Comments: What's that all about?

Something was bugging me about this post, and it was hours before I figured out what it was. Every so often I have a bit of cognitive dissonance, because someone hasn't heard of something that seems only natural to me. I'm used to it as a teacher: none of my students have heard of Hegel, or Schrodinger's Cat or Herodotus or Han Feizi.

Neoliberalism. I've been hearing that term for a decade or so now, possibly more, as I've been a Z magazine reader since about '90. Neo-Liberalism is a throwback to 19th century political economics, when liberalism meant that the government didn't do anything for anyone except build a few roads and maintain an army and navy, didn't regulate anything except religion, and didn't tax anything except trade and land. The last bit they've tossed out, but the rest of it they want to keep. These people are radicals, who want to break down government barriers to free flows of capital, investment in strategic industries by foreign firms, and privatize anything the government does so a profit can be turned. Mostly they want to do it to other countries, through the IMF and World Bank, but they've got some serious influence here, too.

Posted by Jonathan Dresner at April 15, 2004 11:55 PM

Neo-liberalism is way for Americans and Europeans to talk about liberalism. The difficulty arises because Americans use the word "liberal" to talk about the political left, whereas in most other countries the word "liberal" refers to the center or the right. The idea of liberalism grew out of the European Enlightenment, and in the English speaking countries the foundational texts are by John Locke, Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham, and John Stuart Mill. Their works emphasized the rights of individuals against the state and society. Winston Churchill first belonged to the Liberal Party and then switched to the Conservative Party - that jump is not as big as an American would assume.

The word neo-liberalism focuses in on that part of liberalism that Europeans associate with the word "liberal": free markets. Americans don't use the word liberal to refer to free markets, but the rest of the world does, and neo-liberal is the word that clarifies the meaning. Saying "neo-liberal" is the same as saying "liberal, but not the way those funny Americans mean it."

Posted by Lawrence Krubner at April 16, 2004 01:43 AM