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How Neoliberalism Worms Its Way Into Your Brain | Current Affairs


I detest the word “neoliberalism.” I mean, it really makes me cringe. I generally impose a strict rule that writers are not allowed to use it. (Though we do offer a coupon for one free use, and as the editor I cannot be prevented from printing as many coupons as I like.) I have a few reasons for disliking the term: it’s imprecise, it’s misleading, and it is unintelligible to the majority of literate adults. And yet I’m torn, because I also think that it captures a very real tendency. I worry that overusing shaggy theoretical terminology can both alienate readers and result in vague or meaningless writing. But the underlying phenomenon that “neoliberalism” describes has occurred, and I agree with the perspective laid out by Mike Konzcal, who says:

I find that the term neoliberalism generally confuses more than it enlightens. I prefer when people just refer directly to what they are criticizing, be it the expansion of the marketplace into our everyday lives or the Democrats’ turn away from the New Deal. … [Yet] there’s a good reason the term has become popular.

Let me explain why I think “neoliberalism” is an important term, albeit one that should rarely be used by magazine writers who would like people to actually read their articles. It captures the tendency of people who are nominally “on the left” to make arguments based on conservative premises. For example: Republicans argue that their tax cut will increase GDP, reduce the deficit, and reduce taxes for the middle class. Democrats reply that the tax cut will not increase GDP, will not reduce the deficit, and will not reduce the middle-class’s tax burden. Both parties are arguing around a shared premise: the goal is to cut taxes for the middle class, reduce the deficit, and grow GDP. But traditional liberalism, before the “neo” variety emerged, would have made its case on the basis of some quite different premises. Instead of arguing that Democrats are actually the party that will reduce the middle class’ taxes, it would make the case that taxes are important, because it’s only through taxes that we can improve schools, infrastructure, healthcare, and poverty relief. Instead of participating in the race to cut taxes and the deficit, Old Liberalism is based on a set of moral ideas about what we owe to one another.

Now, one reason I dislike the “neoliberalism” framework is that I’m not sure how much this nostalgic conception of the Great Liberalism Of Times Past should be romanticized. But it’s obvious that there’s a great deal of difference between New Deal/Great Society rhetoric and “Actually We’re The Real Job Creators/Tax-Cutters/GDP Growers.” And it’s also true that over the last decades, certain pro-market ideological premises have wormed their way into the mind of ordinary liberals to the point that debates occur within a very narrow economic framework.

Let me give you a very clear example. Libertarian economist Bryan Caplan has a new book out called The Case Against Education. It argues that the public school system is a waste of time and money and should be destroyed. Caplan says that students are right to wonder “when they will ever use” the things they are being taught. They won’t, he says, because they’re not being taught any skills they will actually need in the job market. Instead, education functions mostly as “signaling”: a degree shows an employer that you are the type of person who works hard and is responsible, not that you have actually learned particular things that you need. Credentials, Caplan says, are mostly meaningless. He argues that we should drastically cut public school funding, make education more like job training, get rid of history, music, and the arts, and “deregulate and destigmatize child labor.” Essentially, Caplan believes that education should be little more than skills training for jobs, and it’s failing at that.

Now here’s where “neoliberalism” comes in. Caplan’s argument is obviously based on right-wing economic premises: markets should sort everything out, the highest good is to create value for your employers, etc. But let’s look at a “liberal” response. In The Washington Monthly, Kevin Carey has a biting critique of Caplan’s book, which he says is based on a “childish” philosophy. Carey says that education is, in fact useful for more than signaling:

Caplan is not wrong about the existence of signaling and its kissing cousin, credentialism, which describes the tendency of job categories to accrue more degree requirements, sometimes unnecessarily, over time. But these are banal and unchallenged ideas in the economics profession. … In his 2001 Nobel lecture, [Michael] Spence warned that people who use job markets to illustrate signaling run the risk of concluding, wrongly, that education doesn’t contribute to productivity. This wrongheaded argument is the essence of The Case Against Education… Eric Hanushek, a conservative economist and well-known skeptic of public school funding, has documented a strong relationship between average scores on international tests and the growth rates of national economies. Put simply, well-educated nations become prosperous nations, and no country has become well educated without large, sustained investments in public education.

Carey mounts a strong defense of public education against Caplan’s attack. But look at how he does it. Caplan has argued that education doesn’t actually make students more productive or give them skills useful for thriving in the economy. Carey replies that while this is partly true, education does actually increase productivity, as we can see when we look across nations. Everyone in the discussion, however, is operating on the implicit premise that the measure of whether education is successful is “productivity.” And because of that, no matter how strong the liberal argument is, no matter how stingingly critical it may be of libertarianism or privatization, it has already ceded the main point. We all agree that education is about maximizing students’ value to the economy, we just disagree about the degree to which public education successfully does that, and whether the solution is to fix the system or get rid of it. The debate becomes one of empirics rather than values.

Carey doesn’t make a case for an alternative “liberal” notion of education,  and doesn’t question the values underlying the “banal and unchallenged ideas in the economics profession.” But unless liberalism is to be something more than “a difference of opinion over the correct way to maximize productivity,” it’s important to defend a wholly different set of principles. Otherwise, what if it turns out that providing art and music classes is a drag on productivity? What if teaching students history turns out to make them worse workers, because they begin to see a resemblance between their bosses and the robber barons? What if the study of philosophy makes laborers less compliant and docile? If we argue that music is actually economically useful, then we’ll have no defense of music if it turns out not to be useful. Instead, we need to argue that whether music is economically useful has nothing to do with whether students deserve to be exposed to it.

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