Neoliberalism, My Way
[Note: Due to the length of the Gabriel’s submission, this post will be broken up into two parts. The second installment will be published on Thursday. – tk]
by Gabriel Conroy
I’ve come lately on at Ordinary Times to calling myself a “neoliberal.” That’s either a good or bad or indifferent thing, but I want to define what I mean by “neoliberalism.” Also, I know that at least one other commenter at the OT, “North,” self-identifies as a neoliberal. I do not whether or to what extent he’ll agree with this post, and I certainly don’t claim to speak for him or anyone else. However, for what it’s worth, I do find in the comment threads, I often agree with what he says.
I’ll start with a disclaimer. There is a large literature on something called “neoliberalism” and I know almost none of it. And most of what little I’ve read is Marxian-inspired monographs on Latin-American history which see what they call “neoliberalism” as extensions of American or western imperialism, also called “neo-imperialism” by which American interests dominate Latin American peoples through the shibboleths of “free enterprise” and “markets.”* I know too little of Latin American history to know if there’s a way to pursue what I call “neoliberalism” in a way that isn’t oppressive to Latin Americans, but I’ll just say here I consider myself no apologist for Taft-styled dollar diplomacy or the various interventions by the US in the region, either to stave off communist infiltration or to buffer up the United Fruit Company or various “bureaucratic authoritarian” regimes. So perhaps I’m taking a term that probably has a more or less consistent meaning and using it for my own purposes. (It’s at this point that an unsympathetic listener might bring out an example from Lewis Carroll that supposedly shows we can never define what we mean by something. Please just bear with me.)
In a nutshell, I’ll say my neoliberalism is basically this: early twenty-first century liberalism strongly informed and checked by libertarian assumptions and in particular what James Hanley calls “marginal libertarianism.” That’s an overly simplified view of what I mean by neoliberalism, but I think that’s a good shorthand.
I envision neoliberalism as a “pragmatic” approach to politics. By “pragmatic” I”m referring mostly to what I understand William James meant by it, and I’ll refer you to his lectures on pragmatism to see for yourself if I’m understanding him right. And perhaps also the approach pursued by Jane Addams, although I have very mixed feelings about what she did and what her activism represented. As a “pragmatic” approach to politics, it does not depend on first principles in the way that, say, some libertarian might adopt the “first principle” of human autonomy and freedom as being the greatest political good, or the way some liberals/leftists might adopt the “first principle” of a floor economic security for all as the greatest political good.
Still, I don’t believe it’s possible to abandon first principles entirely, or if it is possible, I do not choose to do so. I prefer to place them at some remove from action because insisting too much on principles can lead to all sorts of preachy, tribalistic shenanigans. But they’re still there as guiding principles, and here they are:
A. Individual autonomy is a good thing, and it usually ought to be maximized.
B. It’s usually better to have more choices than fewer, and choices usually should be expanded and not restricted.
C. Economic liberty is a desirable thing and ought to be expanded. That includes, among other things, fewer restrictions on market transactions, especially inasmuch as “market transactions” is a shorthand for choices of voluntary exchange.
D. People need to be economically secure, and that security ought not be limited to the bare minimum of survival. Economic security might require some constraints on economic liberty.
E. Coercion is automatically suspect and needs to be justified before it is invoked. But not all coercion is created equal.
F. War is sometimes necessary and therefore sometimes justified. But it is never good.
G. There are a lot of faults with what is called the “nation state,” including whether and in what ways we can define something called a “national interest” both as opposed to “local interest” and in international relations. But my neoliberalism focuses more on policy in the US, either at the federal or more local levels and has less to say about international relations.
In pragmatic fashion, I’m open to revising those guiding principles. And I’ll make two admissions. First, they tend to contradict each other. That’s a feature, not a bug. Second, I come up with those principles partially based on my sense of right and wrong but also based on ad hoc rationalizations of the types of programs or policies I support.
