Rescuing Economics from Neoliberalism

As we heap scorn on neoliberalism, we risk throwing out some of its most useful ideas.

As even its harshest critics concede, neoliberalism is hard to pin down. In broad terms, it denotes a preference for markets over government, economic incentives over social or cultural norms, and private entrepreneurship over collective or community action. It has been used to describe a wide range of phenomena—from Augusto Pinochet to Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, from the Clinton Democrats and Britain’s New Labour to the economic opening in China and the reform of the welfare state in Sweden.

The term is used as a catchall for anything that smacks of deregulation, liberalization, privatization, or fiscal austerity. Today it is reviled routinely as a short-hand for the ideas and the practices that have produced growing economic insecurity and inequality, led to the loss of our political values and ideals, and even precipitated our current populist backlash.

As we heap scorn on neoliberalism, we risk throwing out some of its useful ideas.

We live in the age of neoliberalism, apparently. But who are neoliberalism’s adherents and disseminators—the neoliberals? Oddly, you would almost have to go back to the early 1980s to find anyone explicitly embracing neoliberalism. In 1982, Charles Peters, the longtime editor of The Washington Monthly, published an essay called “A Neo-Liberal’s Manifesto.” It makes for interesting reading thirty-five years later, since the neoliberalism it describes bears little resemblance to today’s target of derision. The politicians whom Peters names as exemplifying the movement are not Thatcher and Reagan, but Bill Bradley, Gary Hart, and Paul Tsongas. The journalists and academics whom he lists include James Fallows, Michael Kinsley, and Lester Thurow. Peters’s neoliberals are liberals (in the U.S. sense of the word) who have dropped their prejudices in favor of unions and big government and against markets and the military.

The use of the term “neoliberal” exploded in the 1990s, when it became closely associated with two developments, neither of which Peters mentions. One was financial deregulation, which would culminate in the 2008 financial crash—the first that the United States had experienced since the interwar period—and in the still-lingering euro debacle. The second was economic globalization, which accelerated thanks to free flows of finance and to a new, more ambitious type of trade agreement. Financialization and globalization have become the most overt manifestations of neoliberalism in today’s world.

- Dani Rodrik

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