History, Politics

Confusion About -Isms is Compounding Schisms

America has a deeply confused understanding of liberalism, neo-liberalism, conservatism and progressivism. Thanks to the outsize influence of US politics on global discourse, this confusion is slowly infecting other countries. It’s a dangerous disease because it prevents the articulation of a consistent framework for analysing policy, which leaves the voter in thrall to sloganeering, issue-baiting and crude policies formulated along only vague ideological grounds.

As many of these confusions pertain to some variety of liberalism — classical, neo, libertarian — let’s start clarifying things there. Classical liberalism begins roughly with Hobbes. He experienced the horror of a civil war and argued that a ‘leviathan’ was needed that could enforce ‘the rule of law’ to control the human tendency towards violence. He argued that all individuals should cede some of their innate sovereignty to this sovereign. Note this fundamental appreciation of the individual’s sovereignty over herself. This is something you don’t find in fascism, which prioritises the state, or progressivism, which prioritises the class or marginalised group.

Locke comes next and suggests the separation of powers to tame the leviathan. The sovereign will be split into the elected legislature, the executive (Crown or President) and the courts. These institutions will share power and jealousy guard their patch against encroachment from each other, ultimately making the leviathan accountable to the sovereigns of the populace, who are the source of power. The checks and balances of parliamentary process develop around this time and find perhaps their most cogent articulation in the constitutionalist debates of the American founding fathers.

Locke also writes the first widely popular essay on tolerance in response to Catholics and Protestants massacring each other on various pretexts founded in dogma.

The French revolution saw major contributions to the ideational history of liberalism, conservatism and progressivism. Paine pens the Rights of Man, which articulates inalienable human rights as a fundamental institution of liberal society. Meanwhile, the Jacobins, early flag-bearers of progressivism, execute all who oppose their glorious attempt to bring about greater equality. Burke, disgusted by this slaughter, articulates the founding principle of conservativism. Namely, the current order evolved for a reason, and one should be very careful that in trying to change it one does not throw the baby out with the bathwater, as it were. Policy change should be incremental, not wholesale. Note that Burke was not a fan of traditionalism — he was a Whig, not a Tory. But he was a fan of order — a consistent theme in conservative thought.

Around this time, Adam Smith hits upon the free market. People left to their own devices will more efficiently allocate scarce resources than any central planning government ever could. Leave capitalism to deliver wealth (grow the pie) and government to deliver equity (split the pie). Smith was writing especially in the context of trade restrictions, price setting and government monopolies.

Fast forward. Bentham and the utilitarians develop a secular principle to guide public policy formulation. What is ‘good’ is what brings the greatest benefit to the greatest number. This is a rational calculus that can be argued over, unlike religious morality. It also enshrines social welfare as an aggregation of individual welfares.

John Stuart Mill develops the harm principle: the only grounds on which the state can restrict the freedom of a citizen are if leaving them free would cause harm to another citizen. The obvious example is violence, though the concept of harm remains open to contestation. Critically, Mill emphasises that while institutions must protect liberty, individual morality behoves the individual to refrain from doing harm. For example, you have a right to free speech, but also a duty to be polite.

The notion of positivism coalesces in jurisprudence. The law is not natural in the sense that it is handed down from God or written into the firmament. Instead, the law is an institution of social expediency and open to cyclical reinterpretation. This is compatible with the conservative notion that new legal matters, like copyright law, should be dealt with by extending existing legal frameworks to cover the new issues.

Finally, in the 20th century, among other things, Popper formulates fallibilism as a core principle in liberalism. Due to the peculiarities of empirical reality, we can never be absolutely certain of a theory, only of its refutation. As such, we should ever be fallible, meaning that we are open to counterarguments and willing to criticise our existing paradigms, including in politics and social organisation. Fallibilism thoroughly undermines moral absolutism.

Fallibilism was developed as part of a theory of science, but in The Open Society and its Enemies Popper extended it to public policy. He suggested that we should pursue incremental policy change rather than wholesale system change because revolutionary change assumes we know the full consequences of our actions. This is not a fallibilistic attitude because it assumes we can perfectly predict the future based on our limited evidence from the past. The larger a change the more likely it is to trigger intermediating factors of which we are unaware or for which we are not accounting, with potentially devastating consequences.

That’s a very brief history of (classical) liberalism. A lot more could be written, but it will do. By way of a quick summary, the emphasis in liberalism is on the enhancement of individual agency. Note that agency is more than negative freedom. It is one’s ability to be and do things. Being the lone actor on a desert island sees you perfectly free, but you have very little agency.

