The term “neoliberalism” is being flung around everywhere these days, usually with a haughty sense of “everyone knows what this is.” But do we really? You may think you know, but there’s very little agreement among everyone else.
Looking up the term on Google Trends reveals some interesting clues about what’s going on. Searches for the term have soared since late last year, racking up more searches than “libertarianism.” The most common search phrases are these: “definition neoliberalism,” “what is neoliberalism,” and “define neoliberalism.”
The confusion is understandable. Sometimes the term is used approvingly by the mainstream press, as with France’s election of Emmanuel Macron. He is said to be a solid “neoliberal” and therefore vastly better than his “rightest” opponent.
More often the term is used as a pejorative by the far left and the alt-right. Here it is said with a sneer to be a synonym for capitalism, globalism, elite rule, ruling-class privilege, and the administrative state.
Everyone in Latin America who has ever favored privatization, deregulation, or tax cuts, has faced the sharp accusation that he or she is a neoliberal, with overtones that the person is probably in the pay of the CIA or State Department. In this case, the word is used as a synonym for US economic colonialism.
We need a firmer fix on what this term means. Is there a founding thinker, book, or meeting?
Liberalism Needed a Champion
The answer is yes. The thinker is the American journalist Walter Lippmann (1889-1974). He is often called the founder of modern American journalism. Also, if any writer/thinker can be called the founding father of neoliberalism, it is he. His life and times roughly overlap with both Mises and Hayek, the twentieth century’s two most prominent proponents of the classical idea of liberalism. Unlike Lippmann, there was nothing particularly “neo” about either of them.
In fact, Mises himself had written the definitive book to champion liberalism in the classical form in 1929. But it was published in Austria, in German. Lippman, as a New Yorker, would never have seen it.
Lippmann was not a professor, though he had an elite education and his brilliance was unmistakable. He was one of the most famous public intellectuals of his time, and a paragon of what was called liberalism in the Progressive Era and through the New Deal. As a founding editor of the New Republic, he was a defender of civil liberties, a proponent of peace, and opponent of socialism and fascism. No one would call him a dissident intellectual but he did resist the totalitarian winds of his time.
The Ideological Crisis
In the interwar period, this class of intellectuals had a sincere concern for the preservation of all the gains of liberty in the past, and sought to find a way to protect them in the future. The situation they faced was grim both in the United States and Europe. Two main extremist factions were struggling for control: the communists/socialists and the fascists/Nazis, which, Lippman realized, were two sides of the same authoritarian coin. The New Deal seemed to be borrowing from both while trying to hold on to certain liberal ideals. It was an unstable mix.
Where was the opposition? In Europe, the U.S., and the U.K, there was also a rise of what might be generally called Toryism or conservatism (or, in the American South, agrarianism). This was not a positive program but rather a reactionary or revanchist pose, a longing for the order of days gone by. In Europe, there were waves of nostalgia for the old monarchies and, with it, the desire to roll back the legitimate gains of liberalism in the 19th century. And with this pose comes a series of demands that are absolutely incompatible with modern life and contemporary human aspirations.
Lippman knew that some form of liberalism had to be the way forward. But not the old liberalism, which he believed had failed (it led to economic depression and social instability, in his view). His goal was a renovated liberalism. He never used the term neoliberalism (that was invented by a colleague), but that is what it came to be called.
The Good Society
Lippmann’s great book – and it truly is a great book and very much worth a read – appeared in 1937: The Good Society. The book celebrated liberalism and thus rejected socialism, fascism, and Toryism. However, it also rejected laissez faire with equal passion, although you have to get pretty deep into the book to discover this. Lippmann had very casually accepted the bulk of the Keynesian criticism of free markets. He tried to thread the needle: opposing statism, loving liberty, but innovating what he regarded as liberal ends through quasi-statist means.
The book made such an impact that it inspired the calling of a hugely important scholarly colloquium held in Paris in August 1938, in the midst of a growing conflict in Europe and the world. Six months later came the German annexation of Austria, and one year before the Nazi invasion of Poland. These were extremely volatile times, and these intellectuals believed they had a responsibility to do something about righting what was going wrong in the world.
The “Walter Lippmann Colloquium” was organized by French liberal philosopher and logical positivist Louis Rougier. It was attended by Lippmann, and included several other leading French intellectuals, including the great monetary theorist Jacques Rueff. Also in attendance Michael Polanyi from the UK, as well as Germans Wilhelm Röpke and Alexander Rüstow. Most notably Friedrich Hayek came from London, and Ludwig von Mises arrived from Geneva where he was then living in sanctuary after having fled the Nazi invasion of Vienna.
