Debating Austerity with Dan O’Brien

UPDATE: the letter below was subsequently printed, and can be read here (with some alterations made by the paper’s editor, it seems)…

This is my letter to the Irish Independent (I know, I know, why bother…), about Dan O’Brien’s piece today:

To Whom It May Concern,

Dan O’Brien (29/10) claims that because there are no self-described neoliberals, it is not possible to engage with their ideas. But surely he would not deny the historical existence of self-described free market radicals, like Milton Friedman and Gary Becker, or the historic influence of their ideas on government policymakers, like Paul Volker and Margaret Thatcher.

Neoliberalism, quite simply, is a theory that advocates applying the laws of the market to as many domains of human existence as possible, as intensely as possible. Neoliberals take up the ideas of early liberals, like Adam Smith and David Ricardo. Those thinkers had faith in the virtue of market-based competition as a mechanism for optimizing the distribution goods and services. Moreover, they believed the experience of buying and selling in the marketplace was a moral corrective, producing over time a class of responsible and capable citizens, named ‘entrepreneurs’.

Compared with government, the liberals argued, entrepreneurs are highly adaptable individuals, capable of anticipating and responding to changes in the marketplace. For this reason, it is really they who should lead our society. One doesn’t need to read too many Irish newspapers to see how this idea has become commonplace in the nation’s opinion pages.

The principle innovation of neoliberalism is to take this idea of the market as a moral force to an extreme. No longer content with a global marketplace merely for goods and services, neoliberals place a premium on extreme flexibility of contracts, and advocate that even non-economic domains of human interaction be subjected to market principles. Hence, during the day, we may be employed on a zero-hours contract to work in a call centre, while our calls are subjected to continuous monitoring. And in the evening we might drive an Uber cab, or rent out our spare room on Airbnb.

Dan O’Brien argues that austerity policies have been implemented in the European Union because, as a multilateral organization, its ambitions can never escape the grip of “national interests.” But this is reductive, and ignores the way interests are themselves conditioned by ideas. Austerity is not an economic inevitability. It is a political choice, driven at least in part by the moral vision of neoliberalism.

Scholars of neoliberalism are not conspiracy theorists. They are students of an immensely powerful idea. One which is today radically reshaping the process of European integration.


Nicholas Kiersey

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