A Neoliberal Education

David Brooks thinks neoliberalism is dead. Charles Peters begs to differ.

In his March 11 columnDavid Brooks of the New York Times declared that neoliberalism is dead. The left, Brooks argued, was returning to “its old, pre-neoliberal self.” Good riddance, was more or less the swift response from a host of liberal bloggers, such as the American Prospect’s Ezra Klein. “Substantively, [neoliberalism] didn’t move the country very far forward at all,” he wrote on that magazine’s blog, TAPPED, associating neoliberalism with Rubinomics and the “glittering vision” of NAFTA’s backers. Neoliberalism’s lasting legacy, he went on to say, “will be the elevation of counterintuitive argumentation and sardonic detachment in the press corps.”

This characterization somewhat dismayed the Washington Monthly ’s editor in chief, Paul Glastris, because neoliberalism is a subject close to the magazine’s historical heart. The term (or at least its American usage) was coined by the magazine’s founder, Charles Peters, in the late 1970s, and many of the ideology’s founding disciples were the young editors who worked at the magazine in the 1970s and 1980s, including Taylor Branch, Nicholas Lemann, James Fallows, Mickey Kaus, and Jonathan Alter. Later, Katherine Boo and James Bennet came along, as did Jon Meacham and Jason DeParle. In an effort to persuade the liberal blogosphere that neoliberalism is not, in fact, synonymous with pro-market, K Street–friendly centrism, we republished Peters’s 1983 article, “A Neoliberal’s Manifesto,” online, and asked Ezra Klein to read it. Recently, Klein sat down with Peters in his Washington home to discuss neoliberalism’s past, present, and future.

Ezra Klein: This essay, “A Neoliberal’s Manifesto,” is a much clearer explanation of neoliberalism than I’ve seen anywhere else. You write, “We no longer automatically favor unions and big government, or oppose the military and big business. Indeed, in our search for solutions that work we’ve come to distrust all automatic responses, liberal or conservative.”

That struck me as one of the real contributions of neoliberalism. But what has happened, at least to some younger folks like me, is that at times this appears to have become not an honest critique, but a positioning device. The idea that it’s not about the quality of the argument, but the display: you show honesty by attacking Democrats, you show independence by attacking liberals. At times I think that has been a damaging impulse on our side.

Charles Peters: [Laughing] I understand the way you’re feeling. In 2004 Mickey Kaus was savaging Kerry. And I kept telling Mickey, For chrissake man, you’re going to reelect a guy who’s clearly a monster and an idiot. Mickey was right that a lot was wrong with Kerry. But Kerry was still a lot better than Bush. And of course Mickey ultimately took that position. But by that time anybody who had read the column was thoroughly convinced that Kerry was a jerk.

We don’t believe in being different for the sake of being different. We believe in being different when it helps us get to a truth that liberals don’t seem to grasp. One thing we said was that we’re concerned that just as conservatives become automatically pro-religion, Democrats become automatically embarrassed by religion. I always thought, all these liberals who worship Martin Luther King, what the hell did they think he was? He was a Christian who appealed to Christian values and who sold his movement on Christian values. FDR sold the New Deal on the basis of Christian values. That’s a perfect example of what we as neoliberals tried to do. The point about criticizing the teacher’s union is not just to bitch about them, but to get decent education for kids who are being deprived of it by incompetent teachers who are protected by the unions.

EK: What do you think about the possibility for an asymmetry in honesty, where you end up having the conservatives and the neoliberals ganging up on mutual enemies?

CP: There’s always the danger of that. I think you will see that most of the original neoliberals, since 1994, have been much tougher on the conservatives, and much more effort has been directed to making the points about why government is needed.

EK: One of the themes lacing the essay was how the neoliberal critique really took the idea that we need more risk in the economy, that people need to be more free to be entrepreneurs.

CP: In the late seventies, there was this stagnation, and you desperately needed a rebirth of entrepreneurship. The neoliberals can’t take complete credit for this rebirth, because it was happening right as we were calling for it. It began to happen with people like Bill Gates and the Apple guy in their garages. Things were ready to explode. But as in so many revolutions that are desirable, it went too far. All these people got to be concerned not with just having the exciting new business, but with making more and more dough, to the point that it made no sense.

