The Atlantic

When People Were Proud to Call Themselves ‘Neoliberal’

Tracking the evolution of one political label to understand why others come and go
Source: Gerald Penny / AP

There are words that in quiet moments one might feel one does not quite grasp the meaning of, despite encountering them on a regular basis and perhaps even using them. I’ve heard some include epistemology in this category; I would add dating, for its magnificent ambiguity.

Another, for many, is neoliberal. Today the word is generally used as a critique from the left to refer to capitalism run amok. Recently, the essayist George Scialabba described neoliberalism as “the extension of market dominance to all spheres of social life, fostered and enforced by the state,” a rather nefarious-sounding proposition, including “investor rights agreements masquerading as ‘free trade’ and constraining the rights of governments to protect their own workers, environments, and currencies.”

It is hard to imagine anyone openly espousing such goals. Yet many once did embrace the neoliberal label, even including thinkers still considered to be eminently reasonable: The renowned mid-20th century politics writer Walter Lippmann was an outspoken proponent of neoliberalism. A typical statement from him on the subject was that neoliberalism “relies upon the development of the latent faculties of all men, shaped by their free transactions with one another.” This orientation seems conservative only in its Burkean value of institutions and wariness of top-down solutions—as in, the type of conservatism readily taught at universities and seen by liberals and centrists as the “smart” kind.

Lippman also wrote of the

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