Liberalism offers a range of institutions — human rights, property rights, the separation of powers, constitutions, innocent until proven guilty, no imprisonment without charge, the harm principle etc. — that provide for human agency. Liberalism puts great faith in the emergent order that arises out of high-agency individuals acting in their self-interest to provide prosperity and justice. By extension, it is more interested in equality of opportunity than equality of outcomes.

Arguably, classical liberalism defines the centre of modern western thought and politics. The doctrines of conservatism, progressivism, neoliberalism and libertarianism are wings that depart from this centre. They all lay claim to liberal ideals to some degree, and none deny liberty’s importance, unlike fascism and theocracy. We will now explore the way in which these doctrines depart from classical liberalism.

In contrast to liberalism, libertarianism is about freedom, not agency. It is a very American school of thought, fitting of that country’s pioneer spirit. It begins with Thoreau’s work on civil disobedience, the right to be left alone and the dignity of self-reliance. It finds its most influential expression in the work of Ayn Rand and its most philosophically coherent articulation in the ethics of Robert Nozick. Libertarianism sees taxes as egregious because they infringe on individual freedom. Classical liberalism does not because taxes pay for public education, health and infrastructure, all of which enhance the agency of all. Progressivism cares about equality of outcomes, classical liberalism about equality of opportunity, and libertarianism just doesn’t care about equality.

Neo-liberalism is another thing again. It is the application of the economic way of thinking to social theory more generally. This includes rational actor theory, the Pareto efficiency criterion and the notion that emergent orders (like markets) are much better able to leverage diffuse tacit knowledge than governments are, which makes them more efficient at allocating scarce resources and more productive with those resources. The more prominent writers in this school are the Chicago School economists Hayek, Becker and Friedman.

It is in libertarianism and neo-liberalism that the small government mantra is strongest. Classical liberalism is mostly about limits on government rather than limited government. Many classical liberals supported public health, public education, law and regulations, like anti-trust, that required large governments, both in terms of legal presence and in terms of percentage of GDP. Even Adam Smith wrote extensively about the need for government institutions to allow markets to function smoothly. By contrast, libertarianism wants government consigned to providing defence and law and order, notably in the enforcement of contract and property rights. Neo-liberalism sees a wider but still circumspect role for government in facilitating the market mechanism by correcting market failures like externalities and providing public goods.

Finally, let’s talk about progressivism. As befits its roots in the French Revolution, progressivism’s intellectual grandfather is Karl Marx. Where classical liberalism emphasises equality of opportunity, progressivism favours equality of outcomes, that is, absolute equality. In Marx’s day this was mostly in terms of class or financial equity. While financial inequality remains, we are nowadays significantly wealthier in absolute terms than in Marx’s day, and this partially explains why the focus of progressives has shifted to other inequalities, notably those pertaining to race, gender and sexuality. This was driven first by feminist, post-modern and post-colonial theorists, and more recently by the final stage of post-modernism, namely Derridian language theory.

As it is fundamentally about equity, progressivism always needs an underprivileged group to fight for. As Marxist analysis is all about power rather than agency or liberty, and thinks of power as zero-sum, it tends to consider the promotion of the underprivileged a matter of transferring power from ‘the ruling class’ to the underprivileged classes. This was relatively straightforward when progressives cared almost entirely about financial class. But nowadays things are a lot more complicated. For example, white men are apparently the global ruling class. Yet they also make up a huge portion of America’s working class, and are dying in disproportionate numbers from drug abuse, among other ailments.

There really isn’t much overlap between liberalism and progressivism, so it is odd that the American political discourse often labels progressive policies as liberal. Progressivism values liberal institutions and ideas, like human rights, to the extent that they serve the underprivileged. When they stop doing that, as apparently they do in open campus discourses, progressives are happy to suspend liberal institutions. Progressivism has historically been at its most influential when utilising the language of agency, as in the civil rights movement and first and second wave feminism, and at its most divisive when seeking the revolutionary overthrow of the existing order.

It is very important to emphasise that liberalism sees failure and inequality of outcomes as inevitable and important. Inequality encourages people to work hard. When more competitive firms buy less competitive ones using their profits it ensures that resources go to where they are the most productive. Innovation and progress come from the drive to ‘get ahead’. Equality of opportunity is critical in this paradigm for ensuring competition. But close equality of outcomes is counterproductive. This is the most fundamental point of divergence between liberalism and progressivism.

In our contemporary political discourse there is a profound confusion between the many -isms. The democratic party is called liberal (as a slur!) when its cultural politics are progressive and many of its economic ideas, at least under the technocratic Obama administration, are neo-liberal.

