asshole, and we can leave the fine distinctions to academics.

DeLong admits that neoliberals do not behave very differently from libertarians. There might be a few differences of degree — neoliberals wring their hands most piteously when Trump cuts food stamps (but heaven forbid they should actually, you know, fight back) — but hand-wringing aside, neoliberals are difficult to distinguish from libertarians. I cannot argue the point better than DeLong. DeLong asserts that "'neoliberalism' has gotten itself tied up . . . with using markets for social democratic ends whenever that is appropriate," (an assertion I find dubious), he admits that "neoliberalism" has also
approv[ed] of whatever distribution of income and wealth that market then produces. Neoliberals in power have been—sometimes—willing to soak the rich by raising taxes on them and using the revenues to spend on infrastructure or to strengthen the "safety net" [Do we have to go back to, er, Nixon for that? -LRH], but they have been unwilling to even whisper about raising taxes on the upper middle class. And neoliberals in and out of power have spoken only in whispers about policies that need to be taken to generate a societally-acceptable market distribution of income.
Let me add that the neoliberals, at least since Clinton, have done nothing at all to give power to workers, to households, to the bottom 80% of the income distribution. They have destroyed unions, rolled back workers' rights, homeowners' rights, consumers' rights, immigrants' right. They have overseen the mass incarceration and judicial murder of black people. The neoliberal Obama administration gave millions to the libertarian bank owners while allowing millions of working-class Americans to lose their jobs, their pensions, their homes. At best the neoliberals have ensured that the bosses who squeeze every drop of blood from the workers are a little more diverse.

I have nothing but contempt for Noah Smith. DeLong at least has the decency to entertain the idea that the neoliberals have not been as successful as he might have hoped. (We know they just failed miserably, but DeLong isn't going to risk tenure at Berkeley to say that out loud.) But neither of them are on the left, and when world they and their ilk is drowning in its own shit, I won't shed a tear when some psychopath eats them both.


  1. Since you mentioned a lack of modern examples of neoliberalism, perhaps you would be interested in a group that I was recently made aware of--the YIMBY neoliberals. I met them when I tried getting involved in California housing politics, and my understanding is that they came out of internal arguments over prop 10 (they were against). To my eyes, they're basically a distinct group that made the unfortunate decision to reclaim "neoliberal", in which case nothing they could say would controvert your points about neoliberalism. But this is something you could decide for yourself, based on their stated platform.

  2. To my eyes, they're basically a distinct group that made the unfortunate decision to reclaim "neoliberal"

    That's always the problem, no? When all of these terms are self-applied, who is "genuine", and who is "misappropriating" the label?

    But this is something you could decide for yourself, based on their stated platform.

    Their stated platform seems squarely in what at least Noah Smith would call neoliberalism: "a combination of well-functioning, properly regulated markets and effective government." But would it work? It's not like this kind of neoliberalism (genuine or not) is coming out of left field. It was the dominant political ideology from WJ Clinton (perhaps earlier) until Trump, and is still the mainstream opposition to Trumpism.

    The problem always is quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who regulates the markets? Who make sure the government is "effective"? The capitalists don't want anyone to regulate them, even if that regulation is necessary to their own survival as a class.


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