Is ‘Neoliberal’ just an Empty Slur?

by Evangelos Andreou

We are in Bikini Bottom. Squidward is trying to recruit people for a band; however, none of them has any idea about music and, when Squidward asks them how many of them have played musical instruments before, Patrick raises his hand and asks : ‘’Is mayonnaise an instrument?’’

Does this story remind you of anything? Personally, this is what every conversation about liberalism with a leftist looks like. I don’t want to say that leftists are as stupid as Patrick (ok, maybe some of them are), but when it comes to political ideas and you explain the values of classical liberalism, the question they always make is ‘’ok, so you’re a neoliberal?’’.

Neoliberalism has held a different meaning over the past decades, depending on when it was used. It emerged among European liberal scholars in the 1930s as a term to describe the ‘’third way’’ between classical liberalism and socialist planning, but it became more famous as a term used to underline the reappearance of classical liberal economic policies in 1980s.

But neoliberalism was never a political ideology. It was an expression of economic policies that was based mostly on the monetarist school of thought. There was no political philosophy to portray neoliberals and there were no ‘’neoliberal’’ philosophers. Intellectuals such as Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek or Murray Rothbard  are often dubbed as ‘Neoliberal’, despite them coming from very different schools of thought and had big differences with each other.

For someone who can’t understand the law of supply and demand, and who believes that profit is only derived from the exploitation of labor, Monetarists, Austrians and  Paleo-libertarians are all branches of the same neoliberal tree. However, there are some well-meaning scholars who refer to neoliberalism as way to illustrate ‘’unregulated’’ laissez-faire or as a school of thought in international relations.

The problem is that today almost nobody self-identifies as neoliberal,  leading to neoliberalism becoming a buzzword that only leftists use when they want to condemn ideas of economic liberalism. They claim that neoliberalism somehow undermines democracy, and often connect it with the far right. I explained in another article why all these claims are nonsense.

A study from Taylor Boas and Jordan Gans-Morse showed that out of 148 journal articles published from 1990 to 2004 that use the term neoliberalism, almost none of them refer to it as something positive. More specifically, 45 percent of the time, the term is used in a neutral way, but 45 percent of the time, is it used to portray liberalism negatively. Only 3 percent of the time it is painted in a flattering light

But when someone criticizes something and nobody is there to defend it, the game is over before it’s had a chance to begin. They create a term with nebulous meaning and they use it to blame something that doesn’t exist. As Professor Aristides Hatzis claims, neoliberalism is nothing other than a scarecrow that people mention when they don’t have arguments against liberal ideas.

Imagine if Squidward wasn’t there to reply to Patrick’s question. He may still believed that Mayonnaise is an instrument. Those who in the name of neoliberalism spread lies about the free market and its results are what Patrick stands for.

Take the example of Jeremy Corbyn; He can say that ‘’Neoliberalism is an ideology that ruins communities and ruins lives’’ (yes, he really said that) . Does he believe that economic freedom will bring the end of the world? Is he trying to associate neoliberalism with other evil ideologies? Nobody knows and nobody is willing to argue about neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism is a scarecrow and, like every scarecrow, it resembles something real and it is only used to scare people.

This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the organisation as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions. If you’re a student interested in presenting your perspective on this blog, click here to submit a guest post!

Image: Pixabay

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