By Reiner, Robert
Renewal , Vol. 14, No. 3
What is neo-liberalism?
Neo-liberalism is the most common label for the economic theory and practice that has swept the world since the early 1970s, displacing communism in eastern Europe and China, as well as the Keynesian, mixed economy, welfare state consensus that had prevailed in western liberal democracies since the Second World War (Dumenil and Levy, 2004; Harvey, 2005; Glyn, 2006). As an economic doctrine it postulates that free markets maximise economic efficiency and prosperity, by signalling consumer wants to producers, optimising the allocation of resources, and providing incentives for entrepreneurs and workers (Kay, 2004).
Neo-liberalism as culture and ethic
Advocates of neo-liberalism see it as promoting not only economic efficiency, but also political and personal virtue. (The classic exposition is Hayek,  2001; for critical assessments see Tomlinson, 1990; Gamble, 1996.) To neo-liberals, free markets are associated with democracy and liberty. They also see markets as encouraging responsibility. On their analysis, welfare states have many moral hazards: they undermine personal responsibility, and meet the sectional interests of public sector workers, not the goals of public service. Neo-liberals advocate market disciplines, workfare and new public management to counteract this (Osborne and Gaebler, 1992); McLaughlin, Muncie and Hughes (2001) analyse the impact of new public management on criminal justice policy; Leys (2001) is a comprehensive critical analysis.
Neo-liberalism has spread from the economic sphere to the social and cultural. The roots of contemporary consumer culture predate neo-liberal dominance, but it has now become hegemonic (Sennett, 2006). Aspirations and conceptions of the good life have become thoroughly permeated by materialist and acquisitive values (Hayward, 2004; Hall and Winlow, 2004, 2006; Lawson, 2006). Business solutions and business models permeate all spheres of activity from sport and entertainment to charities, NGOs and even crime control (Zedner, 2006). The 'Rich List' and its many variations have ousted all other rankings of status.
The dysfunctions of markets
The benefits of neo-liberalism (supposedly economic growth, dynamism, efficiency and responsibility) have been familiarised as common sense by its cheerleaders, and indeed in most public discussion Mrs Thatcher's TINA rules. There are however many negative consequences of unbridled markets and materialism that used to be widely perceived. They were stressed by a variety of traditions, above all the various forms of socialism, and many religions. They were also understood by classical liberal political economy, from Adam Smith to Alfred Marshall and Pigou. As with the trumpeted virtues of markets, their dysfunctions transcend the economic, and include moral, social and political harms. Briefly, in the absence of countervailing interventions markets may produce a variety of negative consequences: economic, ethical, and social and political.
There are five economic disfunctions of markets:
-- Left to themselves competitive markets will become increasingly dominated by monopolistic accumulations of power, as the winners use their resources to drive out competitors.
-- Inequality of wealth and income will become ever greater as again the winners of early competition multiply their advantages.
-- Allocation of resources increasingly reflects the consumer power of the rich, not human need, with the Galbraithian juxtaposition of private affluence and public squalor.
-- Market systems are prone to macro-economic cyclical fluctuations (although their sources and the appropriate modes of regulation are of course hotly contested, for example between Keynesians and monetarists).
-- Insecurities caused by the vicissitudes and adversities of ill-health, old age and so on are widespread, hard to predict at the level of the individual, and not solely attributable to personal responsibility. …