I’m a neoprogressive. Maybe you are too.
Sam Bowman (then executive director of the Adam Smith Institute) wrote a prolific article on this platform, re-defining or even re-claiming the term “neoliberal” from detractors of free markets or liberal economics generally. Building on the definition of his former colleague Ben Southwood, his definition has certainly caught on- with the explosion of the r/neoliberal subreddit that even incorporates Sam’s article on its sidebar. (I recommend everyone reading this article read Sam’s first if you haven’t already, I’m ripping off his format and fortunately his is quicker to read)
With over thirty-thousand subscribed readers and a growing self-identified neoliberal subculture growing around all corners of the internet, it is no surprise that Bloomberg, Vice and other outlets have remarked on this unabashed defence of markets and liberalism that largely makes up the Western status quo- currently strongly challenged by the success of populists both left and right.
Sam rightly pointed out that this partly grew out of the libertarian movement; he used ‘neoliberal’ as a catch-all term for those who were “libertarianish” but
are fundamentally different to the mainstream libertarian movement when it comes to important values and approaches, and frankly lots of libertarians hate them for being, in their eyes, too statist or leftist.
I won’t go into too much detail on Sam’s points (you can read the article yourself here) but I would like to add, while I almost completely subscribe to the key beliefs that Sam lists, I can’t help but identify that as neoliberalism emerged from online libertarian discourse, a whole new breed of liberalism is appearing from the nascent, self-identified neoliberal movement.
This sort of post-neoliberalism, in my opinion, is barely organised, and I am merely recording some observations I’ve witnessed from quite different groups of people with plenty of internal diversity. That is not to say that Sam’s neoliberalism (of what could be considered the parent ideology) isn’t diverse in and of itself, and has doesn’t have tensions within its left and right factions over issues such as the gender pay gap and job guarantee programmes.
What fascinates me (and convinced me to write up this article) is a trend of (left)neoliberalism becoming eerily close to social democracy. Welfarism was always held in common, but with figures such as economist and Bloomberg contributor Noah Smith and Vox founder Matthew Yglesias being embraced as neoliberal darlings, one has to wonder if both sides have finally met in the middle.
Ben Southwood’s post pointed this out rather plainly, concluding with the similarities of the two approaches in their comfort in redistribution of wealth (re-worded by Sam pretty succinctly). Where neoliberalism and orthodox social democracy differ, I believe, comes in two forms:
- Neoliberals prefer state-driven welfare targeted at the poorest, whereas social democrats prefer universally accessible and holistic benefits. (This is why neoliberals could be very comfortable with high levels of state expenditure on healthcare but abhor the waste and statism of the National Health Service).
- Neoliberals are perfectly happy to support cash-based welfare such as tax credits, Negative Income Tax or Universal Basic Income whereas social democrats would value the psychological benefit and dignity of earning your own money (That is why social democrats favour policies such as full employment and a high minimum wage as opposed to cash-based alternatives).
In contrast, the new ideology emerging out of neoliberalism has a different opinion from both neoliberalism and social democracy.
Unfortunately for me, post-neoliberalism is a largely claimed term associated with the pink-tide of Latin American leftist movements seeking to end (and ending) neoliberalism. Not looking to do a Murray Rothbard, I’ve chosen neoprogressive as a way to describe those people, closely aligned to the modern neoliberal movement, who combine the neoliberal and social-democratic dichotomies laid out above with different priorities, methods and approaches to the state.
Within the name lies a nod to the American Progressive Era for all of its anti-monopolistic, direct-democratic, healthily cynical tendencies and penchant for far-reaching reform against the status quo.
The Neo (to differentiate from generic political progressives and those turn-of-the-century Americans) is also a nod to the framework laid down by people like Southwood and Bowman. This article isn’t an attempt to drive a wedge between liberals of any shade, but to really try to encapsulate a set of ideas and principles coming out of libertarianism and neoliberalism at this moment in time, or quite possibly more in the future.
Neoprogressives combine a strong advocacy for the free market with a scepticism of centralisation of power, both in terms of the state and market actors. Neoprogressives believe this on consequentialist grounds, that essentially, inclusive institutions must extend beyond free markets, private property and liberal democracy to one of decentralised governance both corporate and political.
I would consider myself a neoprogressive. Maybe there are a lot of us, or maybe I’m just a weirdo, looking to recruit people to my own special snowflake brand of liberalism. Apologies in advance if this looks like a desperate shopping list by an out-of-work ex-David Cameron SpAd. Regardless, considering neoliberal roots, I’ll use Sam’s article to lay down what, I believe, neoprogressives have in common:
- We still like markets — a lot. We support the neoliberal argument that markets are, frankly, amazing tools to organise society and communicate resources efficiently and to the preferences of individuals. Where we differ is in the faith we place on market information being accurate and, as markets currently operate, able to prevent monopolies or rentier interests from corrupting this force that both groups revere. It is not enough to merely marketise everything — safeguards (whether through legislation or decentralisation) against trusts, monopolies and rentier interests have to come hand-in-hand with market liberalisation to keep them efficient and free of corruption.
