The term neoliberalism is used to describe a political-economic philosophy that had major implications for government policies beginning in the 1970s – and increasingly prominent since 1980 – that de-emphasizes or rejects positive government intervention in the economy, focusing instead on achieving progress and even social justice by encouraging free-market methods and less restricted operations of business and "development". Its supporters argue that the net gains for all under free trade and capitalism will outweigh the costs in all, or almost all, cases.
It can be contrasted with economic nationalism, fair trade and anti-capitalism, three different alternatives to neoliberalism.
The term "neoliberalism" has also been used in a theological sense as a drive to deliberately modify the beliefs and practices of the church (especially evangelical) to conform to cultural post-modernism. This entry concerns only political-economic neoliberalism.
The term neoliberalism is not the only one for this movement, many supporters argue that it is simply "liberalism", while critics often label it pejoratively as "Thatcherism". Because of close association between this philosophy and neoclassical economics, and confusion with the overloaded term "liberal", some advocate the term "neoclassical philosophy". It is criticized (in different ways) by socialist, social liberals, anarchist, and conservative parties, intellectuals, and economists. Some portray neoliberalism as the imposition of "free markets from the top-down" since it has been promoted by international financial institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank and by centralized state organizations such as the European Union and the U.S. government. Others identify neoliberalism with neo-corporatism, and political-economic domination by multinational corporations.
Though many liberals adhere to neoliberalism, their ideology has a broader content, and other liberals oppose neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is not a version of the liberalism of John Dewey, Woodrow Wilson, John Maynard Keynes, Franklin Roosevelt, or the British Liberal Democrats, which saw a positive role for government, as part of a capitalist economy, in serving the public interest. Rather, it focuses on the establishment of a stable medium of exchange, and the reduction of localized rules, regulations and barriers to commerce, and the privatization of state-run enterprises. Critics of neoliberalism associate it with globalization, and with the rise of multinational corporations, as well as monetary and fiscal austerity at the expense of social programs .
The term is often used as a pejorative; in this context it means not the economic theory, but the implementation of global capitalism and the power of multinational corporations, as well as the effects of free trade on wages and social structures.
Just as classical liberal philosophy justified and encouraged the "first era of globalization" which came to an end with the shocks of the First World War, the collapse of the Gold Standard, and the Great Depression, neoliberalism is associated with the contemporary "second era of globalization," the seeds of which were planted after the Second World War. In between, during the period from 1915 until the 1960s or so, different versions of more statist liberalism and economic nationalism guided the economic and social policies of many nations. In mid-1950s, a book about the theory and practice of neoliberalism, recent German liberalism and the Federal Republic of Germany was published in the German Democratic Republic.
Neoliberalism's economic roots begin with the re-establishment of international monetary stability with the Bretton Woods Agreement, which fixed currencies to the US Dollar and the US Dollar to gold. As an ideological movement, it became increasingly prevalent based on the work of Robert Mundell and Arthur Flemming. The Mont Pelerin Society, founded at about the same time by thinkers such as Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and Michael Polanyi spawned free-market think tanks and advocacy groups in the UK and the US during the 1960s and 1970s. They drew upon the theories of the Austrian School of economics and monetarism. Neoliberalism argued that protectionism and government programs produced economic inefficiencies, and that developing nations should open their markets to the outside, and focus on exporting. Also emphasized was the liquidation of state-owned corporations, and the reduction in rules designed to hinder business. Neoliberal ideas found expression in a series of trade talks to form the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade as well as regional free trade agreements such as the European Union and the North American Free Trade Agreement. These agreements went beyond textbook "free trade" to encourage the free movement of capital funds and direct private investment and to limit national restriction of business privileges.
The slow and quantitative development of neoliberalism after World War II became more rapid in the 1970s, and not always by peaceful means. One of the often-touted neoliberal success stories is General Augusto Pinochet's Chile – which began with the violent ousting of the democratically-elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile. The Allende government had pursued radical social democratic policies, and has been labeled "socialist" or "Marxist". "Free market" policies, including privatization of state assets, were imposed by "los Chicago Boys," Chicago school economists inspired by Milton Friedman. These policies were later imitated by the Bretton Woods institutions operating in many other poor countries, particularly in Latin America.
