Neoliberalism contends that markets allocate scarce resources, promote efficient growth and secure individual liberty better than governments.
According to the progressive journalist Robert Kuttner, the “basic argument of neoliberalism can fit on a bumper sticker. Markets work; governments don’t.”
From such a perspective, government represents bureaucratic bloat and political imposition. Government is wasteful. The verve of capitalism, along with a limited democratic politics, is neoliberalism’s balm for all that ails humankind.
Completing his bumper-sticker mantra, Kuttner continues, “there are two corollaries: Markets embody human freedom. And with markets, people basically get what they deserve; to alter market outcomes is to spoil the poor and punish the productive.”
Evolution of neoliberalism
The moniker “neoliberalism” was coined by Austrian economists Friedrich von Hayek and Ludwig Von Mises in 1938. Each elaborated his own version of the notion in 1944 books: “The Road to Serfdom” and “Bureaucracy,” respectively.
An extreme example of this was Hayek’s support of the repressive Pinochet regime in Chile. Augusto Pinochet toppled the popular socialist government of Salvador Allende in 1973. Pinochet was cautiously welcomed by the Nixon administrationand looked upon favorably by both Reagan andThatcher. In their view, Pinochet’s commitment to neoliberalism trumped his anti-democratic character.
This history helps explain the election last year of Gabriel Boric, Chile’s 36-year-old president. Boric ran on an agenda for profound change following a period of turmoil over Pinochet-era policies. His campaign slogan was “If Chile was the cradle of neoliberalism, it will also be its grave.”
A flawed, contradictory ideology
Beginning in the 1980s and for a long time after, neoliberalism for many Americans conjured individual liberty, consumer sovereignty and corporate efficiency. Many Democrats and Republicans alike championed it to justify their policies and attract voters.
But, in my opinion, that was only the popular façade of a deeply flawed ideology.
For many Americans, however, the mythology of individual liberty remains strong. U.S. politicians who hint of curtailing it – by, say, proposing more regulations or increased social expenditures – are often branded “socialist.”
Ultimately, neoliberalism was a child of its time. It’s a grand narrative born of the Cold War era, claiming to have the solution to society’s ills through the power of capitalist markets and government deregulation.
There is no shortage of articles showing that it has not delivered on its promise. Arguably, it has made matters worse.
Anthony Kammas Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Southern California
Anthony Kammas does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.