Was Mises a Neoliberal?

By: Jeff Deist

Does neoliberalism, the tired slogan of our time, have a precise definition? 

The short answer is no, it doesn’t. At least not readily one readily at hand, if this New Republic article is any guide:

For the left, neoliberalism often connotes a form of liberal politics that has embraced market-based solutions to social problems: the exchanges of the Affordable Care Act, for instance, rather than a single-payer, universal program like Medicare. {Jonathan} Chait argues that leftists use the word to “bracket the center-left together with the right” and so present socialism as the only real alternative. But the term has its critics on the left, too: Political economist Bill Dunn finds it too insular, rarely adopted by the people it is said to describe. The historian Daniel Rodgers, meanwhile, argues that neoliberal means too many different things, and therefore not enough.

But is neoliberal a slur, as some contend, used to attack Democrats who are overly cozy with Wall Street and global corporations? Does it describe left-liberals who have given up the fight for full democratic socialism, and sold out their principles to enjoy the fruits of unjust capitalism?

English anthropologist and geographer David Harvey implies as much, though he does assign reasonably cohesive elements to the term:

An economy built on just-in-time production, the internationalization of capital, the deregulation of industry, insecure labor, and the entrepreneurial self. In the years since, these trends have only accelerated due to improvements in, and the spread of, information technologies. But few call this “post-Fordism” any longer. They mostly call it “neoliberalism.”

Harvey references Henry Ford, not Gerald Ford, in his identification of neoliberalism as the political devolution of western societies from democratic nation states into subdivisions of borderless mass production and mass consumption. And this materialism is at the core of why left-progressives view neoliberalism as a pejorative term; and perhaps not surprisingly label the New Republic itself a neoliberal outlet (notwithstanding protestations by Chait and others). To progressives, the Clintons, the Democratic National Committee, and traditional old guard liberal media outlets are merely center-right leaning mouthpieces for big business.  

 As with most political (and politicized) terms, definitions vary wildly depending on who uses them. Murray Rothbard and Elizabeth Warren hardly mean the same thing when they say “capitalism,” and we all suffer from the tendency to imbue words with meanings that suit our purposes. Interestingly, use of the term “neoconservative” similarly has been attacked as a slur, one designed as code for undue Zionism or overeagerness to unleash military forces. Helpfully, however, neoconservative Godfather Irving Kristol himself provided us with the broad parameters, and the expression has lost much of its bite in the post Bush 43/Cheny/Rumsfeld era.

Within the current zeitgeist we can offer a less inflammatory yet still loose definition of neoliberalism than Harvey: the basic program of late 20th century liberalism (social democracy, public education, civil rights, entitlements, welfare, feminism, and a degree of global governance), coupled with at least grudging if not open respect for the role of markets in improving human life. In other words, neoliberals are left-liberals who accept the role of markets and the need for economic development as part of the larger liberal program. Think Bono, who considers himself a progressive “citizen of the world” yet admires markets and globalism.

With this definition in mind, the New Republic article goes badly astray when it asserts that neoliberalism “emerged from the ruins of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the early twentieth century.” First and foremost, it’s hard to consider any century-old framework of thought as neo anything. And it’s difficult to trace meaningful connection between first and second generation Austrian economists, writing before World War II, before truly global trade, and before the triumphant ascension of central banks, with today’s neoliberal political program of social democracy and political globalism. Menger, Mises, and Hayek, with their deep regard for specialization, comparative advantage, and global trade, all wrote within a basic framework of nation states.  

As is often the case, critics of markets and private property mistake means with ends, and assume a lack of concern for “human” considerations is necessarily bound up with rigorous concern for material considerations. Hence author Patrick Iber travels a winding path of cherry-picking Misesian and Hayekian thought, the effect of which is deeply misguided though not malevolent. Not much is new here: they favor capital over labor. They support democracy only as a means of reducing violent people’s uprisings. They supported government, but only in service of wealth and property. And so forth. Yet by New Republic standards he treats both men somewhat fairly, far better than, say, the New York Times or Washington Post would and have. There is only one out-of-context cheap shot directed at Mises (“he was pleased when an anti-fascist uprising was violently suppressed in 1927); meanwhile the article at least recognizes Hayek’s moral concerns over apartheid in South Africa and Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile.

But the author errs badly in assuring the reader that Mises (the democrat) preferred capital to labor in service of the bourgeoisie, and that Hayek thought markets took priority over “human rights and social justice.” This is especially interesting given Hayek’s own perspective on the latter term, and the typically vague manner in which the author employs both.

For our purposes we can neatly distinguish “real” liberalism, or classical liberalism for lack of a better historical term, from neoliberalism. Liberalism in Mises’s conception is fundamentally concerned with private property. In this view the means of production—capital—are in private hands. They are not owned by the state, by society, by “the people,” or collectively. Full stop. No amount of regulated semi-capitalism or semi-socialism can evade this foundation, because both individual and economic freedom hinge on the free use and control of private property. Control over one’s property, meaning the ability to use, alter, alienate, encumber, or sell it, is the essence of true property ownership—albeit always subject to tort liability for harms caused to others. Any amount of taxation, regulation, or outright confiscation necessarily erodes this control, which Mises acknowledged even within his framework of utilitarian democracy as a protector of property rights.

This insistence on property rights at the core of any liberal program is scarcely to be found in today’s neoliberalism, yet again it remains at the heart of left-progressive antipathy to the term. They are suspicious of any introduction, or re-introduction, of markets and property into what ought to be a worldview of economic planning by the state.

We should note that Mises also appended his program of liberalism with two important corollaries that were “neo” for the time, specifically the interwar years: freedom and peace. In contrast with what he saw as the “old” 19th century perspective, a “present-day” liberalism had “outgrown” the old version through “deeper and better insights into interrelationships.” Meaningful liberalism required political freedom for the individual, especially freedom from involuntary servitude. And peace was the foundation for all true economic activity, inescapably tied to civilization. Undoubtedly New Republic readers would benefit from understanding just how progressive Mises really was when Liberalism first appeared in 1927!

Meaningful argumentation, as opposed to politics and outright war, requires words and precise definitions. This is why, unfortunately, almost all political talk devolves into what Orwell accurately described as “meaningless words.” Meaningless words attempt to impugn or attack the “other,” rather than convey specific information or create understanding and consensus. Politics is not a science, but we would all benefit from insisting on rigor in definitions from political pundits just as we once did from social scientists.

 

 

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