The rise of this wave of neoliberalism culminated with the Reagan government in the United States and that of Margaret Thatcher in Britain – along with the fall of the Soviet Union and the fading of social democracy and new liberalism as counterbalances or alternatives to unbridled capitalism. The Reagan and Thatcher governments not only shifted their own countries' policies toward laissez-faire but used their control of the major Bretton Woods institutions to impose their policies on the rest of the world. For this reason, some regard neoliberalism as synonymous with the "Washington Consensus," the dominant policy view at the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the U.S. Treasury at the end of the 20th century and the start of the 21st. A major axiom of the neoliberal school is that (to quote Thatcher) "There Is No Alternative" to globalized capitalism. This slogan is often abbreviated as "TINA".
In the late 1980s and early 1990s neoliberal policies had been embraced by the conventionally-defined center-left, as Bill Clinton of the United States backed the North American Free Trade Agreement. Free trade was seen as essential to his economic program, which promoted the creation of technology and intellectual property rights as the means by which America would be able to reduce or manage its persistent balance of trade deficit. Some center-left neoliberal economists argued that protectionism is not a left or right issue, but an issue of asymmetry, and therefore a general cause for concern.
Critics of neoliberalism in both theory and practice are numerous. This is particularly true in developing nations whose assets have been sold off to foreigners and whose domestic political and economic institutions had been undermined by the effects of being exposed to trade and rapid flows of capital. Even within the neoliberal movement there is intense criticism of how many developed nations have demanded that others liberalize their markets for manufactured goods, while protecting their own domestic agricultural markets.
Anti-globalization advocates are the most vociferous opponents of neoliberalism, particularly its implementation as "free capital flows" but not free labor flows. They argue that neoliberal policies encourage a "race to the bottom" as capital flows to the lowest environmental and labor standards, and is merely updated "beggar thy neighbor" imperialism, dating back 200 years. In this they are in fundamental agreement with many of neoliberalism's supporters who argue that neoliberalism represents an updated version of classical liberalism.
Some economists argue that neoliberal policies can create "moral hazard": governments and international financial institutitions must bail out developing nations and their creditors because they are "too big to fail". This simply encourages further risk-taking and crises. They point to the string of currency melt-downs in the – Mexico, Russia, Eastern Europe, East Asia and Argentina – as proof that there is a danger to allowing risk-taking without sufficient penalty or regulation.
As described by UC Berkeley economic historian and defender of neoliberalism Professor Bradford DeLong, this "ism" has two main tenets:
- "The first is that close economic contact between the industrial core [of the capitalist world economy] and the developing periphery is the best way to accelerate the transfer of technology which is the sine qua non for making poor economies rich (hence all barriers to international trade should be eliminated as fast as possible). The second is that governments in general lack the capacity to run large industrial and commercial enterprises. Hence, [except] for core missions of income distribution, public-good infrastructure, administration of justice, and a few others, governments should shrink and privatize."
To critics of neoliberalism, these two principles represent parts of the " trickle-down theory", i.e., that under free-market capitalism, economic growth and technological change benefit even the poorest countries and people, even if that process is dominated by multinational corporations, rich domestic elites, and organizations such as the IMF dominated by rich countries' financiers. To defenders, "Development is Freedom" (i.e., free-market capitalism). More economic growth, specialization and opportunity create chances for individuals to achieve more than rigid structures which provide only illusory protection.
The concept of neoliberalism became popular among economists not only as the balance of political power changed (as discussed above), but as many decided that post-World War II national development strategies for poor countries were not having the intended effects. In particular, funding for mega-projects left poor countries with high debts but little growth to show for it. It is also a reaction to the perceived failures of populist and modern liberal economic policies, such as import-substituting industrialization.
Failures of the East-Asian ( Taiwanese, South Korean) policies of state-guided export-led economic growth and of the centrally-planned or "communist" economies also were interpreted as requiring neoliberal medicine. The export-led economies were criticized as involving "crony capitalism," while most of the centrally-planned countries fell apart economically and politically in late 1980s and early 1990s.
As noted, the neoliberal doctrine is linked to the so-called "Washington consensus," a set of specific policy goals designed for Latin American countries. In addition to the tenets of neoliberalism noted by Professor deLong, the Washington consensus stipulated that a country should have stable exchange rates and a government budget in balance.
While some use the terms neoliberal and libertarian or classical liberalism interchangeably there is a difference between the two philosophies. While both share a belief in market economics and free trade, neoliberal economics theory shares with neoliberal international relations theory (and liberal internationalism ) a belief in international regimes and a degree of global governance as a means of negotiating and administering international agreements. Neoliberals believe that greater economic and political interdependence will lead to progress and a reduction of international tensions or at least divert states from utilizing military means to resolve conflict. Libertarians reject the neoliberal belief that global governance bodies or state negotiated treaty regimes that bind the individual are desirable.
