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‘Neoliberalism’ – A Term Both Ubiquitous and Ill-Defined – is an Evolving Body of Market-Driven Ideas. Or a Conspiracy by Elites to Torment the Poor…

Margaret Thatcher arrives in Washington, November 1988 (courtesy Ronald Reagan Library)

Margaret Thatcher arrives in Washington, November 1988 (courtesy Ronald Reagan Library)

Spontaneous Order: Looking Back at Neoliberalism

Tim Barker  writes:  “The owl of Minerva,” Hegel famously wrote, “flies only at dusk”: historical events can be theoretically comprehended only in retrospect. Is this the case with neoliberalism? A term ubiquitous in the academy but scarcely used outside it, the concept is difficult to define with precision. A common shorthand identifies it as the economic and philosophical ideology behind the Reagan-Thatcher revolution; it is also often agreed that this ideology contributed somehow to the financial crisis of 2008. Now, with the recession technically over but recovery still ambiguous, two recent books attempt to describe neoliberalism’s historical origins and explore its current political implications.

Markets in the Name of Socialism: The Left-Wing Origins of Neoliberalism

by Johanna Bockman
Stanford University Press, 2011, 352 pp.

Masters of the Universe: Hayek, Friedman, and the Birth of Neoliberal Politics

by Daniel Stedman Jones
Princeton University Press, 2012, 432 pp.

In Masters of the Universe: Hayek, Friedman, and the Birth of Neoliberal Politics, Daniel Stedman Jones charts the rise of neoliberalism, which he defines as the “coherent, if loose, body of ideas” that underwrite our contemporary “market-driven society.” He begins with the intellectual biographies of three exiled Central European thinkers—Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and Karl Popper—who challenged the industrial West’s consensus around social welfare programs, full employment, labor unions, and state intervention. This first, émigré generation (joined by kindred Americans and West Germans) were “neoliberal” in their opposition to central planning, but also “neoliberal” because they sought a reformed liberalism for the middle of the twentieth century, not a simple return to the laissez-faire of the nineteenth. Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, for example, countenanced significant departures from laissez-faire, including universal health care.

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The science of global warming is weak, but the idea is strong.

Our Climate-Change Cathedral

By  Andrew Stuttaford

English: Alchemist

A 19th-century Scottish journalist, songwriter, and poet is not an obvious guide to a 21st-century intellectual and political phenomenon, but when it comes to making sense of climate-change zealotry, there are worse choices than Charles Mackay (1812–89), the author of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841), an acerbic, often drily amusing study of the frenzies — from witch mania to the tulip bubble — that regularly possess our supposedly sophisticated species.

“In reading the history of nations,” wrote Mackay, “we find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion and run after it.” One recurrent fantasy, he jeered, was that the last trumpet is ready to sound: “An epidemic terror of the end of the world has several times spread.”

This is not — exactly — to categorize alarm over the impact of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) as just another of these prophecies of doom. The notion that a sharp, man-made increase in emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases could have a significant effect on the climate is infinitely more soundly based than, say, the dodgy math of a Mayan apocalypse, but that — by itself — is not enough to explain why global warming has so evidently turned out to be the right fear at the right time. To learn more about that, The Age of Global Warming: A History, an intriguing new book (released in the U.K. in March) by the British writer Rupert Darwall (full disclosure: an old friend), is a good place to turn, but read some Mackay first.

To Darwall, “the science [of global warming] is weak, but the idea is strong.” He duly discusses some of the scientific controversies that have arisen, but the underlying objection to today’s scientific consensus on AGW set out in his book is more fundamental. Like Karl Popper, perhaps the last century’s most able philosopher of science, Darwall believes that the essence of a properly scientific theory is that it is falsifiable: “It should be capable of being tested against nature and therefore [potentially] refuted by evidence. . . . The more a theory states that certain things cannot happen, the stronger the theory is.” Put another way: What would it take to persuade believers in AGW or, more important, those concerned by what it could lead to, that they are mistaken? The answer is — let’s be polite — unclear.

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