In short, this was a high-powered group, consisting of the world’s most important liberal intellectuals in the year 1938. It was at this event that Alexander Rüstow coined the term neoliberalism to label what they favored. It was intended to apply to Lippmann’s vision.
Again, this was a new way of thinking about liberalism. It was democratic, tolerated a wide degree of regulation, plus welfare states, public education, and public provision of healthcare and infrastructure. But it maintained the core competitive processes of the market economy. The hope was to come up with some stable mix of policies that would lead to rising prosperity and bring about a general public contentment with the social order such that the demand for extremist ideologies like fascism and socialism would be kept at bay. The rising progress and demand for new technologies among the public would similarly outcompete revanchist and conservative sentiments in the political marketplace.
That was the hope in any case. I’m not aware of a report of precisely what took place in this Colloquium but one can imagine that both Mises and Hayek were alternatively pleased and unhappy about being pressed to agree with this view.
Hayek was emerging as the main opponent to John Maynard Keynes, while the other participants had made their peace with Keynes. For his part, Mises held the view that any mixture of state management into the market mix only diminishes the individual’s range of choice, slows economic growth, and introduces distortions that cry out for some political fix at a later date. Neither were believers in the great new Lippmann/Rüstow vision.
The Ur Text
To really understand this vision, let’s take a look at Lippmann’s treatise. It is not shabby. In fact, it is an excellent tutorial in the history of liberty. If only it had stuck with that. Still, the rhetoric is powerful and inspiring. You get a flavor from this passage.
Everywhere the movements which bid for men's allegiance are hostile to the movements in which men struggled to be free. The programmes of reform are everywhere at odds with the liberal tradition. Men are asked to choose between security and liberty. To improve their fortunes they are told that they must renounced their rights. To escape from want they must enter a prison. To regularize their work they must be regimented. To obtain great equality they must have less freedom. To have national solidarity they must oppress the dissenters. To enhance their dignity they must lick the boots of tyrants. To realize the promise of science they must destroy free inquiry. To promote the truth they must not let it be examined. The choices are intolerable.
Absolutely wonderful! And for the most part, the book continues in this lovely spirit, enough to feed the soul of the most radical libertarian. You have to get pretty far into the book to discover the “neo” part of neoliberalism. He believed that “liberalism must seek to change laws and greatly to modify property and contract” in a way that rejects laissez faire, a term and a system he completely counterposes to his own.
Neoliberalism includes public provision of education, health care, environmental protection, financial regulation, fiscal policy management, monetary control, and more. In fact, “the purpose of liberal reform is to accommodate the social order to the new economy; that end can be achieved only by continual and far-reaching reform of the social order.”
What Lippmann wanted was a new constitution for a “free state.” What he was rejecting was a state that is neutral to social outcomes – the “nightwatchman state” that the old liberals believe in. Whereas the original liberals wanted law to be stable and general, pursuing only the most limited functions, the neoliberal vision is of a state that is an active part of the guarding, maintaining, and promoting liberty itself, as understood by a particular vision of what should be. It asserted that liberalism is so important that it must be the primary goal of the state to see it realized. In practice, there are no limits to how far this can go.
As an example of a state neutral to outcomes, consider the US Constitution. It is a framework for government and law. It specifies what various branches can do and why, and spells out what they cannot do and why. It contains no great aspiration for how society should look (well, perhaps the “general welfare” clause might apply) but mostly sticks to creating a framework and letting the people take it from there.
Neoliberalism wants a living state that is not only adaptive but even aspirational. It should take an active role in the lives of people with the expressed purpose of helping them live freer, flourishing, more fulfilling lives. The state must never lord it over the population but rather be the people’s partner in building prosperity and living out the promise of liberalism.
Where Lippmann Goes Wrong
In his many chapters on the liberal state, Lippmann lays out all the ways in which his vision of an expansive state does not trend authoritarian. The official and the citizen are just people and there are no royal prerogatives. Bureaucracies aren’t issuing commands such much as behaving like publicly held corporations, always responsive to the public. There are all kind of intermediate institutions between the individual and the state. The public sector is humane, hospitable, adaptive, creative, and why? Because their power comes from the people, not the dictator or king.
All of this is interesting, but it is mostly fantasy.
Lippman, writing in 1938, was blind to important developments that took place in liberal theory, mostly in response to his vision.
The first is that crucial Hayekian point concerning epistemic humility. Lippmann writes as if he knows for sure how to achieve and judge social results that accord with his vision. It is a normal presumption of most intellectuals. Hayek’s innovation was to see that the knowledge necessary for the right ordering society is not accessible in whole to intellectuals and much less to presidents, legislators, or bureaucrats. It is deeply embedded in social processes themselves, and, in turn, in the minds of individuals making the choices that constitute the driving parts of that process.
