Is It Time To Take “Neoliberalism” Seriously? – Opting Out

liberty, corporate welfare

Up until fairly recently, “neoliberalism” was largely taken as a catch-all term for everything the left is against. “Neoliberal orthodoxy” referred to the current status-quo of state capitalism and imperial internationalism. There was no call for it to be taken seriously considering the word was only used in lefty academic circles, and nobody self-identified as a “neoliberal.”

Yet there do now exist groups of self-identified “neoliberals,” and they’re proud of their moniker. Think tanks such as the Adam Smith Institute expressly declare themselves as neoliberal, thus distinguishing from progressivism and conservatism. In their “coming out” article from 2016, they recognize where the word comes from, and they don’t care:

… ‘neoliberal’ is already in use today, but almost exclusively as a slur. For a large number of people (mostly on the left), neoliberalism describes the modern world order and the fact that nobody self-describes as a neoliberal is proof that nobody is willing to defend that order. Well, not anymore.”

The ASI define neoliberalism as close to classical liberalism – favoring free markets, having a “positive” outlook, empirical, pro-growth and progress, and globalist. The reason for adopting this new term is to reflect the modern changes in society and a modern cosmopolitan tolerant worldview.

Potential confusion

Sam Bowman, the author of the coming out article, stresses that classical liberals and libertarians are still welcome in the ASI’s circle despite not being “all-or-nothing absolutists” themselves. Though, the lover of the free society must wonder why they’d take on such a sullied term.

“The words Tory, suffragette, and Whig all began as insults but were adopted and reappropriated by the people they were used against. We intend to do the same with neoliberalism.”

So what? What matters surely is if the term is appropriate. If it is appropriate, it does not matter that it was used as a slur before.

A potential problem with the use of the word “neoliberalism” as synonymous with classical liberalism is that it violates John Locke’s principle of not being confusing. The term’s historical meaning is something quite different to classical liberalism or libertarianism (which from now on I will use synonymously).

The difference is summarised quite nicely by Ben Southwood (cited by Bowman as he defines his own more libertarian-looking version of neoliberalism):

“As opposed to libertarianism, which says the government should get out of the way and let the market work, neoliberalism likes to design solutions to perceived social problems on a case by case basis … And it does this by considering (often very complex and ingenious) market mechanisms. But it is not tied to market mechanisms, and it is just as content with quasi-markets, and incentive systems libertarians would see as “artificial” or “corporate welfare”.”

In other words, the mixed economy planning state of the West, with ostensible private property ownership. Think Hillary Clinton, or even modern China, as there’s nothing in Xi Xinping’s command capitalism that contradicts this definition. This seems to be a more historical and useful definition that distinguishes neoliberalism from both classical liberalism and even democratic socialism.


Though Bowman’s definition of neoliberalism is closer to libertarianism than Southwood’s, he does highlight a crucial difference that gets to the heart of the issue:

“Because we’re consequentialists we don’t think that property rights are morally significant in and of themselves — they’re a useful rule that allows the economy to function properly but there is no intrinsic value to them.”

This would be in opposition to libertarians who believe that property rights are inviolable and derive from our intrinsic rights as humans. Neoliberalism only supports markets and property provided they produce the growth and social outcomes that it prefers.

There is a key feature of neoliberalism that both writers miss: Neoliberals are globalists and are therefore largely foreign policy interventionists. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and Theresa May alike believe that their militaries have an obligation to intervene abroad to “promote stability,” or “make the world safe for democracy.” On the whole, libertarians do not believe this.

Neoliberalism as an active movement is here to stay, but it has unprincipled foundations by its members’ own admission.

This article represents the views of the author exclusively, and not those of Being Libertarian LLC.

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James Smith

Writer and film-maker from the United Kingdom. Digital nomad. Author of 'The Shy Guy's Guide to Travelling'.