The republicans are called conservative, which they are, but they are also libertarian. They are miss-labeled neo-liberal. Few economic rationalists would support the farm subsidies, military industrial complex, lack of a carbon price, or brain-dead health insurance market ideas that the republicans campaign on bitterly. These policies are more a function of cronyism, which afflicts the democrats as well.

Both parties are very ‘liberal’ in the classical sense, with strong respect for the constitution, parliamentary process, the separation of powers and individual rights. However, the libertarianism of the Republicans often differentiates them, such as on gun control, which classical liberalism sees as a threat to agency whereas libertarianism sees it as fundamental to protecting individual freedom.

Finally, there is a strong split on the left between centre-left liberals and further left progressives, yet both get lumped in together. Perhaps the clearest example of this is the contemporary feminist movement. Both groups sign up to the notion of the equality of the sexes. But liberal feminists are inclined to approach this through a paradigm of agency (e.g. through child care policy and campaigns that bring men into the tent) and institutional change (e.g. equal pay for equal work legislation and universal suffrage), while progressives (the radical feminist wing) has long called for the overthrow of the entire cultural system of patriarchy, in which men have outsize zero-sum power, and a transfer of zero-sum power from men to women.

It is important to stress that all of these streams in the history of ideas and politics have made invaluable contributions to human progress. That’s one reason why democracies almost always operate at the centre of politics. None of these -isms are outright wrong or evil. Arguably the more extreme arms of each paradigm are a little on the silly side, but that’s an argument for another time.

What we need now is to get these concepts straight. When progressives can call universal freedom of speech neoliberal, when immigration control is considered conservative in a country built by migrants, when people think classical liberalism advocates for government being limited to a certain portion of GDP, and when the party of neoliberals doesn’t realise that there are very strong theoretical and empirical reasons to believe a single-payer health care system is the most economically efficient way to deliver health insurance, you know your politics is suffering for lack of conceptual clarity.


Mark Fabian is a doctoral candidate in economics at the Crawford School for Public Policy, The Australian National University. He blogs at markfabian.blogspot.com.au

Filed under: History, Politics


Mark Fabian is a doctoral candidate in economics at the Crawford School for Public Policy, The Australian National University. He blogs at markfabian.blogspot.com.au


  1. Heather says

    Great read, thanks. 🙂 I think you meant, “innocent until proven guilty”, though, not “guilty until proven innocent”. Right?

  2. L Ron says

    Engaging and lucid. However I’m not so sure progressivism is a coherent political philosophy in the same way that the other “isms” mentioned are. It seems to me more of an attitude or outlook.

    I also think you’ve overlooked the significant theocratic influence in Republican politics. Opposition to gay marriage and women’s bodily autonomy are most definitely not liberal or libertarian, and I think conservatism only goes some way towards explaining them. Throw in creationist dogma in science lessons and the attacks on constitutionally mandated separation of church and state, and I think you must acknowledge the role of Christian fundamentalism.

    • Yandoodan says

      You confuse “Republican” with “Christian Fundamentalist”. It should be clear from the article that Libertarians will see religion as something deeply personal that should not be interfered with, and should stand above the desires of the people who control the central authority. Democrats reject this — hence the alliance between Republicans and CFs.

      As for abortion, your formulation can easily be turned against you. A woman indeed has the right of bodily autonomy, but no inherent right over the body of some other organism. Is a fetus/baby a body? It is certainly a living thing, unless it is a dead fetus and the woman has miscarried. And if it is a “cancer” (a formulation I first heard in 1972) it is a “cancer” that leaves the body and walks around.

      So it’s a body, a living thing separate from the “woman’s body” but wholly dependent on it. Should the mother have the right to kill it while it’s still dependent? How about when it’s capable of living independently? These are easy and obvious questions only for unquestioning people.

      BTW, you might want to avoid euphemisms such as “bodily autonomy” for “abortion” and “woman’s body” for “mother”. It’s a tell.

      • L Ron says

        @Yandoodan: I wasn’t confusing Republicans with Christian fundamentalists. I was noting that, while (to choose two notable examples) promotion of Christian dogma in schools and citing scripture in opposition to legal equality for homosexuals are neither libertarian nor liberal, nor, in a nation founded on a secular constitution, are they wholly explainable by conservativism. Such policies are theocratic in nature, which I think represents an influence on Republicanism comparable to the libertarian and conservative schools of thought.

