August 22, 2019 | 89° F

O'BRIEN: We must consider value of neoliberalism


Opinion Column: Taming Tribalism


I am a neoliberal. Yes, that philosophy everyone Left, Right and center seems to despise actually has a small but growing number of adherents. While the term is one of the most popular punching bags in American politics, particularly after the 2016 election, most of what you know about it is probably wrong. It will be impossible to address, point-by-point, the unfair attacks leveled at this political viewpoint, but it is deserving of at least a philosophical defense.

Neoliberalism is a broad framework that is both flexible and reliant on evidence-based policymaking. There are Left-neoliberals like myself, Right-neoliberals, and neoliberals who lean toward libertarianism. You may be more of a neoliberal than you think.

While neoliberalism includes a fairly broad range of people on the political spectrum, there are a few universal characteristics that define it. First, neoliberals believe in markets as a means of generating economic growth, creating wealth and spurring innovation. This may sound to some like the free-market fundamentalism we see from conservatives and libertarians, but there is an important and subtle difference.

Libertarians view free markets as a goal in and of themselves, whereas neoliberals view markets as a means to an end: A tool that can be harnessed to improve the human condition. We do not worship markets, nor treat their outcomes as inherently just. We recognize that the textbook definition of “perfect competition” is often inappropriate in the real world. For instance, pollution and climate change produce “negative externalities” that traditional economic theory concludes will not be solved if markets are left to themselves.

Second, neoliberals believe a strong social safety net compliments rather than impedes capitalism. Some neoliberals, such as the famous economist and Rutgers alumnus Milton Friedman, believed that government should ensure a guaranteed minimum income for every citizen. Others support expanding welfare programs that encourage work, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which subsidizes workers’ wages up to certain thresholds. 

Recognizing that so many of the basic assumptions of market competition are violated in the area of healthcare, neoliberals typically support some form of government support to ensure people have access to health insurance. These proposals range from universal catastrophic coverage to a more conventional “public option” plan offered on insurance exchanges.

In foreign policy, neoliberals seek to engage with the world both diplomatically and economically. We enthusiastically support free trade. We recognize that while disruptive and not without costs, free trade has lifted hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest people from poverty and destitution over the past few decades alone. This view stems in part from neoliberalism’s vehement anti-nationalism. 

Neoliberals believe that the welfare of those beyond our borders is a pressing concern, and we acknowledge the obvious truth that ideologies and policies explicitly meant to serve the “national interest” can inflict immense harm to some of the world’s most vulnerable people without tangible benefits at home. Along these same lines, neoliberals support fewer immigration restrictions. As the American population ages, increasing immigration can stabilize our social safety net, spur productivity growth through entrepreneurship and lift the national rate of economic growth. 

But beyond the implications for our own wealth, we view the freedom of people to live and work where they please as a fundamental human right worthy of defending regardless of its material effects on the perceived national interest. In limiting the annual influx of immigrants to roughly one million per year, the United States cuts off a path to prosperity for millions of people around the world, inflicting needless mutual harm. 

It is also important to say what neoliberalism is not. It is not centrism. Centrists aim to find compromise for its own sake, believing that finding a middle ground can unite people behind gradual progress. Neoliberals look for good ideas no matter where they lie on the political spectrum. For example, our insistence on free trade can be classified as libertarian while our desire to combat climate change is only really found on the Left. 

Neoliberalism also is not a synonym for “socially liberal but fiscally conservative,” as so many people like to call themselves. Sure, some neoliberals would like to see government shrink, but others would like to see us approach European-like tax levels to pay for a larger safety net, albeit in a way conducive to economic growth. 

Finally, neoliberalism also is not defined by figures often wrongly conflated with our label, such as Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher or Bill Clinton. Drug wars, mindless deregulation, “supply-side economics,” paternalistic welfare policies and imperialism are not aligned with the neoliberal worldview. 

As tempting as it may be to use neoliberalism as a catch-all for “things I do not like,” it is really a dynamic, nuanced framework worthy of reclamation and reconsideration.

Connor O'Brien is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in economics. His column, "Policy Over Politics," runs on alternate  Thursdays. 

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Connor O'Brien

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