The Plank

Neoliberalism, R.i.p.


So is neo-liberalism really dead, as David Brooks suggested in his column on Sunday? Insofar as he's referring to the very specific sensibility that grew out of the Washington Monthly and, later, the pages of this magazine, I think he's right. And, as readers of my work might guess, I don't greet its passing with the same lament that Brooks does.

Like blogger Kevin Drum, whom Brooks cites as typical of a generational shift on the left, I think that neoliberalism is a relic of its era. It was based on the premise that sometimes liberals were a greater menace to liberalism than conservatives -- by failing to recognize the public sector's fallibility, by not taking seriously middle class resentment over the use of taxes, by putting the needs of constituent interest groups above the greater public good, and so on.

But to the extent that premise was ever true -- and, surely, it was true in at least some instances -- it is no longer. I would argue that turning point came no later than 1994, when Newt Gingrich and the Republicans came to power, and quite possibly earlier. Others would point to the 2000 election and subsequent first year of the Bush Administration. Whatever. The point is that when the party in power has, say, declared war on the welfare state, one should probably defend said welfare state's existence before harping on its modest, if still regrettable, flaws.

And yet, unlike my friend Ezra Klein, I'm not quite ready to say that neoliberalism failed, either. One reason it no longer seems relevant is that the liberal left, broadly speaking, has embraced some of its best teachings. Democrats now take fiscal discipline seriously -- far more seriously, certainly, than the Republicans. (While John Edwards and Paul Krugman have begun a much-needed conversation about whether balanced budgets should remain the obsession they were in the Clinton years, even they recognize the need for general fiscal responsibility; it's a question of how much and how soon.) Markos of DailyKos has, at times, been just as disdainful of interest group liberalism as the neoliberals were.

On a more meta-level, I think the self-scrutiny upon which neo-liberals insisted is fundamentally a healthy intellectual exercise for those of us in the business of opinion journalism. It can go too far -- and, indeed, it frequently has gone too far -- when it evolves into a snarky take on politics so predictably counter-intuitive that it no longer ceases to be counter-intuitive. Not everybody is Mike Kinsley, after all, and when everybody imitates him it become silly and cynical. But the opposite extreme is no better. We don't need to dwell on liberalism's flaws, but we shouldn't ignore them, either. I don't detect much of that happening right now. But the more successful liberals become in electoral politics, the greater the opportunities

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