The Limits of Left Neo-Liberalism

by Henry Farrell on July 18, 2011

Doug Henwood “has a go”: at Matthew Yglesias.

bq. Orthodox types—and I’m including Yglesias, who describes his political leanings as “neoliberal” on his Facebook profile page—usually prefer monetary to fiscal remedies. Why? Because they operate through the financial markets and don’t mess with labor or product markets or the class structure. A jobs program and other New Deal-ish stuff would mess with labor and product markets and the class structure, and so it’s mostly _verboten_ to talk that way. From an elite point of view, the primary problem with a jobs program—and with employment-boosting infrastructure projects—is that they would put a floor under employment, making workers more confident and less likely to do what the boss says, and less dependent on private employers for a paycheck. It would increase the power of labor relative to capital. I’m not sure that Yglesias understands that explicitly, but it’s undoubtedly part of his unexamined “common sense” as a semi-mainstream pundit.

This is wrong in the particulars – as a correspondent has pointed out to me, Yglesias has repeatedly called for employment-boosting infrastructure projects and the like. But – getting away from the polemics and the specific personalities – I think that Doug is onto something significant here. I’d frame it myself in a more wishy-washy way. There is a real phenomenon that you might describe as left neo-liberalism in the US – liberals who came out of the experience of the 1980s convinced that the internal interest group dynamics of the Democratic party were a problem. These people came up with some interesting arguments (but also: Mickey Kaus), but seem to me to have always lacked a good theory of politics.

To be more precise – Neo-liberals tend to favor a combination of market mechanisms and technocratic solutions to solve social problems. But these kinds of solutions tend to discount politics – and in particular political collective action, which requires strong collective actors such as trade unions. This means that vaguely-leftish versions of neo-liberalism often have weak theories of politics, and in particular of the politics of collective action. I see Doug and others as arguing that successful political change requires large scale organized collective action, and that this in turn requires the correction of major power imbalances (e.g. between labor and capital). They’re also arguing that neo-liberal policies _at best_ tend not to help correct these imbalances, and they seem to me to have a pretty good case. Even if left-leaning neo-liberals are right to claim that technocratic solutions and market mechanisms can work to relieve disparities etc, it’s hard for me to see how left-leaning neo-liberalism can generate any self-sustaining politics. I’m sure that critics can point to political blind spots among lefties (e.g. the difficulties in figuring out what is a necessary compromise, and what is a blatant sell-out), but these don’t seem to me to be potentially crippling, in the way that the absence of a neo-liberal theory of politics (who are the organized interest groups and collective actors who will push consistently for technocratic efficiency?) is. Of course I may be wrong – and look forward to some pushback in comments …

Update: Brad DeLong writes a “reply”:, largely replicating a comment below, which says that I believe things that I actually don’t believe at all. My response to the original claim can be found in comments below.