        I’m not quite sure what you’re implying by “it’s a tell”. I used the phrase “bodily autonomy” quite deliberately, not euphemistically. A zygote is alive, but it is not a body. Moreover, it cannot feel, it is not self-aware… I can’t see any good reason to give it moral consideration over the right of a woman to decide what processes go on in her own body. Now, I’m not suggesting that a woman’s rights to termination are absolute – at some point on the transformation from a blastocyte to a baby, mere living tissue develops into personhood and we are obliged to grant moral status. You’re right, these aren’t easy questions. But the anti-abortionists who believe that life begins at conception think it is simple. They generally base their ideas on superstitious thinking – the notion of am eternal soul, and (to return to my point) want to have their dogma forced on others. That is antithetical to both liberalism and libertarianism, and, I would argue, not really very conservative in a historically secular nation.

        I’m curious, to what exactly are you referring when you write “Libertarians will see religion as something deeply personal that should not be interfered with, and should stand above the desires of the people who control the central authority. Democrats reject this…”. My understanding of US politics is by no means exhaustive, but I was under the impression that Democrats are generally the more secular party.

        • Yandoodan says

          @L Ron: Good reply. I have nothing to add, or disagree with, in your first two paragraphs.

          For the third, I am making a distinction between wanting to impose your religious views on others and wanting to impose your secular beliefs on the religious. Some Republicans practice the former, and nearly all Democrats practice the latter. Admittedly some of these cases are very hard, not just abortion but LGBT issues. Forcing Catholics to give out free birth control is not one of the hard cases.

          (As for creationism, both Fundamentalists and Progressives lobby school boards for the inclusion of whatever hobby horses they are riding — normally with success. The resulting curricula are a mess.)

          • L Ron says


            I assume you’re referring to cases where state employees have refused to carry out certain duties, citing religious belief? Without specific examples it’s difficult to comment, but lets take the example of a health professional who doesn’t want to give out contraception (I assume that’s who you’re referring to). Why should they be allowed to refuse to carry out some parts of their job, if it goes against *personal* religious convictions? In such a case, I wouldn’t describe them as being forced to do something, when the provision of those services is part of what they are being paid for. It seems to me the imposition is coming from the employee.

    • Thanks. I was already sweating about the word length so there was a lot I didn’t cover. I’m glad you and others have brought up such important additional angles in the comments.

      • L Ron says

        No worries, Mark. Had a peek on your blog too and found it really thought provoking. Not knowing much about economics though, I must admit I found some of the writing on that topic a little abstruse. What would you recommend for a good evidence-based introduction on the topic?

        • To be honest I think the only and therefore best way of learning is economics is from textbooks, but perhaps I have too much faith in economics as a science. As far as textbooks go, I would recommend Microeconomics Theory by Nicholson and Snyder. The other prominent textbook is Mankiw’s Principles of Microeconomics. From there you could get any of the excellent public finance and/or laobur textbooks, which apply the basic micro models. Macro is a different beast because many more of its basic tenets are contested, especially in public policy debates. Still worth getting the basics down. Ben Smith’s ‘Principles of Macroeconomic Analysis’ is a good start but it only really covers autarcky. Some macro-economists think that because autarkies don’t really exist anymore, you shouldn’t waste time at that level, but I think you need a basic grounding before you can move onto open-economy macro. As far as open-economy models go, I quite liked Vegh’s ‘Open Economy Macroeconomics in Developing Countries’, which builds and extends a simple model. Terra’s ‘Principles of international finance and macroeconomics’ is apparently more comprehensive, but I’ve not read it.

    • “Opposition to gay marriage and women’s bodily autonomy are most definitely not liberal or libertarian (…).”

      If normal marriage and the accompanying traditional families are more productive than “gay marriage”, then creating that discriminating incentive- (or reward-)structure makes sense. Friedman would have framed it as dealing with a positive neighborhood effect, others as positive externalities, and the rest as “free riding”, “unjust enrichment”, and whatever. Further, there is a “libertarian” argument against extending state benefits to yet another group.

      As for abortion, if one understands the “thing” as a human being, or lets the specific potential suffice, then one protects that beings negative liberty. If the woman played a willing role in its creation – which means she locked it in place, in her body – one can prioritize that beings negative liberty over hers. On the other hand, with a different assumption, one making a being’s ability to reason the deciding factor, it’s possibly to drastically reduce the rights of even babies. (See Rothbard, Ethics of Liberty) One would be allowed to let them die. Actually one would be allowed to kill babies. They’d be property of the parents.

  3. What a mess.

    I guess the best way to approach this post is by consideration of the etymological fallacy.

    The etymological fallacy is a genetic fallacy that holds that the present-day meaning of a word or phrase should necessarily be similar to its historical meaning. This is a linguistic misconception,and is sometimes used as a basis for linguistic prescription. An argument constitutes an etymological fallacy if it makes a claim about the present meaning of a word based exclusively on its etymology. This does not, however, show that etymology is irrelevant in any way, nor does it attempt to prove such.