So while I have those guiding principles, I’m much more concerned with what I specifically support. And here are some of them:
#1: I support the ACA, or “Obamacare” as the best policy we’re likely to get when it comes to widening access to affordable health care provision. It has many faults, but my standards for success are pretty low. I would prefer something else, presumably national health insurance. But I also find James Hanley’s idea for having public insurance for catastrophic or chronic care and leaving the rest to the market. I’m not on board, but maybe there’s something to it (Click here. It’s point #8 of his comment at OT).
#2: I support expanding welfare supports, such as food stamps, and reducing the constraints put on receiving or using those supports. In other words, no more drug tests for welfare recipients and fewer restrictions on what people can buy with food stamps.
#3: I cautiously support a guaranteed minimum income. I have my reservations, however. In the meantime, I do support expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, both the amount granted and the number of people eligible to receive it. It’s not the same as a GMI, but it can be helpful and it’s politically more doable.
LABOR AND CORPORATE REGULATIONS:
#4: My bias when it comes to regulations done for the benefit of workers is to favor policies that tend to create jobs or to give employers incentives to hire and to disfavor policies that tend to restrict the number of jobs. That bias is not absolute. I generally, but perhaps not in every circumstance, oppose raising the minimum wage. I generally support, but perhaps not in every circumstance, regulations designed to enhance worker safety.
#5: I oppose most restrictions on corporate, union, and individual campaign contributions. I’m uncomfortable with the role money plays in our elections and politics, but just can’t see my way to engage in the sort of line-drawing and close analysis of what is and is not speech. I also believe that most campaign finance restrictions protect established political parties or established factions in the two parties.
#6: I probably oppose anti-union-shop laws (also known as “right to work” laws), although I prefer to think in terms of “agency shop” rather than “union shop.” In an agency shop, covered workers must pay dues but are not otherwise compelled to participate in union governance. For example, they cannot be fined for not attending union meetings. In a “union shop,” in theory, a worker is compelled to join a union after being hired, and could, again in theory, be subject to discipline. My understanding is that in practice, “union shop” today really is only an “agency shop,” and for all I know, labor law permits only an agency shop (that is, where “right to work” laws aren’t already in effect).
#7: I’m very ambivalent about card-check schemes and prefer regular, anonymous elections. I’m not categorically opposed to card-check, but I need to be convinced they’re a good thing.
#8. Even in a bargaining unit covered by an agency shop clause, I’d permit a “conscience exemption” whereby a member of a covered bargaining unit can direct their fair-share dues to a charity if that member disapproves of what the union is doing. This exemption would be available to any covered member of the bargaining unit and not require, as some contracts do, a statement of “religious objection” or other test to obtain the exemption.
#9: I’m very ambivalent about unions for public employees. I probably wouldn’t outlaw them because of freedom of speech and assembly concerns, but I might be willing to forbid contract negotiations or striking in certain cases, especially when the workers already enjoy robust civil service protection. I’m most concerned, however, about police unions and prison guard unions and some teachers unions. And if we are going to restrict public unions, we should start with those.
#10: I would construe corporate personhood as narrowly as possible when it comes to recognizing civil rights held by them. I would not abolish all standing to contest regulations that, as in the Hobby Lobby case, seem to intrude upon religious belief. But while I would probably grant Hobby Lobby standing, I would posit a very high bar for it to claim the injury to religious belief that the Supreme Court seems to have recognized in the late decision.
#11: I might not do away with antitrust entirely, but I would probably limit its reach or at least try to make it more predictable and easier to comply with.
In the next installment, we’ll look at Education, Civil Liberties and International Relations.
*I read those for my minor field in Latin American History back in grad school My impression is that the historiography of Latin America, at least as that historiography exists in the US and the English-speaking world, is generally leftist. I get that impression from the reading list for my “Latin-American History minor field” in graduate school. It’s possible that the leftward tilt in that list reflected my own professors’ inclinations. One was an old “New Leftist” and the other was a post-linguistic-turn leftist. (Of the two, for what it’s worth, I found the former more intellectually honest and easier to get along with.) It’s quite possible, however, that my impression is wrong.