In my 2015 lecture to Brighton University, “Looking at the World Through Neoliberal Eyes,” I made the point that neoliberals tend to compare the present with the past, rather than with some hypothetical imagined future.
Many on the Left tend to imagine what the world could become by dreaming up an idealized image of what it might be like. They compare that vision with the current world, using it to point to what they perceive to be its inadequacies and injustices.
Neoliberals tend to look at what the world was like in the past, comparing it to the present world to point to the progress that has been made, and to incremental ways in which yet more progress might be achieved. They look at the improvements in life expectancy, in deaths in infancy and childbirth, in control of diseases, in living standards, and they identify what they see as the principal sources of these improvements.
Some of this is down to advances in knowledge, especially of scientific and medical knowledge, and some of it is down to changing attitudes as more becomes possible. But a large part is owed to the increased wealth created by trade and specialization, wealth that funds yet more research and its application, and that makes it possible to afford improved standards.
Neoliberals look to improvements, of course, but more often than not, by using methods that have been tested and seen to work in practice. This is part of the empiricism that characterizes the outlook. When new ideas are tried, neoliberals are usually cautious, testing them carefully, ready to incorporate modifications when necessary, and to abandon that which does not work in favour of that which does.
Some on the Left claim that “true” socialism has never been tried, pointing to some hypothetical version of what socialism might be like in the future. Neoliberals reply that it has been tried many times in the past by people who acted in its name and declared it was socialism they were implementing. They point out that socialist governments have always failed, producing shortages, shoddy goods and services, often starvation, and sometimes mass murder. It has been tried and found wanting, not in theory but in practice.