Coming out as neoliberals

You may have spotted that we’ve recently decided to start calling ourselves free market ‘neoliberals’, instead of libertarians. Nothing has changed about what we believe about the world, or the approach we take to making it better. But after thinking about it and discussing it among ourselves we decided that this was a clearer label for what we already believe and do.

Madsen's "Looking at the world through neo-liberal eyes" is an excellent primer on what we mean by this. I've had a stab at something similar, too. For us, the word neoliberal means that we’re:

  1. Pro-markets
  2. Pro-property rights
  3. Pro-growth
  4. Individualistic
  5. Empirical and open-minded
  6. Globalist in outlook
  7. Optimistic about the future
  8. Focused on changing the world for the better

These are, of course, what we’ve always been. We promote low, simple taxes because we want economic growth and to give people more power over their money, so it is individuals and not the state that choose where their income goes. We promote competition in healthcare, education, utilities and other public services because we want those things to be better through a process of experimentation and individual choice. We promote globalisation and a liberal immigration system because we want to raise the living standards of people around the world through trade and investment. 

Adopting the word ‘neoliberal’, then, is not a change of policy but a recognition that other labels do not describe what we’ve always been quite as well. We're not closing the door on libertarians, Objectivists, anarcho-capitalists, Whigs, free marketeers, conservatives, voluntarists, agorists or liberals - these are our friends and allies, and we welcome all to speak at our events, but these are not the words that most accurately describe us.

Why not ‘libertarian’, which we've used before? In the UK the word libertarian has a rather rigid meaning - someone who is opposed to all but the tiniest night watchman state in every case. In the US this isn’t the case. There, the word is more of an umbrella term for small state liberals who nonetheless might favour things like school vouchers or a Negative Income Tax as an end goal for policy, not just a stepping-stone to eventually abolishing all government altogether. But in the UK, I think it's confusing to many people to describe anything short of almost total abolition of the state as 'libertarian'.

Rightly or wrongly, many people in the UK are confused or annoyed when self-described libertarians such as us favour some measure of government, built on market-based lines. But we don’t care about ideological purity, we care about making the world better using experimentation and evidence. ‘Neoliberal’, like classical liberal but unlike libertarian, implies that we’re not all-or-nothing absolutists.

So why not ‘classical liberal’? We think that the world is better now than it ever has been, and that markets and property rights are to thank for that. The ‘Washington Consensus’ policies that advise developing world governments to get their spending and taxes under control and focus on opening markets up to competition and investment are in large part to thank for this. The massive reductions in poverty across the developing world and rise in wealth in places like China and India are thanks to the neoliberal order of sound government and free trade, and we want to defend that.

The classical liberal heroes we admire - Adam Smith, of course, but also people like John Stuart Mill and David Hume - are the progenitors of this order, but our policy programme is updated for the modern world. You might say that neoliberals are classical liberals with smartphones, internet access and frequent flier miles.

And then, of course, is the fact that ‘neoliberal’ is already in use today, but almost exclusively as a slur. For a large number of people (mostly on the left), neoliberalism describes the modern world order and the fact that nobody self-describes as a neoliberal is proof that nobody is willing to defend that order. Well, not any more. 

The words Tory, suffragette and Whig all began as insults but were adopted and reappropriated by the people they were used against. We intend to do the same with neoliberalism. The modern world is where it is thanks to markets and property rights, and we’re thankful for that. But with sensible policies it could be even better. And that’s where we neoliberals come in.