To critique neoliberalism it helps to understand neoliberalism

Danny Boyle, he of the NEF* and such associated centres of economic illiteracy, has a new book out telling us all that neoliberalism is responsible for all the modern world's ills. We here being proud neoliberals rather take issue with it being responsible for the ills of course. The most striking economic fact of the past 40 years is the decline in absolute poverty around the world and we're really very sure indeed that that is a result of this neoliberal globalisation stuff that we believe in.

We prepared to discuss whether absolutely and totally everything about neoliberalism is just shiny perfect (Yes!) but we do rather object to people missing its crowning glory.

However, that's not the only mistake being made by Boyle. Take this for example:

Even more seriously, Friedman argued that monopoly didn’t matter, and – if it did happen – it was the fault of the government for over-regulating.

No, really, just no. A contestable monopoly doesn't matter that much, for sure, and government regulation can most certainly create monopolies. but to have St. Milt arguing that monopoly power doesn't matter is to butcher reality.

We also get this:

The first error led to the great heresy of neoliberalism, that corporations should be treated like human beings in legal terms.

Which is a category error. Because the very point of having something called a "corporation" is to create a legal form that can then be treated as a person. If we didn't want to create a legal person then we wouldn't need to have the legal form we call a corporation.

The basic point about the law is that you must be a "person" in order to partake of that law. My dog is not a legal person although I am, as the person being kept by it, responsible legally for its actions. If it bites someone, poops on their lawn, nicks their sausages, then they can come after me. I am not responsible for the actions of my cat in the same manner - the law usefully distinguishes between animals that might possibly be controlled and those that cannot be.

But the law is also quite clear that neither the dog nor the cat can be a litigant, sign a contract, be held responsible for their actions themselves. Simply because they are not people.

Only people are people. Which causes a problem when we have an economic organisation. We do think that an economic organisation should be able to sign contracts. More importantly, we think that an economic organisation should be answerable for its actions in a court room. That is, we want to be able to sue them. For this to be possible an economic organisation must be a person.

We then distinguish between natural persons, that's you and me and other peeps, and legal persons, that's companies and charities and governments and football clubs and the police and.....they must all be persons of some form simply because if they're not then they're not organisations governed by the law.

Because the law applies to people. 

This does not then mean that legal persons and natural persons must have the same rights. Assisted suicide of a company is called helping out in bankruptcy proceedings, assisted suicide of a natural person is a crime. That Citizen's United case in the US was not about whether corporations or organisations are people. It's about whether free speech rights and political speech apply to legal persons as they do to natural persons.

Which rights that natural people have which should also apply to legal persons is a very interesting discussion. But the idea that corporations should be legal people is absolutely nothing at all to do with neoliberalism. It's simply the cornerstone of the legal system. Creating a person subject to the law, with rights under the law, is the entire and whole point of having something called a "corporation" in the first place.

And if Boyle's going to get such basic matters wrong then we don't need to spend that much time on his other effusions, do we?


*They say it stands for new economics foundation, we say, along with Giles Wilkes, that it means not economics frankly