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January 19, 2015

Who Are the Neoliberals?

Writing about web page http://warwick.ac.uk/markharrison/comment/shockdoctrine.pdf

What do academic economists think about neoliberalism? I wanted to know because I was invited to take part in a private roundtable, held at Warwick on Wednesday afternoon, 14 January, 2015. The subject of the roundtable was Neoliberalism and Naomi Klein's (2007) book The Shock Doctrine. The roundtable was organized by the theatre company Dumbshow, which is currently producing a play based on some of the ideas and stories in The Shock Doctrine.

If you're not too sure what neoliberalism is, you will find below that you are not the only one. But this is how Klein (2007: 14) describes neoliberalism:

The ideology is a shape-shifter, forever changing its name and shifting identities. [Milton] Friedman called himself a 'liberal,' but his US followers, who associated liberals with high taxes and hippies, tended to identify as 'conservatives,' 'classical economists,' 'free marketers' and, later, as believers in 'Reaganomics' or 'laissez-faire.' In most of the world, their orthodoxy is known as 'neoliberalism', but it is often called 'free trade' or simply 'globalisation.'

What's the Warwick connection? In 2009 Klein's book was awarded the Warwick Prize for Writing. Some of those involved in Dumbshow are Warwick graduates. It turns out that The Shock Doctrine is recommended reading for a number of courses that are provided at Warwick, for example in the Departments of Politics and International Studies, Sociology, and English, although not, as far as I know, in Economics.

What's my connection? In 2009, not long after the Warwick Prize award, I wrote a comment on The Shock Doctrine's evidence base and scholarship (Harrison 2009). I think that's how my name came up.

Back to Wednesday's roundtable. Among several topics on the agenda were two in particular: "What different ideas does neoliberalism bring together?" and "If neoliberalism is so pervasive, why do so few people self-identify as neoliberal?" I had my own answers, but I wondered how typical I was among academic economists. To satisfy my curiosity, between 9 and 14 January I conducted a short survey of my colleagues -- the Warwick Economics faculty. I asked three questions:

  1. Does there exist a definite body of thought that you would willingly refer to as “neo-liberalism”?
  2. Would you willingly refer to your own way of thinking as “neo-liberalism”?
  3. Do you have the sense that a significant number of other people around the world would refer to your own way of thinking as “neo-liberalism”?

I told them: "I value instant responses more than considered ones. In other words, think fast, not slow." But I also allowed for more considered comments if my respondents wished. I received 16 replies, a response rate of around one quarter. (I did not take part myself, but I reveal my own answers below). Here are the results. Note that in presenting them I simplify each question compared with the wording I gave above.

Neoliberalism survey results

Here are my inferences:

  • Among these academic economists there is a range of views on whether or not neoliberalism exists.
  • Hardly any of my colleagues self-identify as neoliberal.
  • Motivations for rejecting the label vary; one possible factor is whether the respondent is a “believer” (answering Yes to Question 1) or a “sceptic” (answering No or Don’t Know to the same question).
  • A typical believer considers that “neoliberalism” can be a valid label, but rejects the label for themselves: They do not believe they are neoliberal.
  • A typical sceptic rejects the validity of the "neoliberalism" label in general, but expects some others to want to stick it on them anyway.

For what it's worth, I'm a sceptic. I would have voted No, No, and Yes. Why? To me the clue is in Klein's description of neoliberalism as a "shape-shifter": it's whatever you want it to be. Neoliberalism is a label that some people stick on other people when they don't like what they have to say. It's easier to stick a label on an argument and shout it down than to argue with it.

As I wrote earlier, I don't assume that my views are representative of my colleagues. On neoliberalism, it turns out, I am not alone, but neither am I typical (just three of the 16 voted exactly as I would have).

In case you wonder how a bunch of economists might line up on other issues, one respondent referred me to Klein and Stern (2006). (The first author is a completely different Klein, by the way -- Daniel, not Naomi.) Their paper reports a survey of members of the American Economic Association; this sounds as if it is about American economists but note that many European economists are also members (including me, for one). I quote from the abstract:

Most economists are supporters of safety regulations, gun control, redistribution, public schooling, and anti-discrimination laws. They are evenly mixed on personal choice issues, military action, and the minimum wage. Most economists oppose tighter immigration controls, government ownership of enterprise and tariffs. In voting, the Democratic-Republican ratio is 2.5:1.

Those who would like something more up-to-date could do worse than check out Daniel Klein's author page on RePEc.