The second point completely overlooked by Lippmann is that the players within the state itself have their own interests and designs, just as market actors do. They pursue their own interests. They seek to maximize their welfare. They look for more power, more funding, more prerogatives, and those they serve are the interest groups who can bring them more of it. The idea that a public bureaucracy can be consistently much less permanently directly toward serving the genuine public interest is lacking in evidence. In other words, Lippman was blind to how the truths that would later be associated with the Public Choice school of economics might impact his vision of liberty.
A third problem is the one Mises identified: neoliberalism chooses the wrong means to realize its ends. Legislating higher wages does not actually raise wages; it throws people out of work. Regulating to protect the environment doesn’t end in doing so; it only devalues property which leaves it to be ravaged by irresponsible stewards. Instituting single-payer health care guts the sector of its signaling systems, its incentives for innovation, and its capacity to be rolled out to ever broader sectors of the population. And because intervention doesn’t achieve its stated ends, it becomes the pretext for ever more meddling in the market process.
These problems doom his system to be as much a fantasy as the authoritarian ideologies he opposed.
The Dangers of Neoliberalism
It was in response to Lippmann that both Hayek and Mises crafted many of their arguments over the coming years. Mises never stopped pointing out that laissez faire does not mean “let soulless forces operate,” as Lippmann seems to suggest. It means letting individuals make the choice over what kinds of lives they want to live, and let those choices drive forward the path of social evolution. Mises’s book Human Action was as much a response to Lippmann as it was to Keynes, Marx, and all the other anti-liberals.
Let’s just posit that we have a state that is determined to advance the cause of liberty – not a state neutral to outcomes but one directed at a certain end. Where will this lead us? It could lead to another form of top-down planning. It can result in practices such as social insurance schemes, heavy regulation in zoning and the environment, taxes and redistribution with the aim of bringing more effective liberty to ever more people. In an imperial state, it can lead to the imposition of planning on foreign nations: the IMF, the World Bank, the United States Declaration of Rights. It can be the excuse for wars for “spreading democracy” and nation building abroad.
You can say that all these policies are well intentioned. In fact, neoliberalism is the very embodiment of good intentions: we shall free all people! In the best case, neoliberalism gives us a post-war German economic miracle. But it could just easily land in Pinochet’s Chile, often cited as a neoliberal state. In foreign policy, neoliberalism can inspire beautiful reform (Japan after the war), or create a destructive terror state that seethes in resentment (see Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan).
All of which is to say: the neoliberal can quickly become the anti-liberal state. There is no institutional reason why it would not be so. A state with a social mandate is a roaming beast: you might hope for it not to do bad things but you wouldn’t want to be alone with it in a dark alley.
To be sure, the world owes a debt to neoliberalism. It was this formulation that inspired many countries to liberalize their economies, and even been a reason for many of the loosening of controls in the United States. It led to the reforms in Latin America, China, and even Eastern Europe after the collapse of socialism. Neoliberal ideology is partially responsible for the liberation of billions of people from suffering, poverty, and tyranny.
The downside is also present: the continuation of colonialism by other means, the spread of global bureaucracy, the entrenchment of the welfare state, and the rise of deep-state control over culture, society, and the economy. It is also not politically stable. These institutions feed public resentment and fuel populist extremism, which is the very opposite of what Lippmann wanted.
At the same time, genuine liberals (often called libertarians today) absolutely need to understand: we are not neoliberals. The great part about neoliberalism is the noun not the modifier. Its primary value is not in what it innovated but what it recaptured. To the extent that it diverges from the beautiful system of liberty itself, it can be the source of the opposite.
That the term is strewn throughout public discourse today is a tribute to the power of an idea. This little seed planted in 1938 has grown into a massive global presence, mostly embodied in international bodies, public bureaucracies, political establishments, media voices, and pretexts for every manner of foreign, domestic, and global action.
And what has been the result? Some good but a vast amount of highly conspicuous bad. Huge public sectors have held back economic growth. Large bureaucracies have compromised human freedom. It gave life to what is called crony capitalism today. Global control has bred nationalist blowback, while corporate monopoly has fed socialist longings.
We are again faced with the same problem today that confronted Lippmann in 1938. Everywhere there are ideologies that seek to put men in chains. We do need an alternative to socialism, fascism, and Toryism. We need to get it right this time. Let’s take the neo out of liberalism and accept nothing less than the real thing.
Freedom is not the correct implementation of a public policy plan. It is not the condition of appointing high-minded and intelligent social and economic managers. It is not the result of sound intentions from a fleet of ruling class intellectuals and major economic stakeholders.
Freedom exists when a people, an economy, and a culture, undirected and unmolested by administrative elites with power, are permitted to live and evolve in peace according to the principle of human choice in all areas of life.