What Neoliberals Believe

Hello everyone, it’s Colin. It’s been a while.

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“Neoliberalism” is poorly understood. This is in no small part due to the fact that until recently, hardly anybody self-identified as a neoliberal. It became more of an epithet than a serious analytical category, a catch-all for critics of the disruptions of free markets. It was applied imprecisely to a wide spectrum of leaders of differing outlooks, from Ronald Reagan to Tony Blair. However, neoliberalism represents far more than the market-oriented reforms of a handful of world leaders. As I have written previously, if we trace neoliberalism back to its interwar roots, we find that its original motivations were quite simple: to chart a course between laissez-faire and totalitarianism.

With this understanding of its roots, it is important to define neoliberalism within a modern context. This piece will not be the first to do so. I agree with the entire vision laid out by Sam Bowman in 2016. This piece then is to take his conception of neoliberalism from first principles to a tangible policy vision. My hope is that using this vision, neoliberals will be able to push for concrete change in their communities.

  1. Neoliberals believe in core liberal values. Principles like democratic representation, equality before the law, the open society, and the freedoms of speech, association, and the press are core elements of the political philosophy of neoliberalism.

  2. We believe the core liberal values must be embedded and sustained in liberal institutions. Institutions define the norms and rules that constrain and motivate our public behavior. Positive societal outcomes require strong institutions. Neoliberals believe in the value of preserving and improving our existing institutions.

  3. We believe in the value of social liberalism. Social liberalism is valuable in and of itself. We should strive for a society that is inclusive regardless of race, sex, gender, religion, or sexual orientation. Beyond that, creating inclusive institutions also makes our society more resilient and our economy stronger.  

  4. We believe in free markets and a strong social state. As Sam Bowman put it in 2016, free markets are astonishingly good at creating wealth but less good at distributing it equally. The foundation of neoliberalism’s economic beliefs is a system that promotes growth and nurtures entrepreneurship, while also providing a safety net that shares those gains with everyone.

  5. We believe in good jobs. Monetary and fiscal policy can have an incredible effect on both the quantity and quality of work available to people. Neoliberals believe in using those tools to promote low unemployment and higher wages.

  6. We believe in more people. Societies prosper when an increased number of people live within them. Neoliberals want there to be more people, whether that is through immigration or policies that promote more children.

  7. We believe in free trade. Free trade has been a net positive for the world by lifting billions across the world out of poverty through higher wages and cheaper goods. Neoliberals believe in the further proliferation of free trade across the world while acknowledging that the strong social state should be employed to help those left behind by it.  

  8. We believe that housing should be plentiful and cheap. Land use restrictions reduce the volume and varieties of housing that can be built, creating scarcity to the benefit of incumbent property owners. This makes housing expensive for all and inaccessible to some. Neoliberals want to make housing affordable for everyone by making the construction of new housing easier.

  9. We believe in global decarbonization. The universal threat of climate change cannot be overstated. Therefore, efforts to reverse its effects must be global in scale rather than limited to individual nations. Neoliberals support governments placing a price on carbon, public spending on green technology research, the sharing of those technologies with the rest of the world, and policies that support the use of electric vehicles.

  10. We believe in making healthcare accessible and affordable for all. Currently, healthcare is expensive for most of us and inaccessible to some. Our vision is a healthcare system that expands access and drives down the costs of care, all while preserving the healthcare innovation that has improved health outcomes for us all.

  11. We believe in criminal justice reform. Overly militarized police and overly punitive courts gravely damaged too many American families and communities, especially poor and minority neighborhoods. Neoliberals desire a shift to alternative criminal justice approaches such as community policing and restorative justice, which enlists communities in reducing deadly interactions with the police, deterring crime, and fixing appropriate punishments.

In trying to lay out a vision that is grounded in policy rather than first principles, I have likely left out items that you think should have been included. My vision of neoliberalism is not meant to be exhaustive nor exclusive. And while I have attempted to make this vision as universal as possible, it is likely biased by my Americanism as well.

The resurgence of populism has highlighted the need for liberalism to revise its approach. That is not to say that liberalism has failed. Rather, liberalism must do what it has done countless times in its past: conform to the ever-shifting problems that the world faces. Neoliberalism must change then too. This piece is just one attempt at accomplishing that.

The Neoliberal Project is a network of over sixty chapters fighting around the world to promote liberal values in their communities. You can get involved by joining a chapter or by becoming a member today.

Thank you to Will Marshall and Jeremiah Johnson for the thoughtful edits. Much of this piece was based on the napkin outline of a book that I wrote down over a year ago in a San Francisco bar with Noah Smith and Steven Buss. Thank you to both of them. And of course, Sam Bowman was the first to write a vision of neoliberalism. I’ve linked it above, but you can also read it by clicking here.