Long Live Neoliberalism?

LONG LIVE NEOLIBERALISM?….From the comments to my previous post, I see that many otherwise well-informed people had not until recently even heard of the term “neoliberalism,” or aren’t at all sure what the word means, or doubt that it stands for anything unique or consistent — other than perhaps the selling out of liberalism itself.

Can’t say I’m surprised. This is really inside baseball, dated baseball at that. And even within the rarefied world of people who think about this stuff, I doubt there’s a definition of neoliberalism that all of its adherents would agree to.

But, if there is no single definition, there is an ur-text. It’s Charlie Peters’ “A Neoliberal’s Manifesto” (pdf). Anyone really interested in this subject ought to read it.

Charlie wrote the piece in 1983, the same year I started at the Monthly as an intern. Rereading it now after many years, I’m struck by several things. First are the policy positions that seemed persuasive to me then but definitely don’t now, like means-testing all entitlement programs.

Second are the ideas that I knew to be crazy back then but, at some level, intrigue me still, like reinvigorating participatory democracy by turning vast numbers of civil service jobs into patronage positions.

Third are the ideas that I strongly agreed with then and still do today. These include some version of a draft to make sure everyone, including the rich, serve the country, and some kind of evaluation system to hire and fire teachers based on performance rather than credentials and seniority.

Indeed, we’ve continued to publish stories advocating these ideas — see here and here, for instance — and we’ll continue to do so. In that sense, the answer to the question “Does neoliberalism have a future?” is yes — at least it does at the Washington Monthly.

But what strikes me the most about the manifesto is just how passionately anti-elitist, anti-snobbery, even populist, it is. I invite younger neo-populist netroots types to read it — I would sincerely be interested in what they think (you especially, Ezra). I imagine they’ll find plenty of passages that affirm their idea that neoliberalism was the caravan slave who let the conservative camel’s nose inside the tent. I don’t agree — the camel was coming in anyway — but so be it. The idea, however, that neoliberalism — Charlie’s and my conception of it, anyway — is a pro-upper-middle-class ideology adhered to by establishment types who have made their peace with K Street, cannot survive an honest reading of the text.

Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.