The caring neoliberal

February 4, 2011

A while back, Jonas brought to my attention a couple posts by Ryan Avent and Mike Konczal making the case that neoliberals are really more concerned about the poor than progressives are – it’s just that they care about the global poor and not just the domestic poor. This is a pretty potent argument, and certainly one that’s well-supported by almost any introductory macroeconomics textbook available (I say almost because there is at least one exception).

Before going any further I should acknowledge that Avent’s post in particular is actually mostly about what leftists should and shouldn’t think about organized labor. Obviously, I have thoughts on that too, but that’s not the aspect of this conversation I want to talk about here. What I want to talk about is this, from Avent:

…I think that current neoliberals think of themselves as more honestly egalitarian than traditional leftists, based on their international view of developments in human welfare. The past few decades have witnessed an unprecedented reduction in global poverty thanks to liberal reforms in China and India. Countries containing twice the population of the currently developed world are now hurtling toward middle-income status, thanks to trade, thanks to deregulation, and thanks to the introduction of market reforms.

And Konczal:

…there is an argument that neoliberals have a claim on really being concerned about labor, because they care about labor on a global scale, that the nation-state where you happen to be born isn’t a suitable location to determine boundaries for justice.

The key to the argument, really, is that last sentence of the quote from Avent. For neoliberals to claim to be “more concerned” about the poor than progressives requires a belief that neoliberal policies – for simplicity, let’s lump into that potent phrase the Washington Consensus of liberalization, privatization, and deregulation, tempered very slightly by the kind of softness for human development indicators espoused by the World Bank of recent history – actually make the world’s poor better off.

That’s the major sticking point. It’s not that progressives only care about the domestic poor and would take improved outcomes for the American working class at the expense of the working class in the global South. (That might describe a particular kind of parochial liberal or working-class perspective, but not a truly progressive one, in my opinion.) It’s that progressives don’t buy that the basic package of policies advocated by neoliberals are actually doing anything to benefit the world’s poor – or, at least, that they’re not doing enough. It’s an argument about policy, not an argument about who cares about the global working class more.

Avent’s argument takes as self-evident that it’s trade, deregulation, markets, etc etc that have caused the rise in living standards in, for example, China and India. But there’s certainly an argument to be made that this is hideously simplified and potentially misleading, if not outright wrong. China and India are growing, sure; trade in some form has a lot to do with it, sure. But are China and India growing in particularly equitable ways, ways that improve standards of living for a majority of their populations? Are the specific kinds of trade and market policies advocated by neoliberals the ones that have accounted for that growth? Are these countries growing and improving because of neoliberal policies, despite neoliberal policies, or something in between?

I confess to knowing less than I should about China and India. But I do know that neoliberal policies have not improved the situations of most developing countries from the end of World War II until today. It’s a tired but still relevant argument that those countries that have grown the most have done so partly because at some point in their history they rejected neoliberal doctrine and the fetish for a quick transition to free markets and an open economy. Is the progressive who criticizes neoliberals by citing these historical (and current!) examples just trying to make sure the U.S. working class gets its fair share of the pie? I don’t think so. Do neoliberals really care about the global working class? I don’t know. What I do know is that their policy prescriptions have historically been a pretty terrible way of expressing whatever care and concern they might feel.

Flying Whale


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