Neoliberalism: No regrets

Two years ago, in 2016, Prof Colin Talbot, Professor of Government at the University of Manchester, claimed that the term “Neoliberalism” was devoid of meaning. He was attacked by a ‘progressive’ student who demanded that he be disciplined by the university authorities. Talbot claimed that no-one admitted to being a neoliberal, and that it was now simply an all-purpose insult.

Cambridge took a lead with its debate in mid-June of 2018 on the motion, “This House Regrets Neoliberalism.” The Cambridge Union took the line that the term does in fact have meaning, and that it is something one can be for or against. The Adam Smith Institute is for it. Asked to speak at the end of a 2015 term-long seminar at Brighton University, I chose the title, “Looking at the World Through Neoliberal Eyes,” and subsequently had a T-shirt custom-made reading “Neoliberal and proud of It.”

The ASI’s executive director at the time, Sam Bowman, then published in 2016 an essay about what it meant to be a neoliberal. The ASI rebranded itself as “a neoliberal, free market think tank.” Far from regretting neoliberalism, the institute took pride in it, indulging in it, and trumpeting its virtues and achievements, and explained why it did so at every possible opportunity.

I am often asked at schools about the causes of poverty, and I reply that there are none. Unfortunately, poverty has been the condition of humankind for most of its 3 million-year existence. To ask its causes is like asking the causes of cold in the universe. It is the absence of heat or energy. Similarly, poverty is the absence of wealth. Wealth is the unusual condition that requires explanation. Poverty is what happens when there is no wealth, none of that unusual condition. It is wealth that requires explanation. I do not, of course, mean that poor people are poor because they do nothing. I mean they are poor because of the absence of that unusual condition, the one we should study, understand, and try to replicate as widely as possible.

A fundamental cause of wealth is the use of resources for investment instead of consumption. It is the deferment of present consumption in order to achieve future gain, the use of resources as capital. This is what financed the Industrial Revolution – the best thing that has ever happened to humanity. The addition of free markets and free trade ensured that the wealth created by the Industrial Revolution increased the living standards and the life chances of ordinary people. It led to cheaper food, medical advances, and it paid for such things as sanitation and education. It lifted humankind above subsistence and starvation, and onto that upward road that we have been climbing ever since.

This year marks an anniversary. In 1978 there came Star Wars, three popes, democracy in Spain, and the Sex pistols. But the most significant event of 40 years ago passed without notice at the time. In the village of Xiaogang in China, 18 farmers met at night in secret to sign a pact that divided the village’s collective land between them, allowing each family to keep a share of the proceeds they generated. They knew how risky this was, going against the ruling socialist ideology, and added a clause pledging to raise and educate the children of any exposed and executed. Their first harvest yielded more than the previous 5 years added together, and they were exposed by neighbouring villages.

Under Mao Zedong they would undoubtedly have been executed, but the paramount leader Deng Xiaoping was consolidating his power. He ordered that the experiment of the villagers be studied, and then replicated across China. So began the modernization of China. The approach was copied in India and other countries, and marked the beginning of the neoliberal hegemony.

Those who praise China’s “economic progress since 1949” are glibly glossing over the great socialist famines that killed 60 million people from starvation. The progress dates from 1978, not 1949, and it was the brave farmers of Xiaogang who led the way. It was not socialism but its abandonment, and the spread of neoliberal policies that paved the way to success.

Is this something we should regret? Not at all.

  • 2 billion people were lifted out of subsistence and starvation
  • The average incomes of the world’s poor doubled in real terms
  • Life expectancy doubled
  • Deaths in childbirth and infancy became a fraction of what they had been
  • Access to sufficient food, healthcare and education reached unprecedented levels

Did it increase inequality? Yes, it did within countries. This always happens when countries embark on that upward road to growth and prosperity. Inequality increases at first, then levels off and subsequently declines. But inequality decreased between countries as poor countries vied to join the ranks of richer ones.

However, neoliberals think that absolute command of resources matters more. Access to enough food, healthcare and education is more important than the gap between rich and poor. Will there be food on the table on Friday? Do the children have a safe place to sleep? Can our parents get though winter? These things matter more than how far ahead rich people might be. Neoliberalism brings the greatest help to those who need it most – those on the bottom rung of society.

Should we regret what it has achieved? Absolutely not. We can be justly proud that we have discovered a formula that uplifts the common lot of humanity. Its achievements cannot be ignored, because they are real-world facts, not some fancy theory of what might happen. They did happen. Is neoliberalism the last word in economic progress? Probably not. It is essentially empirical. If something better comes along, it might well replace it.

But that is no reason to regret what it has achieved. It is the best system we have yet found to bring decent lives to ordinary people around the world. We should no more regret it than we should regret the Reformation, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, or the Industrial Revolution.

We carried the torch for a time and we let its blaze light up the world. We should honour it and exult in its achievements, and reject emphatically any idea that we should regret it.