Madsen Pirie of the Adam Smith Institute has written an elegant, illuminating article on seeing the world through “neo-liberal eyes”. The ASI has embarked on an ambitious attempt to reclaim “neo-liberalism” to denote an optimistic individualism that upholds the virtues of the markets while accepting well-evidenced governmental interventions in the name of pragmatism over ideology. Libertarians detest their compromise with statism. I can handle that. It’s the optimism that irks me.
I am not the most despairing miserabilist. Pirie is correct that one should not romanticise the past. Tempting as it is to weave fantasies around cathedrals, art and literature, most of our ancestors were illiterate and uncultured people living short, hard, dirty lives scarred by illness, hunger and loss. This is not to discount the glories and virtues of their times, or the consolatory rituals that sustained them. Yet to denounce modernity in toto is to reject advances in medical science, sanitation and agriculture, for example, that most of us rather like.
Nonetheless, I believe Pirie is unreasonably optimistic. He accepts that “society is not perfectible, and nor is human nature” but then grandly asserts that there are “no limits” to economic growth. Human fallibility, observed directly in our malice and incompetence, or transferred into fallible systems and technologies, is a limitation whether or not we know how and when this might become apparent. Indeed, pursuing growth might demand the creation of such awesome destructive potential in our societal or technological forces that it will be reckless to prioritise it. (One might argue that this has already happened but I am not, for now, the man to express such an argument.)
Pirie’s overly optimistic, and, I think, overly materialistic attitudes are on display in a subtler form when he maintains that “value is in the mind of the person contemplating the object, not in the object itself”. There can, of course, be truth to this (my treasured heirloom might be someone else’s worthless junk) but the idea that value exists only in subjective perceptions gives us too much credit. Sometimes we don’t know what’s good for us, whether or not (and, by and large, I don’t) we want the government interfering. Anyone who has known children who would quite happily live off cereal and watch television eighteen hours a day knows this is true. Similar wonky time preferences and seductive temptations can make us underappreciative of the riches and rituals of our civilisation that preserve our societies however much we notice.
It is notable that Pirie says little of culture. He praises, with some justice, the “spontaneous society” where individuals make choices uninhibited by “planners”. But our ephemeral interactions take place in societies characterised by the social trust and conscientiousness that makes them effective. It is not the natural state of human beings, or, indeed, of merely capitalist societies. Perhaps there is a neo-liberal explanation for how these all-important conditions can be maintained but I think it deserve more prominence. We, as continents, and nations, and communities, are more than markets.
I should note again that I am at best an idiosyncratic conservative and this is no kind of formal response. I also like elements of this neo-liberal rebranding, inasmuch as, unlike fervent libertarians, it recognises that societies need their helping hands. Nonetheless, it seems too blithely optimistic in the promise of free market capitalism, and takes too much for granted the cultural conditions that enable its successes.
Good luck to the neo-liberals. Not too much, of course (I don’t actually want them to be all that influential) but at least one hopes they will be less destructive than the neocons, and less self-destructive than the neoreactionaries.