The set of ideas that has dominated public policy around the world for the last thirty years has been given a variety of names – neoliberalism, economic rationalism, the Washington Consensus, Reaganism and Thatcherism being the most prominent. Broadly speaking, this set of ideas combines support for free market (or freer market) economic policies with agnosticism about both political liberalism and the relative merits of democracy and autocracy. Since demands for definition are inevitable, I’ll point to mine here.
A striking feature of all of these terms is that they are currently used almost exclusively by opponents of the viewpoint being described, to the point where any use of such terms invariably provokes protests about unfair labelling (this is true even of the most neutral term I can find, “economic liberalism”). Even more striking is the fact that these terms were originally used in a broadly positive sense by supporters of the ideas concerned. I’ve done the story on economic rationalism, Don Arthur covers neoliberalism (with links to more from Taylor Boas and Jordan Gans-Morse (pdf) and you can check Wikipedia for the others.
Why is it that neoliberalism seems to be subject to a political version of the euphemism treadmill? A look at the history will help a bit.
For each of the sets of ideas in question, two things happened. First, the ideas described by the terms evolved in the direction of a more tightly defined and hardline free-market ideology – this happened both because (positive) users of the term became more consistent in their ideology over time and because some with more moderate views ceased to identify with the term.
Second, advocates of neoliberalism gained political power without, in general, convincing the majority of the public. In Australia and New Zealand, there was a bipartisan elite consensus in support of economic rationalism during the 1980s and early 1990s. In the UK, Thatcher won a series of elections with minority support thanks to a weak and divided Opposition. In Latin America, neoliberal policies were implemented by dictators like Pinochet, and quasi-dictatorial strongment like Fujimori.
Finally, as this process took place, the term was taken up by critics, who needed a descriptive label for the set of ideas they were criticising, and, soon afterwards, abandoned by its original advocates. In Australia, the crucial event was Michael Pusey’s book Economic Rationalism in Canberra. In the case of neoliberalism, the change occurred after the Pinochet coup.
This analysis gives two reasons for the euphemism treadmill. First, there is the obvious one. Unpopular ideas require euphemisms, and these euphemisms wear out over time.
The second is more subtle. From the inside, ideology usually looks like common sense. Hence, politically dominant elites don’t see themselves as acting ideologically and react with hostility when ideological labels are pinned on them. Ideology is only useful for an insurgent group of outsiders, seeking a coherent basis for a claim to displace the existing elite. Because neoliberalism typically enjoyed rapid triumphs, it never needed to express itself as a formal ideology, and the initial users of the term rapidly dropped it, once they got into power.
fn1. Confusingly, and reflecting the different meaning of “liberal”, in the US, “neoliberal” there has a different history and application, referring initially to Clinton-era DLC-oriented Democrats. The US neoliberals share some views, such as support for free trade, with neoliberals in the (originally) Latin American sense, but the global term is more applicable to the free-market right, represented by the business wing of the Republican party than to these centrist Democrats. As noted, Reaganism is sometimes used for this idea, but it’s not an exact match.
fn2. That is, the neoliberal ideology itself has little to say about these questions. Neoliberals may regard democracy and ordinary notions of political liberalism with outright hostility (Lee Kuan Yew, the Mises Institute). Or, they may like Hayek, regard democracy and free speech as second-order goals, desirable only if they don’t get in the way of free markets. Mises (unlike the institute that bears his name) offers a more appealing view, arguing that, in the long run, democracy is more favorable to free markets than autocracy, whatever the initial position of the autocrat. Finally, many neoliberals are, in political terms, orthodox liberal democrats, who advocate neoliberal policy while accepting that they need to convince the majority of voters of the validity of their position. Even among the last of these groups, most are willing to make political alliances with anti-democratic neoliberals, in much the same way as many (but not all) democratic socialists felt the need to work with the communist left in the trade union movement and elsewhere.
Update In comments at my blog, Terje Petersen points to what amounts to a dysphemism treadmill on the other side of politics, which is now using “neo-socialist” as a term of abuse, presumably having found “socialist” unsatisfactory as a replacement for “liberal”, which has lost its power to sting. Unlike “neoliberal” and “neoconservative”, this term has never had any currency among those it is meant to describe.