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Lorenzo on the opponents of neoliberalism

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Over at TheMoneyIllusion I occasionally recommend that people look at the the excellent posts done by Lorenzo. His essays tend to be relatively long, but well worth reading in full. His newest post exposes the ignorance and ideological bias that leads non-economist intellectuals to sneer at neoliberalism. Unfortunately I can only excerpt a few paragraphs, which don't do justice to the essay:

This reflexive contempt performs a moral-status-and-opinion-conformity signalling function-it expresses one's cultural placement. Hence it applies to non-"progressive" Westerners (against whom the status games are played), but rarely to non-Westerners, no matter how wildly their views diverge from progressivist norms, as the non-Westerners are much more likely to function as moral mascots-people for whom moral concern is signalled. Thus, contrast how the views of US evangelicals are treated as distinct from the views of more emphatic Muslims. The former are people against whom status is signalled, the latter people for whom moral concern is signalled, even though the actual views of the latter are likely to diverge far more from progressive norms on matters such as gender and sexuality than do the former. (To put it another way, the US evangelicals are to be culturally defeated, the Muslims culturally "respected": though such "respect" often glosses over winners and losers from various conceptions of what precisely is to be "respected".)

Westerners involved seriously in commerce are also a status-signalling target. There is little doubt that the irritation with, and antipathy to, "neoliberalism" is deeply connected to longstanding antipathy to commerce and to those who make their living by it. Hence, that "neoliberalism" expands the ambit of commerce is one of its defining sins.

Here's one more:

That the anti-"neoliberalism" literature presents us with Western intellectuals and academics more hostile to expansion of private commerce, markets and private property than the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party is somewhat striking, but said Central Committee has to struggle with genuine policy problems. (Just as dependency theorist Fernando Cardoso engaged in economic liberalisation and privatisation as President Cardoso.) All the academics hostilely pontificating on "neoliberalism" have to worry about is their own glowing moral soundness. Where the failure of command economies also goes down the memory hole, creating no problem they have to wrestle with. These are people who are so tied up in a proper conception of History that they cannot see history right in front of them. (And folk who habitually analyse the motives of others in the most hostile and dismissive terms will, of course, be outraged at their own obvious moral nobility being treated somewhat sceptically.)
When I see philosophers discuss neoliberalism I'm reminded of economists doing philosophy. Occasionally enlightening, but more commonly cringe-inducing.

HT: TravisV, Nick Rowe

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CATEGORIES: Political Economy

COMMENTS (17 to date)
Federico writes:

Fascinating. Here's an ill-formed thought I've had which resurfaced due to that post. In developing countries (at least Latin America) you often see lower middle class people (think people with jobs but in informal sector, though sometimes formal sector as well) talk (and act) as neoliberals (desire less govt intervention, including any that *might* help them. I tend to see that less in the U.S. That may simply be explained by the costs of holding false beliefs. Much more costly when you have to fend completely for yourself (as would be more common in Latin America) than in the U.S. where you have a more developed social safety net and also opportunities at jobs with lower firing rates.

ThomasH writes:

Yes, very dreary. They give liberals a bad name.

jc writes:

Not a perfect fit, as the signaling taking place here is a direct signal of superiority due to the possession of a higher intellect, as opposed to a signal of superiority due to being a part of an ingroup that is properly contemptuous of agreed-upon undesirables. Having skin in the game, though, does tend to facilitate transitions along the lines of theorist to President.

For it seemed to me that I could find much more truth in the reasonings that each person makes concerning matters that are important to him, and whose outcome ought to cost him dearly later on if he judged badly, than in those reasonings engaged by a man of letters in his study, which touch on speculations that produce no effect and are of no other consequence to him except perhaps that, the more they are removed from common sense, the more pride he will take in them.

- Rene Descartes

I'm also reminded of Alex's quote that "A bet is a tax on bullshit". Same principle. Subconsciously (maybe consciously too, to some degree), we do seem programmed to be more pragmatic when it counts, when our own skin is in the game.
ChrisA writes:

In my opinion the root of opposition to liberalizing things in developed economies comes from the loss of power for certain sectors that results from that. Its all about relative status, and the chimp in us wants to maximize our relative status rather than the absolute status. This relative status issue is the cause of what Lorenzo succinctly describes as "longstanding antipathy to commerce" which has been a feature of organised societies since at least the Ancient Greeks. High status people in any society have their high status threatened by violence or by what might be called more successful commercial people. The violent threat is usually over pretty quickly (either they lose or they win) but the threat from commercially successful people takes time to develop so opposition is organised by stigmatizing the commercial sector. We see this with the anti-usury sentiment with underlies European anti-semitism, we see this with the Fabian opposition to the 'black satanic mills" of England's industrial revolution and we see today the academics and journalists (who are usually the sons and daughters of the privileged classes) sneering at neo-libralism.