    A variant of the etymological fallacy involves looking for the “true” meaning of words by delving into their etymologies,or claiming that a word should be used in a particular way because it has a particular etymology. A notable example is the word decimation, which used to refer to reduction by a tenth, but in modern English means reduction by an extreme amount.

    Fabian blows past the fact that political groupings—as currently constituted—are as much a product of alliances as opposed to a simplified philosophy. As a result, there is a transient continuum across ideological lines. There is no static–or binary–connotation of ‘Neo-Liberalism’. [Don’t get me wrong–it’d be nice if there was…but there isn’t.]

    The author also blows past the fact that a concept like ‘Progressivism in 2016’ is necessarily different from ‘Progressivism in 1916’.*** The reason, of course, is that each meaning is not exclusively derived not by a static definition of ‘Progressivism’, but rather by its contrast with the prevailing ‘Progressivism’ of that time. [ie hot is not ‘Hot’ without some sort of reference.]

    ***Just ask Black Lives Matter to reconcile its Progressive proclivities in 2016 with those of Woodrow Wilson in 1916. All you’ll get is what necessarily follows from Fabians static constructions…a variant of No True Scotsman. Thus we get garbage like Woodrow Wilson’s statue should be removed from Princeton Campus because he was ‘No True Progressive’.

    • Sorry…The sentence: The reason, of course, is that each meaning is not exclusively derived not by a static definition of ‘Progressivism’, but rather by its contrast with the prevailing ‘Progressivism’ of that time.

      should read…

      The reason, of course, is that each meaning is not exclusively derived not by a static definition of ‘Progressivism’, but rather by its contrast with the prevailing counter-philosophy of that time, like ‘Conservatism’ or Libertarianism’.

    • Yandoodan says

      That was my reaction when I saw the headline, but Mr. Fabian covers this well. He makes it clear that his terms are summaries, one-word descriptions, of long trends in political philosophy. Each word summarizes one such trend. This makes these words as he uses them to be technical terms in a specialized scholarly area, just as “realism” in Platonic thought means the opposite of the plain English word.

      He then compares the technical terms, and the histories they summarize, to their plain English use today, and finds the plain English use obscuring to the point of damaging political discourse. I suggest that “fascist” in the 1960s and “Communist” in the 1950s are examples of this.

    • Mr. Fish says

      “”Fabian blows past the fact that political groupings—as currently constituted—are as much a product of alliances as opposed to a simplified philosophy””

      Yes. I think i tried to make a similar point below. Its a mistake to try and align modern ‘political groups’ with any particular strain of political philosophy; all parties are just agglomerations of interest-groups, many of which may maintain very different first-principles, and result in what may be seen as wildly hypocritical policy-views if you try and demand that they fit into some philosophical box.

      I also agree with your point about the relative historical drift that terms like “Conservative” or “Progressive” actually *mean* in modern practice. I was reading a piece earlier today in The Atlantic…


      …which referred to “Hardcore, Ultra-Conservative Russian Jews” living in San Francisco… who were pro-choice, pro-gay-marriage, and interested in well-funded social-welfare systems and public education…

      …yet they were also pro-Israel, disliked Mexican immigration, and hated Bernie Sanders and his socialist rhetoric. Ergo = Ultra-Conservatives, then. It makes sense to someone, somewhere.

  4. Ex-Libertarian says

    Some interesting points in the piece, though also some factual errors:

    – The biggest problem with this article is that the article’s narrative about the “heart” of classical liberalism is left-slanted. Classical liberalism starts off right-slanted (with Locke, Hume, Smith, and the founding fathers) and then becomes more left-slanted in the 1800s (with Mill, Hobhouse etc.). These fights were vitriolic in the papers of the time and both sides were fully conscious of them. But the author lumps them into one, as if Locke were no more “libertarian” than Mill. Classical liberalism was introduced as a term to distinguish the original, right-slanted liberalism from the social priorities than crept into the ideology in the 19th century and took over the liberalism proper. Classical liberalism is not centrist, as the writer seems to suggest. Classical liberalism *does* entail that civil society should have considerable freedom to develop alongside the state, a freedom that is curtailed by a big government, since a big public sector (as found in many European countries) invariably crowds out and diverts resources from private initiatives.

    Other problems:

    – Power isn’t at the heart of the Marxian analysis; material and means of production are. The obsession with power and disenfranchised groups is a later invention.

    – Gender equality originated with classical liberals, not progressives.

    – Libertarianism beings with Locke, not Thoreau.

    I enjoyed the author’s analysis of the American parties. The part about the Democrats being neo-liberals is not really argued though (in fact the author gives an example of how the Dems are *not* neo-liberals with the Affordable Care Act, but no evidence that they *are* neo-liberal — very strange). However, I think the failure to distinguish between classical liberalism and social (1800s onward) liberalism is rather serious in a piece who purpose it is to set the ‘isms’ straight for the reader.