- We love subsidiarity. Neo-classical economic theory, even extending to Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, makes it clear that markets function according to local transfers of information. This localism is adopted by neoprogressives in the operation of the state, that all social and political issues should be dealt with at the most local level that is consistent with their resolution. Bringing government closer to the individual leaves a smaller room for miscalculation and inability to accurately judge individual preferences, that is why neoprogressives tend to support devolution or EFTA over EU membership.
- The poor need money, but it’s not enough. Neoprogressives subscribe to Sam’s allegory about diminishing marginal utility and, unlike social-democrats, think that cash-based welfare schemes targeted at the poor is effective and ideal. Neoprogressives are very much in favour of these schemes, but similarly to the social-democratic valuation of work, we believe ownership of capital is necessary alongside cash as it constitutes a type of power and choice that cash alone doesn’t. For this reason, neoprogressives are open to Employee Share Ownership Plans, the “John Lewis” economy and co-ops since profit-sharing not only allows capital to be more widely available for the poor, but it also helps avoid the centralisation of power in society generally.
- We care about the welfare of everyone in the world, not just those in the UK. Neoprogressives are indistinguishable from neoliberals in this area, in wanting global progress, elimination of poverty and a liberal, open attitude to immigration.
- Our principles are grounded in empirics. The central point of neoprogressivism is its need for inclusive institutions to achieve neoliberal aims. Works such as Why Nations Fail demonstrate how historically the two are complementary. Neoprogressives are adamant that institutional change and dispersal of power in both the state and the market is necessary for the efficient operation of both. Such a process is the best means of allowing as many people as possible to live happy, wealthy and fulfilling lives — this is grounded in the literature shared by both neoliberals and neoprogressives.
- We try also not to be dogmatic. While we can be idealistic, like the progressives of the prior two centuries, we try to ensure our aims are consistent with the findings of mainstream economic theory. We support, for instance, a Land Value Tax not because Henry George is particularly inspiring, but because the policy is corroborated by evidence to this day.
- The world is getting better, but the liberal order is fragile. While extremely successful in reducing extreme poverty and improving living standards globally, there are challenges ahead related particularly to housing and inequality which can risk markets functioning properly as well as risk instability needed for illiberal forces to get elected. The centre-ground consensus is extremely pro-market and liberal but this is being challenged by the rise of populism. Successes in improving living standards and achieving higher degrees of legal equality for women and minorities could be at risk if people feel powerless and elect populists who will make them poorer and scapegoat outsiders.
- We believe that property rights are very VERY important. Yes, really. But the conception of its importance is different to that of neoliberals. While we agree that formalised ownership, ease of planning and incentive for investment are all valid reasons to support it, we additionally believe that property ownership (in the form of shares, housing or dividends) should be dispersed widely. For capitalism to be successful, you need capitalists; a multitude of investors will create a much more dynamic economy, multiplying the benefits found in neoliberal arguments for redistribution of income. A form of “Basic Capital” or something like it, is the next logical step after Basic Income and its derivatives (as is already being discussed).
- We’re enthusiastic about redistribution, but it needs to be wealth and power too. Neoprogressives accept the arguments made by Picketty and others regarding the crisis of inequality, but unlike the orthodox left who demand it on egalitarian grounds, we believe that dispersed wealth and political power doesn’t distort markets, it complements them.
- But we aren’t social democrats nor socialists. We are fierce defenders of entrepreneurship, investment, free markets and free people. We abhor a regimented and over-regulated society. Our ideas of a more participatory economy come from thinkers like David Ricardo and John Stewart Mill, not Proudhon nor Marx. Socialists talk about “public ownership” as if the public have a say, neoprogressives seek to achieve that by ensuring that capital is really owned by individuals, not the state acting in the name of individuals.
Unlike Sam’s confidence that many neoliberals were able to come out of the woodwork following his article, I feel as if mine is more of a shot in the dark. In the case that most, if not all, of the statements above appeal to you, congrats, that makes at least two of us.
Sam suspected that a weak version of neoliberalism was followed by most centrists and a very weak version underpins the modern world. I suspect many left-neoliberals, market friendly social democrats and Georgists will largely like what I have to say, but as the housing crisis in the developed world continues, inequality continues its worrying trend and individuals feel more and more disconnected from major societal institutions, I suspect some very weak version of it will begin to pick up more support in the near future.