The Neo-Liberal State

While the fallout of the financial crisis of 2007-8 may have witnessed a general questioning of the feasibility—if not the desirability—of neo-liberal ideas, the resurgence of an ‘anti-state’ right-wing movement in the United States (that is, the Tea Party) and the implementation of historically unprecedented cuts to the public sector in the United Kingdom by a Conservative-Liberal Democratic coalition government, indicate that a sustained engagement with the philosophical underpinnings of neo-liberal ideas is urgently needed. Raymond Plant’s new book, The Neo-liberal State (Oxford University Press 2010), is a timely intervention into the long standing debate regarding the nature of negative and positive liberty that has had profound effects on the policies that have shaped the development of welfare states over the past thirty years.

The first part of the book is dedicated to the presentation of the neo-liberal case for a ‘minimal state’ predicated upon negative conceptions of liberty. Here, Plant discusses a wide range of neo-liberal themes: the rule of law; freedom and coercion; social justice; rights; welfare states; governments and markets. The second part of the book is devoted to an immanent critique of neoliberal conceptions of freedom and coercion, social justice and rights ideas, and contains a sketch of a philosophical framework for the further development of social and economic rights grounded in a conception of positive liberty.

Plant identifies as the intellectual forerunners of the neo-liberal state a rather eclectic group of intellectuals. Present are well known neo-liberal thinkers such as Friedrich von Hayek, Ludwig von Mises and James Buchanan. But Plant also includes the British conservative thinker Michael Oakeshott, the libertarian political philosopher Robert Nozick and the ‘anarcho-capitalist’ economist Murray Rothbard. Interestingly absent from the canon is Milton Friedman, who, along with Hayek, have had perhaps the greatest impact on popularizing the core tenets of neo-liberalism outside the walls of academia.
The strengths of the book reside in its critical discussion of Hayek’s work, in particular, the dismantling of his ambiguous claim that freedom necessitates the absence of ‘intentional coercion’, as well as debunking the claim that social justice is a ‘mirage’ that necessarily resides outside of the rule of law. Plant rightly points out that, in Hayek’s hands, the notion of intentional coercion remains insufficiently defined. While we may easily identify acts as intentionally coercive at the level of individual interaction, things become much more complicated when we move to the level of the social and introduce the workings of market forces. Hayek’s leap from unintentional individuals acts mediated by contracts in the marketplace to the claim that the outcomes of market forces cannot therefore be unjust does not hold up to Plant’s scrutiny. For Plant, it is exceptionally difficult to separate intention from foreseeability. While the Board of Directors of an American automotive company may not intend to deprive a particular member of their workforce of the health insurance needed to have access to health care, thereby causing harm to his or her family, their intention to close up shop and relocate to Mexico has the obvious foreseeable consequences of laying off their workforce, an act that in effect will deprive their former workers of the health insurance they once enjoyed as employees. Just because the primary motivation of the capitalist is the making of profit, as opposed to, say, the oppression of individual workers, this does not mean that we cannot foresee certain undesirable outcomes to that action to which we can and should hold the capitalist to account. Indeed, as Plant points out, the neo-liberal argues the case for the desirability and legitimacy (if not the justice) of free markets on the allegedly unintended outcomes of market activity—that is, increased wealth production that is supposed to trickle down to the working population—while denying that the actual unintended outcomes can be considered unjust. In other words, the market is justified on the basis of its allegedly foreseeable outcomes. Why then, is it the case that the critique of the free market cannot be conducted on the same criteria?
From here, Plant demonstrates his skill at teasing out the tensions and ambiguities of Hayek’s work to demonstrate an underlying inconsistency in his thought. Plant shows how Hayek’s willingness to accept the necessity of a limited social safety net to protect those that the market cannot help reveals a deeper inconsistency related to his conceptualization of needs, capacities and agency. Suddenly, the clear analytical distinction that Hayek draws between his neo-liberal conception of the state with its well defined conception of negative liberty at its core, and the ‘telocratic’ social democratic state whose adherence to the mirage of social justice—based on ill defined notions of positive liberty—undermines the rule of law becomes quite blurred. To put it another way, Plant shows how many of the criticisms Hayek levels at the social democratic conception of the state—the inability to clearly define needs, the arbitrary power or ‘discretion’ given to bureaucrats, etc.—equally apply to the neo-liberal state that is dedicated to the protection and enforcement of the rights of negative liberty and the provision of residual aid to the less fortunate. Try as he might, Hayek remains unable to take the politics out of public life.
