“Neoliberal” — I’m not sure if I get this term (but I try to)
We live in a world where we must define terms to understand reality. All terms are socially constructed. But where I differ from the followers of Michel Foucault (et al.) is, I believe in ultimate underlying objective reality. They would argue there is no such thing, that everything is a social construct imposed by power. I, conversely, believe such socially constructed terms are useful and better when they more accurately “get at” the objective reality that lies underneath.
So take, for instance, the transgender issue. Some folks feel uncomfortable with the gender they were assigned at birth. Yes, there is something objectively real about this condition. Psychiatrists used to call it “gender identity disorder.” But by vote, such was changed to “gender dysphoria.” I support such a move. The underlying objective reality doesn’t change by vote. But the way in which we ought treat people informed the tweaking of the loaded term. In particular, use of the term “disorder” as part of a diagnosis of medical science (which carries with it the power of the state) constitutes grounds on which we should tread carefully.
This dynamic, by the way, transcends politics. We all understand that soldiers coming home from war can be “hurt,” mentally speaking, even if their brains are not physically damaged (which they sometimes are). So we construct a subjective diagnoses of PTSD attempting to describe a real objective underlying condition. But in categorizing them as “disordered,” we might be victimizing the victims. The psychiatric use of the term “disorder” has been used to tar, among others, homosexuals and the transgendered. Even if the intentions are good, hurt soldiers can still be victimized by it. So, for such reason, none other than George W. Bush has spearheaded an effort to remove the “D” from “PTSD.” 1
On a different note, we all know I study the history of religion and the American Founding as it relates to the “Christian Nation” question. Such too, calls for a definition of terms.
Not only terms like “Thomist” or “Calvinist” that are socially constructed (the originators of such didn’t call themselves these things; rather, after the fact someone constructed them and such terms stuck), but more modern terms are likewise constructed in an attempt to get at what really went down. 2
So with that preface, let me tackle my understanding of the socially constructed term “neoliberal.” We all know what laissez-faire capitalism means. Even though I am a libertarian whose first best world is sympathetic to the freest of markets, I understand the modern capitalist world doesn’t have such. Laissez-faire is a form of utopia. Likewise, on the other end of the spectrum is pure Marxism (to each according to his own ability, to each according to his own need).
Then there is “democracy” where the majority of voting citizens decide how to run public affairs. The term “neoliberalism” as I have witnessed, seems a construct by “democratic-socialists” who value democracy and civil rights, but don’t like capitalism; such term describes anything to the political right of them, economically speaking. Bill Clinton and arguably President Obama are “neoliberals” as it were.
Noam Chomsky, as far as I can tell, is a democratic-socialist. He believes in democracy and civil rights, but not capitalism and markets. But, interestingly enough, he doesn’t call himself a “democratic-socialist.” I call him that because that’s what he appears to me to be. Rather, he calls himself an “anarcho-syndicalist.” Alas, such term has not stuck.
I sometimes see critics of “neoliberalism” defining it as a shorthand for laissez-faire capitalism. This might have something to do with the fact that Milton Friedman’s first best world was such and he helped to implement “reforms” in that direction in places like Chile.
But, one difficult question I get when I discuss ideological libertarianism is, “where does such utopia exist?”
Good question. As far as I know, it doesn’t. We can look to places like Hong Kong as a best approximation thereof. But even there, as anywhere, we can find countless regulations that are not consistent with laissez-faire utopia. The same can be said of Chile after they took Milton Friedman’s advice (which by the way, I think was good advice; the problem with Chile of that time was Pinochet’s authoritarian disrespect for civil rights, something that has nothing to with the ideology of Milton Friedman or libertarianism).
So “neoliberalism,” as I observe, means something like “market oriented reforms” in an economy where the government is arguably owning and running too much of the means of production, distribution and exchange. It’s a global thing too; free trade and the support for multilateral treaties that demand such are part of the “neoliberal” enterprise.
All in all, I see this as a good thing, at least from a utilitarian perspective.
It appears now that some on the political right have embraced the term “neoliberalism” as a critique of a political order they dislike. This article in the American Conservative might shed light on what this concept really means.
When I teach geopolitics from a business perspective, I usually break movements down into four or five categories, from Left to Right: 1. The anti-globalization Left (Chomsky, Ralph Nader, the Nation Magazine); 2. the pro-globalization Left (the Democratic Party); 3. the pro-globalization Right (the Republican Party); and 4. the anti-globalization Right (Pat Buchanan and the American Conservative Magazine). Libertarians are unique in that I have a hard time placing them on this spectrum.
It’s no surprise that the American Conservative would be the place on the Right to agree with the Nation on the Left in critiquing “neoliberalism.” The neoliberals are found in 2 & 3, not 1 & 4. Libertarians might qualify as neoliberals because we support laissez-faire and free trade. But many libertarians also have issues with the heavily bureaucratized globalist treaties (like NAFTA and the WTO) that seek to achieve the otherwise laudable goal of “free trade.”
And indeed the form of capitalism that seems to have prevailed — that is, what “Ended History” as Francis Fukuyama has put it — is far from Milton Friedman’s laissez-faire utopia, but a form of capitalism that is heavily regulated, managed, subsidized and bureaucratized. In short the “system” that mainstream Democrats and Republicans in America support and also what prevails in the European Union.
- This is perhaps a discussion for another day; I don’t write off psychiatry and their diagnoses as harshly as folks like Thomas Szasz did. But if, according to empirical science a brain is simply a bag of chemicals (with no “ghost in the machine”); and if the brain’s tissue is, as far as we know physically healthy, then the “illness” of the “mind” is metaphorical. Indeed according to such standards, the “mind” separate from the brain is just as unprovable as is the existence of the soul. So instead of “ill,” we might opt for the term “disorder.” But that term is one that belongs to philosophy, not medical science.
- For example, the religion of America’s “key Founders” was neither orthodox Trinitarian Christianity or strict Deism, but something in between. And we argue over whether terms like “Christian-Deism” or “theistic rationalism” better capture such actual historical reality.