    Finally, there will always be morphing and mutation concerning such broad ‘isms’ and the migration of ideas from one camp to another. For example, the contemporary phenomenon of Cultural Appropriation has its roots in 19th century German right-wing Romanticism, but today it is almost exclusively a left-wing position. So the hope expressed in the article that we will someday receive conceptual clarity on these matters is probably void, just as the insinuation that the confusion is merely due to a difference in terminology between America and the rest of the world is probably false.

    • That left/right cleavage is an interesting perspective, but I’m not sure I entirely agree. Early liberalism is anti-crown, which seems to me to be a left-leaning inclination, and certainly reformist by contemporary standards. But then one could also argue that left and right don’t really exist at least until Burke/Paine. I think it is inevitable that liberalism drifts towards lefter inclinations once utilitarianism becomes a basic principle of the movement, because in the contemporary context of massive inequality, utilitarianism would necessarily incline one towards things like public education and health, among other things. That said, I am struck by your comments because the writers in the movement that I have the most sympathy with are the lefter ones, like Popper, Russell and J. S. Mill, so maybe you’ve uncovered one of my biases.

      I disagree that libertarianism begins with Locke. All things ‘liber’ can trace origins to Locke, but the distinct libertarian flavour doesn’t arrive until later, and I think Thoreau and his contemporaries are as good a place as any to draw the line.

      Where gender equality originates is up for grabs. Was Mary Wollstonecraft a liberal or a progressive? Anarchists are rather hard to put into a box given their inclinations for both freedom and revolution. And I think the allegiance of the Suffragettes is contestable as well. That said, I would have thought I covered this to your satisfaction when I said that progressivism is at its most influential when using the (liberal) language of agency, as in 1st and 2nd wave feminism.

      Where did I mention the affordable care act? The Obama administration’s neo-liberalism is a function of its technocratism, which in present times inevitably involves using rational choice models from classical economics.

      Thanks for the point about German Romanticism. I hadn’t come across that perspective before but I’ll certainly look into it.

      • Mr. Fish says

        “”The biggest problem with this article is that the article’s narrative about the “heart” of classical liberalism is left-slanted.””

        Yes, this was part of my gripe as well.

        Your response to his point included this =

        “”I think it is inevitable that liberalism drifts towards lefter inclinations once utilitarianism becomes a basic principle of the movement, because in the contemporary context of massive inequality, utilitarianism would necessarily incline one towards things like public education and health, among other things.””

        There are a few assumptions embedded in here that seem to get closer to what I was complaining about.

        Firstly = “”the contemporary context of massive inequality””

        I find myself doing a double-take whenever i hear statements like this.

        Over the past century, the world has reduced the number of people living in poverty by *billions*. Large-scale starvation was a fairly common occurrence even within the earlier part of my lifetime. Countries like China and India are moving hundreds of millions of people out of cyclical agrarian subsistence into modern economic contexts which enables rapid changes in social/economic mobility.

        There has never been a period in history in which “inequality” has been so massively reduced.


        Of course, that’s probably not what many people mean when they throw that term around. Instead, they’ll point to stagnant wages in developed economies, and decry the fact that technology has made a small number of people very rich.

        All that aside – i think its still very odd to suggest that the core-principles of Classical Liberalism ‘inevitably’ drift leftward due to (an unproven claim of) the ‘utility’ of public-funded health or education systems… both of which, it should be noted, have long under-performed in the US relative to their privately funded peers.

        • I meant contemporaneous to the left drift in liberalism, which I think coincides with the most brutal parts of the industrial revolution. I doubt inequality has ever been starker. Statistically maybe, but not viscerally. Otherwise I entirely agree that we’ve made huge in-roads on inequality globally in the past century, and many of the factors driving up within-country inequality are also driving down between-country inequality.

          I also agree that my hypothesis about an inevitable left drift is a dubious one – that’s why it wasn’t in the main text. Surely we can free-wheel a bit in the comments?

  5. respublicus says

    Excellent read, but I can’t help but think that you missed a term that helps explain the current collapse of the Republican right:


    They don’t have any real positive policies or plans, their goal is simply to hold on to what they perceive, against all evidence, as being a more perfect past.

    • Yandoodan says

      Libertarianism is inherently negative. Libertarians want to strip the small group of people who control the central authority of their power to limit our choices and interfere with our lives.

      Progressives want “plans” and “policies” to transform society, as dictated by their inherent wisdom and goodness. Libertarians see this as hubris, unethical, and inevitably destructive. Of course we don’t have any, and fight anyone who does.

