Was Neoliberal Overreach Inevitable?

Prof Simon Wren-Lewis has a post  on neoliberal overreach:

I’m not going to speculate whether and by how much this neoliberal overreach will prove fatal: whether Corbyn’s ‘glorious defeat’ marks the ‘death throes of neoliberalism’ or something more modest. Instead I want to ask whether overreach was inevitable, and if so why. Many in the centre ground of politics would argue that it would have been perfectly feasible, after the financial crisis, to change neoliberalism in some areas but maintain it in others. It is conceivable that this is where we will end up. But when you add up what ‘some areas’ would amount to, it becomes clear that it would be hard to label the subsequent regime neoliberal.
I think it is quite possible to imagine reforming finance in a way that allows neoliberalism to function elsewhere. Whether it is politically possible without additional reforms I will come to. If we think about populism, one key economic force behind its rise has been globalisation (see Dani Rodrik here for example). If we want to retain the benefits of globalisation, then counteracting its negative impact on some groups or communities becomes essential. Whether that involves the state directly, or indirectly through an industrial strategy, neither of those solutions is neoliberal.
Then consider inequality. I would argue that inequality, and more specifically the extreme wealth of a small number of individuals, has played an important role in both neoliberal overreach (in the US, the obsession within the Republican party with tax cuts for the wealthy) and populism (the financing of the Brexit campaign, Trump himself). More generally, extreme wealth disparities fuel political corruption. Yet ‘freeing’ ‘wealth creators’ of the ‘burden’ of taxation is central to neoliberalism: just look at how the loaded language in this sentence has become commonplace.
Indeed it could well be that gross inequality at the very top is an important dynamic created by neoliberalism. Piketty, Saez and Stantcheva have shown (paper) how reductions in top rates of tax – a hallmark of neoliberalism in the 1980s – may itself have encouraged rent seeking by CEOs which makes inequality even worse. Rent extractors naturally seek political defences to preserve their wealth, and the mechanisms that sets in place may not embody any sense of morality, leading to the grotesque spectacle of Republican lawmakers depriving huge numbers of health insurance to be able to cut taxes for those at the top. It may also explain why the controls on finance actually implemented have been so modest, and in the US so fragile.
The other key dynamic in neoliberal overreach has to be the ideology itself. In the UK surveys suggest that fewer than 10% of the population favour cutting taxes and government spending to achieve a smaller state (see my next post). There is equally no appetite to privatise key state functions: indeed renationalisation of some industries is quite popular. Yet the need to reduce the size and scope of the state has become embedded in the political right. Given that, it is not hard to understand the motivation behind the twin deceits of austerity and immigration control by Conservative led governments.
The dynamic consequences of extreme inequality and an unpopular ideology both suggest that neoliberal overreach may not be a bug but a feature.

Hmm..

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One Response to “Was Neoliberal Overreach Inevitable?”

  1. vikramml Says:

    The comments on that post are better and more thought-provoking than the article itself.

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