References

Harrison, Mark. 2009. Credibility Crunch: A Comment on The Shock Doctrine. University of Warwick, working paper.

Klein, Daniel B.,and Charlotta Stern. 2006. Economists’ Policy Views and Voting. Public Choice 126: 331–342.

Klein, Naomi. 2007. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Metropolitan Books.


March 25, 2009

Naomi Klein, Milton Friedman and Me

Writing about web page http://www.warwick.ac.uk/go/markharrison/comment/shockdoctrine.pdf

On February 24, 2009, by Naomi Klein was awarded the first Warwick International Prize for Writing, for her book The Shock Doctrine. On behalf of the panel of judges, the novelist China Miéville described The Shock Doctrine as "a brilliant, provocative, outstandingly written investigation into some of the great outrages of our time."

That got my attention. Here's why. On August 26, 2008, Kurt Jacobsen reported in The Guardian about opposition to plans to set up a Milton Friedman Institute at the University of Chicago. The report included some claims that I thought were wrong. So, I replied. Here's my letter, published on August 28:

Your feature on Chicago's proposal to establish a Milton Friedman Institute of economic research (Milton Friedman gives Chicago a headache, August 26) is misinformed in some important respects.

You state: "In postwar America, Friedman's market fundamentalism was regarded as lunatic-fringe stuff." This was never the case. I learned economics in Cambridge in the late 1960s. My professors followed Keynes and Marx, but they rightly made Friedman's work part of my undergraduate syllabus. Friedman's scholarship, not his opinions, made him one of the most influential economists of the 20th century.

You state that Friedman "worked for General Pinochet". While Friedman visited Chile, he did not work for the dictator. His advice was that Chile should turn back from state control of economic life; in the long run, he argued, free markets and political freedoms go hand in hand.

Finally, you give the impression that the mission of the proposed Friedman Institute is tendentious: "The design and evaluation of economic policy requires analyses that respect the incentives of individuals and the essential role of markets in allocating goods and services ... design of public policy without regard to market alternatives has adverse social consequences." While such a statement may be infinitely qualified, few economists today would dispute the principle.

I didn't expect to get away scot-free. On August 30, The Guardian published a letter from David Waddilove of Teignmouth, Devon:

Mark Harrison (Letters, August 28) is disingenuous about the relationship of Milton Friedman to Pinochet's Chile. Neither does he mention the havoc, bloodshed and mass starvation wrought on the people and economies of, among others, Uruguay, Argentina, Russia and Iraq by the Chicago School's symbiotic relationship with sundry dictators and their personal financial gain from those relationships. Nor, of course, does he mention the benefits to US corporate power wrought by the destruction of the public sector in each country the Chicago School meddles with. It is sad to see Warwick University, once the harbinger of some radical thought, now accommodating such "free" market orthodoxies without reference to their real-life testing grounds. Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine should be required reading for anyone interested in what actually happened.

I didn't think of replying, but I didn't like the tone. It seemed to be all guilt by association: Chicago-Pinochet. Chicago-Harrison. Harrison-Pinochet. Harrison-Warwick. Warwick-Pinochet. It looked like I must have blood on my hands. If that was the spirit of The Shock Doctrine, I wasn't sure I wanted to read it. Still, it stuck in my mind.

Months went passed. Then, the prize went to ... Naomi Klein for The Shock Doctrine. Not just any prize, but the first biennial Warwick Prize for Writing, a major literary award endowed by a great university, one that I love and have worked and lived for over thirty years.

Maybe I had missed something.

I got hold of the book and read it. It had a big, important message that I wrestled with. I asked my colleagues what they thought about it. It turned out none of them had read it. I think that is a mistake: the book has already had a significant influence on how people see economics and economists, David Waddilove of Teignmouth being one.

After some reflection, I wrote down what I think about the book in a paper called Credibility Crunch: A Comment on The Shock Doctrine. This is how it begins:

If you think that free markets haven’t worked that well recently, it is perhaps not surprising. If you think that free markets are spread only when business executives, politicians, soldiers, technocrats, and economists join to overwhelm popular resistance by force and violence, then you may have read it first in Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine.

It concludes:

For the [Warwick Prize] panel, China Miéville described The Shock Doctrine as "a brilliant, provocative, outstandingly written investigation into some of the great outrages of our time." The Shock Doctrine merits this praise, but it does not merit belief.

If you are still interested, I hope you'll look at my paper and see the reasoning that fills the gap between my opening and my conclusion.


I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).



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