Lorenzo from Oz writes:

Thanks for the link and the praise. Now I know where the suddenly higher traffic came from :)

Lorenzo from Oz writes:

Frederico: the most unfortunate your interaction with the state the more sceptical your attitude to it is likely to be. So, your thought is plausible, given the "social mercantilism" (use of state power to favour the connected) which is such a feature of Latin America. That is hardly absent in the West, but is mitigated by the need for broad electoral support, leading to much more broadly responsive states.

Chris A: commerce tends to be dynamic and destabilising of hierarchies and of rigid social orders. Eric Wolf has a useful discussion of that on Pp84-85 of his "People Without History".

Kevin Erdmann writes:

Awesome essay, Lorenzo.

Federico, there was a US best seller titled "What's the Matter With Kansas?" where Thomas Frank tried to explain to Progressives that poor people don't vote with them because poor people are stupid and Republicans are evil. So there are enough poor Americans voting the way you describe to make American Progressives want to read about it.

A frequent Progressive talking point is how libertarians and conservatives supposedly are obsessed with the idea that we've earned everything we have, that we are each "an island", and safety net recipients are lazy and undeserving. I never really hear actual intellectuals speak that way. Maybe I'd hear it if I watched Fox News. I don't know. But, where I do hear it is from working class people, because they do have pride in the hard work they do to make a living, and they know the details of their neighbors' lives, and they get pretty pissed off when they are heading off to work at 5am and the guy next door who's on some sort of social support is just stumbling in from last night's party. There is a natural divide among the poor that I think will always create a decent push for limitations to government generosity.

J.V. Dubois writes:

Yes, I read it when Nick Rowe linked the article. It is an excellent one. I especially like the links supporting Lorenzo's arguments. In this essay one of those was exceptional: a superb book by Stephen Hicks Explaining Postmodernism.

Hazel Meade writes:

IMO, there is a direct link between moral status signalling and distain for commerce. That is both are functions of and directly linked into the insula-disgust axis in the human brain. Johnathan Haidt would call it the sanctity-degradation axis in moral psychology. Money historically is a notorious carrier of disease, so revulsion for money and commerce gets hooked up immediately to human disgust instincts. Secondsly, the insula-disgust mechanism is tied into enforcement of cultural norms and social status signalling. That is, one signals one's moral purity by condemning things that elicit disgust. Money is unclean, thus condemning money and commerce signals one's moral purity. Get it?

TravisV writes:

The one element where I thought Lorenzo's essay was lacking: discussion of pastoralism / pastoralist sentiment among left-wing intellectuals. For that, see this essay by Deirdre McCloskey below:

TravisV writes:

Question re: Lorenzo's essay:

Do Robin James, David Harvey, Leigh Johnson and/or Stuart Hall have a name for the philosophies they espouse?

If utilitarianism isn't their philosophy, then what is it?

Scott Sumner writes:

All good comments.

Lorenzo from Oz writes:

TravisV: Deidre McCloskey's excellent essay had slipped my mind. But yes, the pastoralism is a natural corollary to the notion that commerce is vulgar and its dynamism is the enemy of harmony.

As to what their moral theory is, good question. Clearly not utilitarianism, since their attention to human choices and experience is far too selective. I would call it a form of perfectionism, where some standard is set up that ennobles those who embrace it and the moral focus is on how far those subject to (their) negative moral attention fall short of it.

Lorenzo from Oz writes:

Kevin: thanks. And nice point(s).

Kevin Erdmann writes:

Lorenzo, I think your last comment is spot on. There has developed a strong parallel between the progressive perfection through the state and older notions of perfection through the law or through Christ. Concepts like white privilege work very much like original sin, in the sense that you describe. Marches for justice or Facebook status updates can be the present equivalent of Pharisees praying loudly in public.

Brian Donohue writes:

Bravo Lorenzo!

Lorenzo from Oz writes:

Brian & J.V.: thanks.

Hazel: quite.

Kevin: nice analogy.

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