Policy is ultimately concerned with building systems and institutions to support human well-being. For decades, a basic premise of American civic life was that the success of our society rested on a foundation of government providing for the public good. This consensus was expressed succinctly in the words of the Republican Dwight Eisenhower:
“Should any political party attempt to abolish social security unemployment insurance and eliminate labor laws and farm programs you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group of course that believes you can do these things. Among them are a few other Texas oil millionaires and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.”
In 2012, their number is no longer negligible, and they are no longer considered stupid. To varying degrees this perspective dominates both political parties such that working people really have no alternative which supports a concept of public good in electoral politics, except for the occasional outlier like Bernie Sanders.
Neoliberalism is the political and economic philosophy driving our politics in 2012. Many people have never heard of it, or if they have, do not understand that the engine of our political life is the same one which motivated the criminal regime of General Augusto Pinochet in Chile in the 70’s and 80’s.
The term itself is unfortunate. I suspect many people have positive connotations when they consider the word liberal outside the political context: to be liberal minded, to be liberal with one’s friends (generous) etc. The prefix neo is something we associate with pleasant styles which evoke nostalgia: neoclassical, neo-romantic, neo-gothic, etc.
Neoliberalism is neither pleasant nor liberal.
According to Corpwatch, the main tenets of neo-liberalism include:
- The rule of the market. Liberating "free" enterprise or private enterprise from any bonds imposed by the government (the state) no matter how much social damage this causes.
- Cutting public expenditure for social services like education and health care. Reducing the safety-net for the poor, and even maintenance of roads, bridges, water supply.
- Deregulation. Reduce government regulation of everything that could diminish profits, including protecting the environment and safety on the job.
- Privatization. Sell state-owned enterprises, goods and services to private investors. This includes banks, key industries, railroads, toll highways, electricity, schools, hospitals and even fresh water.
- Eliminating the concept of "the public good" or "community" and replacing it with "individual responsibility."
Rather than building up the institutions of public good, neoliberalism seeks only to tear them down. Yet actions based on neoliberal thinking are still commonly referred to as policy! In education, NCLB and Race to the Top are not policies in any traditional sense because they have the effect of diminishing public education, and weakening the bonds between citizens and their institutions.
These are not policies; they are antipolicies.
Antipolicies are being advocated by both political parties. On the one hand we have Republicans who advocate decapitating our institutions swiftly. On the other, Democrats advocate doing it slowly, the death of a thousand cuts. Oh yes we’ll preserve our civic institutions they go, we’ll just make everything a little better by instituting a few market reforms here and there, give people some “choice,” make government “accountable” through the miracle of the invisible hand, encourage personal responsibility through welfare “reform,” etc.
Being a little bit neoliberal is like being a little bit pregnant.
Public policy is rooted in a robust concept of public good. We need to stop dignifying actions divorced from a concept of public good with the word “policy”. These are antipolicies.
We also need to stop dignifying the purveyors of antipolicies with the term neoliberal. They are criminals.