    • Fair point. Thanks for bringing it up. I wanted to stay away from anything that would get people immediately off-side. Might be worth writing another piece on the difference between Burkian or Hayekian conservatism and reactionary conservatism…

  6. Yandoodan says

    Mr. Fabian, this is an excellent piece, topped off by giving Popper two paragraphs — more than Hobbes, Smith, Locke, or Mills! Completely correct; see, for instance, his volume in The Library of Living Philosophers.

    But I am surprised that you don’t see the Affordable Care Act’s obvious derivation from straight down-the-middle Progressivism. A small group of people who control the central authority remade a large segment of society based on their own evaluations of their wisdom and virtue — and wiping out a large chunk of personal liberty in the process. Libertarians obviously oppose this vigorously.

    As a graduate student you’ve probably never had a medical insurance policy, much less purchase one on the personal market. I’ve purchased 23 such policies on the personal market. This one is both the worst and the most expensive. And I can’t even shop around. Every policy is exactly the same, mandated by central authority. They vary only in the choice of doctors and the availability of prescriptions — and both are kept secret at the time of purchase. This is what happens when the people who run the central authority decide to deprive everyone else of choice.

    • Thanks very much. Popper (and his protege Shearmur, who was my supervisor) is perhaps the philosopher who has had the greatest influence on my thinking, so I had to give him a bit of extra time.

      Someone else has mentioned the affordable care act but I don’t see myself referring to it anywhere. Do you mean my suggestion that the Obama administration is neo-liberal? That’s a reference to its technocratism, which inevitably involves using rational choice modelling and the like.

      I’m an Australian citizen so I have access to the best single-payer health care system on the planet (NHS pfft…). So no, I have never purchased a policy. It sounds like a shit experience. Obamacare is hard for someone outside the US to understand so I don’t expect I’ll ever be passing judgement on it in public. It seems to me that the values underpinning it are progressive, but the policy itself seems harder to describe. The Australia health care monopsony makes complete sense to me as both a left-leaning voter and an economist, but I recognise that America can’t just move to that overnight, even if it wanted to.

      • Yandoodan says

        For my first job, as a researcher for a large local agency, I quickly discovered that graduate school had left me completely unprepared. Its combination of Positivism and recipe-book multivariate analysis was utterly useless. At the advise of a friend I turned to The Logic of Scientific Discovery. Much to my astonishment I found, not a dense philosophical work, but a clearly written handbook on how to do research that works. Frankly, it saved my butt. I’ve since read virtually his entire corpus, excluding only his quantum theory and mind-body problem stuff.

        The Affordable Care Act pursues Progessive goals achieved by establishing a combine of government agencies and the largest corporations, much like Italy in the 1920s. I think this approach is common among Democrats; Hillary Clinton is an extreme case.

        Popper would tell you that a wholesale replacement of an entire segment of society, planned by bureaucrats in combination with large profit-making corporations, is not going to work very well. This is true even when the bureaucrats are competent — and Obama’s appointees turned out to be astonishingly inept.


        This is off-topic, but since you brought it up:

        Private pay insurance gave you choice. You could fine-tune your coverage to your circumstances. A poor person could lower what they paid down to $50 a month by buying a catastrophic policy, which is what it sound like — a policy that kicks in when you are paying more than you afford, and you get to define “what you can afford”. This is actually better coverage than Obamacare, which also bottoms out at $50 and makes the poor pay a fixed $6800 before any coverage kicks in.

        This year I got Obamacare private coverage for the first time. It doubled my costs without any improvement in coverage at all. I am not pleased.

        Your single payer system hides the individual’s payment in their taxes, much like the VAT is hidden in the price of goods. (My state has no sales tax or VAT at all, and its income tax is steeply progressive — a good approach.) The portion funded by VAT is heavily regressive. Your poor pay far more proportionately than your rich for their health insurance.

        (BTW, exploding some myths about America’s coverage: Our poor do receive free health coverage, under Medicaid and in hospital emergency rooms. Our emergency rooms cannot turn you away, even if you are too poor to pay. Our largest hospitals and health insurance companies are not-for-profits. And our working poor not only pay no income tax, they receive a negative income tax — Nixon’s idea, and a good one.)

  7. yandoodan says

    I should have written “…wiping out a large chunk of personal choice” rather than “personal liberty”. The word “liberty” is both vague and loaded, and should be avoided when there are clearer alternatives, by me and everyone else.

    The same, btw, goes for “reactionary” and “obstructive”, pejoratives manufactured for inherently good activities.

  8. Peter says

    First, this is a great piece.