One of the fundamental problems of neo-liberalism, according to Plant, is that it lacks a clear conception of agency. Freedom implies agency, otherwise it would be valueless, but agency is assumed, but never theorized. What neo-liberalism does not recognize is that ‘agency depends on needs and capabilities’(254); these are intrinsic to agency, which, in turn, is intrinsic to a conception of freedom. By conceptualizing liberty in a way that includes a conception of agency, we can recognize that the development of capabilities and the satisfaction of needs are crucial if liberty is to have any value at all. As Plant puts it:
‘So the position is that agency implies both negative liberty but, not of a demoralized sort; and positive freedom in terms of generic goods which are not necessary conditions of attaining a particular end but rather conditions of attaining any aim in human life. We need to have this complex view of freedom and agency if we are to have a convincing account of a free society (255).’
In this way, we can transcend the false dichotomy between positive liberty and negative liberty that neo-liberals have constructed and reproduced in their conceptualizations of the neo-liberal state.
Somewhat provocatively, Plant concludes the book with the claim that ‘contrary to the neo-liberal’s own perspective, there is in fact no categorical distinction to be drawn between social democracy and neo-liberalism and certainly not in terms of the rule of law (250).’ By making such a claim, Plant is not saying that there is no difference between neo-liberalism and social democracy, nor is he claiming that there is no difference between the concepts of negative and positive liberty that underpin the different ideologies. What he is saying is that the criteria that neo-liberals use to qualitatively distinguish negative liberty from positive liberty—resulting in the categorical dismissal of positive liberty as being antithetical to negative liberty and the rule of law—can apply equally to a critical analysis of the rights that flow from a purely negative conception of liberty.
Perhaps a drawback of the book is its unevenness, both in terms of the amount of time it spends critiquing the neo-liberal position as opposed to presenting its core counterarguments and in terms of the amount of time it spends dealing with the various neo-liberal thinkers identified as the primary exponents of the ideal of negative liberty and the nomocratic state that underpins the conceptual construction of the neo-liberal state. In terms of the first point, almost three-quarters of the book is dedicated to the presentation of core neo-liberal ideas and concepts, while the critique comprises less than a third. After having spent so much time going through the neo-liberal case, one would hope for a more sustained critique. A more substantive engagement with the left-wing literature—such as GA Cohen’s work, or Peffer’s work on Marxism, Morality and Social Justice—would not only strengthen Plant’s critique, but also contribute to his alternative conceptualization of agency, needs and capabilities and their relationship to liberty.
In terms of the latter point, Plant focuses significantly more attention on critiquing some theorists identified as the progenitors of neo-liberalism than he does on others, without much explanation as to why this is the case. While Plant’s discussion of the various works of these individuals is insightful and judicious, his primary engagement in the immanent critique is with Hayek (and to a lesser extent Buchanan and Nozick). For the most part, Mises, Oakeshott and Rothbard fall back into the shadows, and, given the conservative and anarcho-capitalist credentials of the latter two, one is left wondering about their significance to the development of mainstream neo-liberal doctrine. Oakeshott’s significance resides in his distinction between the nomocratic ‘Rechstaat’ and the telocratic ‘end’ state; but surely this distinction is not one that is entirely unique to him. While British readers may not puzzle over Oakeshott’s inclusion in this discussion given their greater familiarity with his work, no doubt many American and Canadian readers will. After all, if it is ‘mainstream’ neo-liberalism that we are concerned with, why not include Friedman? If libertarianism and anarcho-capitalism are significant to the development of neo-liberalism, why not include Narveson?
Nonetheless, Plant’s book should be of interest for anyone seeking a greater understanding of the philosophical underpinnings of neo-liberalism and the neo-liberal state as opposed to merely the history of the formation of the neo-liberal state. It is also necessary reading for those of us seeking to theorize beyond the false dichotomies and the anti-politics of neo-liberal theory.

Originally published in New Political Science Volume 33 Number 3 (2011) pp. 391-94.

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