British Neoliberals and Consequentialism

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Recently on the Libertarianism.org podcast Free Thoughts, Sam Bowman of the Adam Smith Institute was interviewed about ASI’s embrace of the term “neoliberalism” and how they distinguish it from libertarianism. Here is a portion of what Bowman had to say:

I think what’s fundamental about neoliberalism is that it’s about the world as it is, right now. It doesn’t really mean anything when the left uses it. They just use it to attack anybody that likes markets to any extent. But there’s a real strand of kind of anti- [00:03:30] establishment and anti-status quo thinking in the Libertarian world, which is understandable given that libertarianism is sort of a very radical, very ,very kind of change the world, shake everything up, and have a lot of disorder right now. Which is fine, but for a neoliberal, somebody needs to defend the world as it is right now. The world is very globalized, the world is very free market, compared to lots and lots of potential alternatives. And I think that really since at least 1989, since the fall of the Berlin wall, we had won [00:04:00] the argument until maybe 2015, 2016. Somebody needs to defend the way the world was between 1989 and 2016. And say, look for all of its imperfections, this was the period, where more people were lifted out of poverty than ever before in human history put together. More technological advances were spread to more people than ever before.

The problem for me, or the reason that I thought that Libertarian wasn’t sufficient, or wasn’t that useful, was that Libertarian preoccupations [00:04:30] were so different from where the debate actually was. And where the debate actually is that we were sort of losing the argument and the argument was taking place without us even being involved in it. We were focusing on very interesting things to do with central banking and stuff like that, while the political kind of center of gravity in the UK and in Europe and in the US was to do with trade, was to do with what should this specific monetary policy be, what should we should on labor market reforms. There’s nothing … you know [00:05:00] I see neoliberalism and libertarianism as sort of compliments of each other. They’re different ways of approaching the world and different ways of approaching debate.

(Find the full transcript and full audio here.)

It was good to hear his explanation for why they would choose to self-identify with a term that many leftists use as a catch-all for almost literally anything bad. I guess we’ll see how well that works out for them. As far as how they distinguish themselves from libertarians and why they think their approach is better, I’m unconvinced. Bowman brings up the example of the minimum wage debate: libertarians, by arguing that there should be no minimum wage, essentially disqualify themselves from the debate. Neoliberals, who instead argue simply that the minimum wage should not be increased, make themselves part of the debate. And similar reasoning applies to most other policy debates: arguing for marginal changes makes one’s ideas more relevant. Once they’ve shown me that they’ve had influence on any debate, maybe I’ll take that seriously.

Also part of U.K. neoliberalism, or at least Bowman’s version, is the rejection of non-consequentialist arguments for liberty.

I call myself a bullet-biting consequentialist. I think [the natural rights view is] both untrue and unhelpful. So I [00:43:00] don’t think you have to agree with me. I’m not claiming to speak for all … I don’t even speak for my colleague on this one, but it’s neither true nor is it helpful. And it’s in fact profoundly unhelpful, so it doesn’t matter that much if it’s true. Even if you think it’s true, the fact that it’s very unhelpful should be enough to make you think twice about how you approach it. Certainly unhelpful in the context I’m working in and it might be different in the US.

The fact that it seems like it’s based on a very … and I say brittle, an [00:43:30] easily rejected way of looking at the world, and the fact that it always ends up making an extremely difficult case that seems to most people completely insane. The idea that it’s better for a person to go hungry, than it is for a rich person to have a pound or a dollar taken away from them. That seems like a very strange reductio ad absurdum. But that’s the position if you are a strict natural rightist you need to adopt, right?

What I find interesting about many consequentialists, who believe they are more pragmatic and empirical because of their consequentialism, is that they often don’t look to historical experience to defend their position or attack their opponents. Perhaps my own view of history is a bit myopic, but when I think of episodes starvation on a massive scale, no instances of governments not being able to tax rich people come to mind. Rather, what come to mind are totalitarian regimes that could take everything from rich dissidents as they pleased. How many people starved to death under the Soviet and Chinese communist regimes? Compare that to how many people starved under any system where a government was not empowered to take resources from some and transfer it to others.

My challenge to libertarian, classical liberal, and neoliberal consequentialists who use such arguments to justify state empowerment is to demonstrate how their imaginary ideal state won’t kill more people than their imagined lack of one. Even ‘liberal’ Western democracies kill foreigners by the thousands. They should not be discounted.

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