    Second, I must say: while I’m thrilled you’ve attempted to flesh out a coherent definition of “neoliberalism,” no such commonly held definition exists anywhere, especially not in academia.

    “Neoliberal” is a pejorative term loosely thrown around by progressive/leftist academics to disparage virtually anything and everything they don’t like about contemporary society.

    Typically anything vaguely related to “the market”/“markets,” “privatization,” or “deregulation” will suffice — but it is truly a shape-shifting boogey man. It also doesn’t help that no one on this planet (as far as I know) actually identifies as a neoliberal.

    The Wikipedia page for the term is an absolute mess. For example, Mises and Hayek were classical liberals but today, the Wikipedia page for “neoliberalism” touts them as examples of “neoliberal ideology.” I have very little intellectual respect for people who throw around the term (a.k.a. all of academia).

    At the institution where I work, I have recently read hundreds of research proposals by leftist scholars and the vast majority of them are writing about “neoliberalism.” To date, not a single person has even attempted to define the term in their writings. This happens to match up with my own experience in my master’s program in the UK just a few years ago. I believe there was also a recent research paper (can’t find it at the moment) which analyzed the use of the term and also found that there is no coherent or consistent definition in use in academia.

    • Thanks for bringing this up. I actually complain about it all the time. So often neo-liberal is just a slur that people who don’t understand the first thing about economics or liberalism and don’t care to (like Zizek) throw at anything that goes against their own biases. The definition in this piece is drawn from ‘The Limits of Neoliberalism’, which I think at least mounts a coherent and sustained argument for its definition, and it’s a useful one. There’s a link to the book in the text.

  9. Mr. Fish says

    This is an excellent piece. Well done.

    Of course, now I will start nitpicking 🙂

    I think some ‘political re-calibration’ like this is certainly needed in our modern context. As noted in your conclusion – we’ve seemed to have mucked things up terribly… and not just in America, but in all of ‘the West’* (*what they used to call ‘Christendom’ back before it became unfashionable).

    I think you’re right to see a problem in “how we currently identify/understand political positions” that needs addressing

    However, I’m not sure you ever really explain *why*, or exactly what is supposed to be gained by re-claiming traditional definitions.

    I’d note that the vast majority of people – everywhere – do not derive a particular political view exclusively from “philosophical first principles”… so much as from their cultural milieu and their particular material group-interests. “Union Democrats” in the US are an example of people who would otherwise be considered ‘Right Wing’ in many respects. “Neoconservatives” were urban, jewish left-wing intellectuals whose version of an aggressive Wilsonian Foreign Policy ended up being aligned with bible-belt conservative political leadership.

    Basically, you may be trying to impose an academic’s understanding of politics onto a world which does not necessarily function in the clear-cut manner you’d prefer.

    This extends itself to where you seem to decide the center of “Classical Liberalism” really lies.

    From my perspective you seem to take a few liberties applying broad-brush generalizations to aspects of “The Right” (e.g. in your relatively brief handling of Conservative & Libertarian thought) in order to try and cast modern UK/EU-style Social-Welfare states as the natural heirs of Classical Liberalism.

    I think you do such a wonderful job detailing so many aspects of the philosophical political spectrum, that its a little disappointing when some aspects are given a cartoonish representation. It would seem important, given that you ascribe so much of American political peculiarities to its excessively ‘libertarian’ streak, to try and understand why exactly this strain seems so non-existent anywhere else. I think the references to things like “pioneer spirit” are a bit silly, frankly. Why the US owes so much to bushwacking colonists after 2 centuries i’ve never been sure.

    That said – i think its a fantastic piece, very clearly stated, and given its scope, pretty concise. I’ll probably think of a few more comments at some point, as there’s so much here that seems worth addressing.

    Hope all is well, cheers.

  10. richard lewis says

    Nice, almost impossibly succinct, overview. However, I do think it’s a bit dubious to see the world as a war of ideological perspectives. As a kind of (right wing) Marxist – I can’t help seeing these ideologies as emerging out of technological and economic change. To be more concrete -what if the world of classical liberalism, as appealing as it is to me and (probably) the author is simply not viable any more thanks to digitization, globalization, automation, assortative mating of elites….. you name it. If elites prefer to form transnational club, and then deliberately downgrade the nation state (the vessel in which classical liberalism operated) via immigration, financial globalization, etc, then what sense does that liberal ideology make any more except as a kind of nostalgia?

  11. Zado says

    Thanks for this piece. As someone who worries about political discourse as much as actual politics, I always find it refreshing to see someone try to reign in definitions and keep our conversation coherent.

    And thanks for mentioning Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies. The left seems to be in the process of forgetting that Marx was one of them.

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