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.


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.

- 4 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Sam Burgum

    “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.”

    Neoliberalism has a specific history and genealogy up to (and past) the recent crash. It is true that there is a tendency to treat it as a catch-all term (I too think this is problematic); but that’s no different from, say, an economist generalising to (and shouting down) anyone who says ‘neoliberalism’ as automatically making a shallow argument.

    19 Jan 2015, 09:56

  2. Martin

    I give my students in economic history this article, by Roger Backhouse, to read among others. It might have missed some importants part of the story, considering it deals with a recent topic, but I think it is balanced and fair.


    Perhaps the article could be useful in your discussions.

    19 Jan 2015, 17:48

  3. Sebastian

    You might also want to take a look at this paper.
    Similarly, one of its major conclusions is that almost nobody self-identifies as neoliberal.

    31 Jan 2015, 01:28

  4. Mark Harrison

    Sebastian: Thanks! Here are the details of the paper you mention:

    Neoliberalism: From New Liberal Philosophy to Anti-Liberal Slogan, by Taylor C. Boas and Jordan Gans-Morse

    Abstract. In recent years, neoliberalism has become an academic catchphrase. Yet, in contrast to other prominent social science concepts such as democracy, the meaning and proper usage of neoliberalism curiously have elicited little scholarly debate. Based on a content analysis of 148 journal articles published from 1990 to 2004, we document three potentially problematic aspects of neoliberalism’s use: the term is often undefined; it is employed unevenly across ideological divides; and it is used to characterize an excessively broad variety of phenomena. To explain these characteristics, we trace the genesis and evolution of the term neoliberalism throughout several decades of political economy debates. We show that neoliberalism has undergone a striking transformation, from a positive label coined by the German Freiberg School to denote a moderate renovation of classical liberalism, to a normatively negative term associated with radical economic reforms in Pinochet’s Chile. We then present an extension of W. B. Gallie’s framework for analyzing essentially contested concepts to explain why the meaning of neoliberalism is so rarely debated, in contrast to other normatively and politically charged social science terms. We conclude by proposing several ways that the term can regain substantive meaning as a “new liberalism” and be transformed into a more useful analytic tool.

    02 Feb 2015, 11:44

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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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