EK: There was also a lot of praise for politicians like Gary Hart and Paul Tsongas, who were making the investor class a focus of the Democratic Party. That’s important for reinvigorating the economy, but somewhat neither here nor there when you’re talking about the risks and the gains for the poor, the less educated, or even the lower middle class. This is a common critique of neoliberalism, that the focus was almost myopically on the middle class, whereas traditional liberalism had focused more on the marginalized.

CP: Well, back then it was so bad, you needed to encourage entrepreneurship. The situation has changed now. There began to be a need to address the terrible excesses of capitalism that occurred, and we began to hammer away at those.

EK: So, do you agree with David Brooks when he talks about the vanishing neoliberal?

CP: I think in many, many areas, the neoliberals, in effect, won. But in some cases we won too much. For instance, the rebirth of capitalism produced such extremes that we then had to turn around and say no, that is wrong. But where we clearly haven’t won is with the government bureaucracy, the teacher’s unions. We have hardly made a dent, and they still have terribly strong power. You have to be able to fire incompetent teachers and incompetent civil servants.

Those are two great analogous problems in education and public service that no one seems to want to face. And the Democrats never issued the kind of call that Jack Kennedy did, that public service is a proud and noble calling. Jesus, when I was working in the Kennedy administration, I got calls from all my smart friends all over the United States. They would suddenly want to talk to their good friend Charlie Peters about whether “there is something there for me in Washington.” It was wonderful.

EK: The roots of the Monthly and its version of neoliberalism were in the desire to make government work better. You have supported a national health care system for a very long time. That was not something the original neoliberals were afraid of. How did we get to this moment, where everyone thinks neoliberals want to chart a centrist, somewhat conservative course away from liberalism?

CP: Well, I have to say that I think that a lot of people haven’t been reading Charlie Peters and the Washington Monthly, where these ideas were laid out, because then they would know what we believe. I read what people have said recently, and it’s absurd. You know, like, we are anti-tax. Just last month, I pointed out that the lowest unemployment has come when we’ve had the highest taxes. I have defended the estate tax over and over again. And one thing that we helped bring about, that truly represents the neoliberal spirit, is the earned income tax credit.

EK: Do you still worry about entitlement programs?

CP: Oh, in essence, yes. I am a redistributionist. I hate wasting public money on the rich, I hate the agricultural subsidies that go to the rich. It drives me crazy. And I hate wasting Social Security money on the rich, so that it is not something that benefits the middle class. I’ve said many times that, if anything, we want to give more to the poor and take away money from the rich.

EK: Again, the prototypical neoliberal is sounding more liberal than any liberal I know.

There has been a strange generalizing of neoliberalism from the concept which you created, and your magazine nurtured, and it generalized into a sort of antiliberalism on the left. That has caused a lot of confusion.

CP: Mickey Kaus made the great point—of forty-five of my protégés, how many of them supported the war? Actually, I can think of only two, for sure. We were not Marty Peretz, Peter Beinart, and Michael Kelly. Neoliberalism came out of the journalistic doctrine of the Monthly. This was rooted in part in my experience in the Peace Corps, to find out what we were doing right and wrong in government, and to make sure that what we were doing wrong got corrected. We wanted to be sure of two things: we went out and saw what was happening and talked to people out on the front lines, and then we took our conclusions and our analysis and subjected them to a tough cross-examination. As you begin to think that way, you begin to face the things that were wrong in your own political doctrine. So there was a link between the journalistic approach and the intellectual approach.

EK: Also, I think that the true Washington Monthly brand of neoliberalism got overtaken by Michael Kinsley and Andrew Sullivan and folks like that at the New Republic, and that became the association. The DLC too, to some degree, but that was incorrect.

CP: I’m very fond of Mike. He’s genuinely brilliant, but I think there has always been a tension between Mike and me, in that I sense he is embarrassed by passion. Mike’s detachment has notably decreased since his marriage and the onset of Parkinson’s, both of which had a pronounced humanizing effect, but his more sardonic imitators have become a major problem in journalism—very bright people who seem too concerned with being bright. Mike is definitely not one of those guys.

But, as you realize in talking to me, there is passion, this is a movement. The Don Quixote thing. Because one thing I learned is don’t be afraid to make a fool of yourself in the interest of what you believe.

Ezra Klein

Ezra Klein is a columnist for Bloomberg View.