Why I am not a Bowmanite neoliberal, and why that doesn’t matter

Adam Smith Institute’s Executive Director, Sam Bowman recently wrote (well, a few weeks ago) a post explaining what neoliberalism, a label he applies to himself, is.

Should we all be neoliberals?

At least, not me. I have a policy of not labeling myself to try to keep my identity small. This is the reason why the ‘Non-non-libertarian FAQ‘ I wrote has such a name. It’s not a defense of libertarianism, but a critique of a critique of libertarianism. Another reason not to be a neoliberal is that the label has negative connotations., something that Sam is trying to fix by filling the label with a positive project. Neoliberalism tends to be used by some leftie types when they try to find out the root cause of all the problems of the world. They tend to forget that if neoliberalism is actually the ruling ideology, then neoliberalism has presided over the best period in the History of mankind.

Okay, but that sounds a bit nitpicky, now to the details of why I wouldn’t call me a neoliberal:

There are nine main points in Sam’s neoliberal package, and overall I think that if a Bowmanocracy existed, with his version of neoliberalism, I would move immediately there, as I see it as a superior system over anything we have right now in any country.

I unqualifiedly agree with points 1,3,4,5,6,7, and 8.

My disagreement with 2 is that I am not consequentialist, though I think consequences matter greatly. As a matter of fact, my answers to moral psychological tests to measure how utilitarian vs deontological one is puts me in the highly utilitarian side. I do think rights matter, but that the strength of those rights depend partly on the consequences of setting up rights like that. Absolute rights are a recipe for nonsensical outcomes. I do not think that rights are rules of thumb that contribute to overall welfare, but overall welfare should shape how far rights go. This doesn’t seem obvious except in weird thought experiments. In practise, I would say that what I would like rights to be will match  more or less with what consequentialists will want ”rights” to be.

My disagreement with 2 is more of a case of moral uncertainty, I’m not sure if redistribution is allowable. I tend to think that it is not if everyone fulfilled their moral obligation of charity -which is not the case today-, or if there were no need for redistribution for whatever reason. But then, we have the issue of how to structure redistribution: Point 4, caring about everyone in the world, seems to suggest that we should first redistribute towards poorer countries (via GiveWell, for example) before doing welfare in the West, except above some threshold needed to avoid riots (If there’s such threshold).

Like Sam, I think people don’t deserve their talents. But we should say the full thing: no one deserves anything in that sense. We don’t deserve our intelligence, parents, friends, internal organs, or even for Rawls, our beliefs. Most academic philosophers, I’d say, including those of a liberal/libertarian persuasion, reject desert. The only deserts I accept are desserts. From here there is some philosophical work to do to get to ‘And thus everything has to be equalised’ (Or redistributed for that matter)

Does this matter?

Given that I agree with 90% of Sam’s neoliberalism, I want the world to move more in that direction, because it is closer to my ideal of how the world should look like.

Furthermore, I think that the main debate shouldn’t not be about values (redistribution, how much weight to give to the poor, what’s the correct ethical theory), but about facts. I wrote about that here .

One reply to Sam’s article, by Laurie MacFarlane illustrates this. He doesn’t criticise consequentialism, but some factual questions: Are markets government interventions [1] (Do they need to be?). He subscribes to the now discredited view that enclosures had much to do with the rise of capitalism (They  didn’t) Do markets need to work within a State (They  don’t (at least some)). Do labour markets leave workers vulnerable to exploitation? I haven’t researched that one, but here’s one piece of data: the consensus of economics historians is that the reduction of the workweek in American manufacturing before the Great Depression was due to economic growth, not labour unions.

Regarding water, like railways, it began as a private enterprise. In London there were a few companies doing the job. In Japan, there are lots of railway providers who own both rolling stock and railtracks. We could argue that some industries require special regulation (those with natural monopolies). But these are minor exceptions, not the rule, and its regulation can be done bottom up, at the city/town level, building up federated structures for collective water resource management.

Another claim made by MacFarlane, is that capitalism isn’t stable. Again, this is an empirical claim. But this is again, false. In the US, the post 1913 (FED) period was more unstable than what came before it. The free market alternative for a robust financial system is free banking. And it works well.

A final claim is that the biggest breakthroughs have been achieved via the collective mobilisation of society (Like going to the moon, or universal healthcare). But here I must again disagree. Surely, without the US government investments back a few decades [2], there wouldn’t have been a man on the moon. But private access to space was also unthinkable a few decades ago, and now private companies are leading a renewed Space Race. Universal healthcare came in many cases by nationalising a pre-existing private healthcare system. The question -again, a factual one – we should be asking is whether a deregulated market in healthcare would do better than a public universal healthcare system. Some people think the answer is obvious: a) The US’ system is terrible and it’s private, and the NHS is great and it’s public (That’s a bad critique) b) Most economists see problems with private healthcare. We should then do a literature review to see what problems are, and what do we know works best.

I can be wrong in what I said, maybe capitalism is inherently unstable. But the point is that these debates do not require us to engage in difficult philosophical argumentation, but on (difficult) fact checking, paper reading, and History knowing.

Political disagreements are mostly about biases, facts, and, if we wish, moods, rather than fundamental values. Let us solve that first, gradually fix the world, and then come back to the question of what’s the ultimate answer to ethics.


[1] This seems to be an example of what I call a mood, in the sense that it is a broad worldview without specific implications, but that end shaping other beliefs. In this case, the underlying ideas seem to be Polanyian, with whom I disagree. See Hejeebu and McCloskey 1999, McCloskey 1997, Silver 1983, Hejeebu and McCloskey 2004.

[2] Another point  is that much of the success of capitalism can be traced back to government interventions in the economy. This is part of the same ‘mood’ so to speak, that I mentioned above. Mazzucato also cites Polanyi in her book. Fortunately in this blog, we have devoted around two dozen articles to disabuse people of this view.

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2 Responses to Why I am not a Bowmanite neoliberal, and why that doesn’t matter

  1. Iskander says:

    Bowman later made a list of books which influenced him, I find your views interesting and somewhat similar to mine, what books influenced your thought?
    I have just found this blog and I must say it’s very good.

    • Artir says:

      Yes, I’ve seen the list. I wanted to write mine here at some point.

      In the About section I even say

      <>

      Perhaps it’s about time I write it down, but first I want to finish one more post of the Soviet Series

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