Dear Mr. Pirie, refrain from using the “neoliberal” label

A few days ago, Madsen Pirie of the Adam Smith Institute announced the publication of the Neoliberal Mind.  Basically, Pirie accepts the grab-everything-we-don’t-like tag that many would-be thinkers have tried for decades to stick upon what we can refer to as the “liberal right” (I prefer the French expression of droite libérale). All he does is take the same message that classical liberals have been using for centuries and puts a new label on it.

It is a PR stunt. To be fair, I have often made the joke that there should be a New Liberal Party of Canada so that its members may be called the “neoliberals” so as to ridicule those who use the word. As such, I am poorly placed to frown upon Pirie’s book. Nonetheless, I wish that Pirie (and the folks at the Adam Smith Institute) would refrain from using the label.

Why? Because for years, the word “neoliberal” has been the most efficient sorting tool to separate the wheat from the chaff.

There is no generally agreed upon definition of “neoliberalism”. Everyone has its own spin on it. Sometimes, academics who use that word sometimes to mean what classical liberalism entails. In other instances, they speak about subsidies to certain companies as “neoliberalism”. Once, and I am not joking, I debated a policy analyst from a left-wing think tank who told me that rising levels of public spending to GDP could be qualified as  part of a “neoliberal” agenda.

A concept without a concise definition which is meant to collect into a bag everything that is not liked is not a relevant one.

Generally, those who use the word have this épouvantail (the word strawman has a scarier sound in French) of the beast they claim to slay. But it is generally a caricature that does not hold basic scrutiny. They argue that “neoliberals” value profit and are “cold utility maximizers” who draw everything they believe from the cold hands of the economic sciences. They are generally unaware that economists (which are often lumped in the same bag as the main promoters of “neoliberalism”) adhere to no such simplicity. One merely needs to read James Buchanan, Vernon Smith, Elinor Ostrom, Deirdre McCloskey, Max Hartwell, William Easterly to be cleansed of this simplistic (and simpleton) view of the human mind. Using a concept that is ill-defined and does not even survive the most basic of ideological Turing tests has no value.

In the end, the sole value of those who spew the word “neoliberalism” is that they signal to readers and scholars that their work might be worth avoiding. To be fair, some of those who use the word produce interesting research and comments. Generally, they tend to use the word parsimoniously and they make it a point of honor to define it in clear and unambiguous terms. They are an exception and, generally, good research tends to be absorbed in the mainline if the point is valid. As such, the word “neoliberalism” is useful because it sorts out the wheat from the chaff.

I understand the PR value of accepting the cloak – which is what Pirie is doing. However, are we not forsaking the best weapon to identify bad social science in so doing?

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3 thoughts on “Dear Mr. Pirie, refrain from using the “neoliberal” label

  1. Wow! Extremely well said. You are exactly right that progressives have been using the term as a grab bag of collective things they despise. This allows them to define it as pejoratively as they would like. Nobody can offer or would offer a rebuttal, as nobody claims the title, and if someone does push back they just retreat to the position that the “real” behind-the-scenes neoliberals are part of a clandestine Mont Pelerin cabal.

    Every time I see the word, I just mentally substitute it with “libertarian Illuminati.” And speaking of libertarian Illuminati, THAT is a great name for a new journal.

  2. “And speaking of libertarian Illuminati, THAT is a great name for a new journal.” Nah, the world has plenty of journals. It should be the name of a new band; a nice jazz group.

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