What is neoliberalism? Please tell me – show me one.

I want to meet someone who believes neoliberalism was the leading light of the economic reforms since 1980. They can then tell me what neoliberalism is. Please, tell me.

The prefix “neo-” makes “neoliberalism” sound like something that morphed into something bad. Is neoliberalism something more than a sustained sneer – a personal attack as a way of avoiding debate?

Not only is there no single definition of neoliberalism, there is no one who identifies himself or herself as a neoliberal. At least communists and socialists were proud to be called so.

In Neoliberalism: From New Liberal Philosophy to Anti-Liberal Slogan, Taylor Boas & Jordan Gans-Morse went in search of anyone who identifies one’s self as a neoliberal:

  • They did not uncover a single contemporary instance in which an author used the term self-descriptively, and only one – an article by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman (1999) – in which neoliberal was applied to the author’s own policy recommendations.
  • Digging into the archives, they did find that while Milton Friedman (1951) embraced the neoliberal label and philosophy in one of his earliest political writings, he soon distanced himself from the term, trumpeting “old-style liberalism” in later manifestoes (Friedman 1955). See “Neo-liberalism and its Prospects”, Milton Friedman Papers, Box 42, Folder 8, Hoover Institution Archives. 1951. Hardly a smoking gun?

What Boas and Gans-Morse found, based on a content analysis of 148 journal articles published from 1990 to 2004, was that the term is often undefined. It is employed unevenly across ideological divides; it is used to characterise an excessively broad variety of phenomena.

That is academic speak for neoliberalism is an empty slogan.

Neoliberalism was supposed to rule the roost under Reagan, Thatcher, Hawke and Lange-Douglas. The local branches of neoliberalism were Thatchernomics, Rogernomics, and Reaganomics.

Milton Friedman is said to have mesmerised several countries with a flying visit. The Friedman Monday Conference on ABC in 1975 and by Hayek in 1976 are still ruling the Australian policy roost, if some serious public commentators are to be believed.

In the 1980s and up to the mid-1990s, despite all the neo-liberal deregulation and Milton Friedman taking over monetary policy, mentioning Friedman’s name at job interviews would have been extremely career limiting, and that was at the Australian Treasury.

Back then, the much less radical Friedman was just graduating from being a wild man in the wings to just a suspicious character.

If you name dropped Hayek in the early 1990s, any sign of name recognition would have indicated that you were being interviewed by educated people.

When the Left gets on its high horse and goes on about Hayek and Friedman running neoliberalism, with Hayek as Friedman’s mentor, it is refreshing to remind all how little they had in common on macroeconomics. The University of Chicago Department of Economics did not offer Hayek a job in the late 1940s despite his outstanding record at LSE as Keynes’ principal critic in the 1930s.

While working at the next desk to a monetary policy section in the late 1980s, when mortgage rates were 18%, I heard not a word of Friedman’s Svengali influence:

  • The mantra for several years was that the market determined interest rates, not the Reserve Bank. Joan Robinson would have been proud that her 1975 Monday conference was still holding the reins.
  • Monetary policy was targeting the current account. Read Edwards’ biography of Paul Keating’s time as Treasurer and Prime Minister and his extracts from very Keynesian treasury briefings to Keating signed by David Morgan that reminded me of Keynesian Macro 101.

As a commentator on an Australian Treasury seminar paper in 1986, Peter Boxhall – freshly educated from the 1970s Chicago School – suggested using monetary policy to reduce the inflation rate quickly to zero. David Morgan and Chris Higgins almost fell off their chairs. These Treasury Deputy CEOs had never heard of such radical ideas.

In their breathless protestations, neither Morgan nor Higgins were sufficiently in tune with their Keynesian education to remember the role of sticky wages or even the need for monetary growth reductions to be gradual and, more importantly, credible, as per Milton Friedman.

By the way, Friedman’s presidential address to the AEA in 1967 is now recognised as perhaps the single most influential journal article of the 20th century. That article is the essence of good communication and empirical testing of competing hypotheses as was his 1976 Noble Prize lecture. No wonder both were hidden from impressionable undergraduates such as me a few years after.

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: What is neoliberalism, please tell me – show me one? | Official site of DJ Michael Heath
  2. Trackback: Child poverty by British PM since 1961 @billwells_1 @FlipChartRick | Utopia - you are standing in it!
  3. Trackback: @CloserTogether @FairnessNZ nail case for neoliberalism @chrishipkins @Maori_Party | Utopia - you are standing in it!
  4. Trackback: Climate sceptics are so low that they must be smeared as libertarians | Utopia - you are standing in it!

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