Much of neoliberalism accepts macro-economic theory that assumes full employment and rational expectations, that is, it is a modern neoclassical and free-market economic theory. Others rely on the benevolence and technical expertise of the IMF and other international financial institutions to solve the world's economic problems.
The practice of neoliberal ideas varies widely. Some proponents see transparency, development and uniformity of regulations as the most important goals, while many others see the dismantling of state regulations, as such, as the primary purpose. Many leading implementors of neoliberal policies criticize the manner in which those policies are implemented. Some blame the institutions such as the World Bank and IMF directly, while others argue that by the time the IMF and World Bank are involved, the problems have already become endemic – they blame the "shock therapy" approach which was taken in the 1980s for much of the economic damage, and argue that "big bang" marketization, such as was pursued in Russia, leads to centralized corrupt economic oligarchy, the very opposite of what neoliberalism proposes.
There were also catastrophic failures. In particular, Nobel prize winner and former World Bank chief economist Joseph Stiglitz argues that the IMF is guilty of forcing neoliberal and Washington consensus policy goals on countries at times when it was not appropriate (i.e., the Asian Economic Crisis), with devastating results. The "cookie cutter" approach of applying the same policy no matter what the specificities were can be seen in this crisis, as the I.M.F. pushed for government budget cuts even though government budget deficits had nothing to do with the crisis. Neoliberalism has also been criticised by populists, social democrats, and anti-capitalists, who argue that unbridled market forces inevitably increase inequality in wealth and hence power.
In a recent book, Professor Robert Pollin summarizes the neoliberal record. Excluding the People's Republic of China, which did not follow the neoliberal lead, the era of the "developmental state" (1961-80) saw a per capita growth rate of real gross domestic product that averaged 3.2 percent per year. On the other hand, during the neoliberal era (1981-99) this growth rate fell to 0.7 percent per year, slowing both absolutely and relative to the wealthier countries of the OECD. China, which shifted from pure state planning to state-guided export promotion, saw its per capita growth rate rise from 2.5 to 8.4 percent between these periods. (See Robert Pollin, Contours of Descent, p. 131.
ISBN 1-85984-673-4) Thus, according to the neoliberals' own standards, their policies can be seen as a failure. Pollin also shows the rapid increase in income inequality between these periods, especially when China is excluded from the sample. The increase in economic inequality is one major hallmark of neoliberalism.
It is an open question as to whether the western world continues to be dominated by neoliberal policies. Whilst the European Union and many individual countries have policies which support workers' rights, some scholars argue that these are adaptations of the core neoliberal economic model rather than a fundamental move away from it.
This short entry cannot end the debate. One question is whether it is better to define neoliberalism in terms of its self-image (as Professor deLong does) or in terms of its actual practice. Either way, these critiques do not automatically indicate that neoliberalism should be dumped. It is possible, as the more militant advocates of laissez-faire say, that neoliberal policies were not applied in a pure enough form. Alternatively, one might argue that if neoliberalism had not been pursued, economic events would have been even worse. Further, it is possible that neoliberalism could be reformed.
Who is a neoliberal?
As with many political terms, since the word is used in different ways by different groups, different people can be classified in different ways based on it. The most restrictive definition of neoliberal is "laissez-faire, capital market driven, privatization and trade arrangements". Under this specific form, neoliberalism is a business-conservative policy aimed at enforcing stringent budget discipline on developed and developing nations by requiring, for all but the US, balanced budgets and trade flows. This is based on a specific interpretation of the Mundell-Fleming model and is most associated with the Washington Consensus. In these terms the prominent neoliberals are people such as Margaret Thatcher, Robert Barro, and Alan Greenspan.
In the broader sense, where a neoliberal is an individual who subscribes to Prof. DeLong's formulation of neoliberalism, any advocate of government restricted to supplying public goods, and globalized free trade is a neoliberal. By this broader definition Robert Rubin, Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen are "neoliberals", even though all three have been highly critical of the neoliberalism of the more restrictive form, and the manner by which such institutions as the IMF and World Bank have been run in the post-Bretton Woods era.
The key argument between these two usages can be seen from Stiglitz' criticisms of the Washington Consensus: namely, by the measures that he follows, that while globalization and global trade are good, they have been conducted in a manner that seems almost designed to impoverish poorer nations. He specifically cites agricultural subsidies and barriers, for example for sugar, the average prices paid for imports and exports between developing and core nations, and the damaging effects of "hot money" as the vehicle for foreign investment. For a laissez-faire neoliberal, other than an admission that agricultural subsidies are bad, none of these constitute indictments of laissez-faire policies.
Last updated: 06-02-2005 03:33:06