Neoliberalism & Culture

Will is absolutely correct to note that the success of the Anglophone and Northern European governance models (and their Asian counterparts who have emulated and innovated with these models successfully) rest a great deal in inherited cultural values, and that this makes a strong case for small-c conservatism. After all, if we can never hope to identify all the cultural, political, and economic factors which have led to this success, we certainly don’t want to inadvertently shoot ourselves in the proverbial foot by steering our economy wildly off course. Certainly relying too much on technocratic and centralized solutions in a nation as big and diverse as our own only strengthens his point. This is one reason I’ve pointed to the Swiss model as perhaps the best example of how Americans can take full advantage of our bigness and diversity by using competitive federalism to our advantage. In an ideal world, I would suggest redrawing state boundaries and making states much smaller in order to keep politics even more localized.

Still, I wonder what Will means when he writes:

But I’m also suspicious of ambitious, technocratic governance at home, particularly when political ambitions collide with established interest group politics. Erik suggests that the index of global governance vindicates liberal-tarianism, but I think that’s a rather strained reading of the results. Germany, Japan, and France don’t strike me as bastions of neoliberal thought (neither does the United States, for that matter), but they’ve managed to keep chugging along.

I agree that ambitious, technocratic governance at home is probably not a good idea – though at times we have required nation-wide reforms and federal programs and those programs have largely been successful even if many of them need to be reformed in order to be sustainable in the long haul. I’m not sure what technocratic plans Will associates with neoliberalism or what he’s referring to specifically here.

Sumner breaks down neoliberalism into three categories:

1.  Hyper-egalitarian neoliberalism (Denmark)

2.  Hyper-economistic neoliberalism (Singapore)

3.  Hyper-democratic neoliberalism  (Switzerland)

I think a country like the United States is still fairly neoliberal economically. We are not as egalitarian or as economistic or as democratic as the three examples above, but if I had to guess I’d say we score fairly well in each category, even if we don’t come out on top of any. Germany and Japan would fair similarly well in some categories if not all three (indeed, all four of the countries Will lists make Sumner’s final cut.)

So while I think that Will is right that drastic change, radical reform, and so forth are probably more dangerous than helpful – especially in a very big country – I’m uncertain as to his reading my point as ‘strained’. One could argue that this is merely a case for libertarianism without the ‘l’ – but I think that where libertarianism has gone off the rails in America is in its outright hostility to government. What I think liberalism of the liberal-tarian variety adds to the mix is more of an acceptance of the proper role of government. In any case, none of the countries listed have implemented libertopia, even if some have radically deregulated economies like Hong Kong and Singapore. Even these city-states have realized the value of government intervention into things like healthcare coverage and don’t merely allow markets to do their thing even if they do use market-friendly ideas like HSA’s.

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11 thoughts on “Neoliberalism & Culture

  1. This probably wasn’t clear from the original post, but the point I was trying to make is that no single political approach – liberaltarianism included – explains the consistent success of the top 20. France and Germany’s hyper-regulated labor markets strike me as profoundly un-liberaltarian, for example.

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  2. As for inherited cultural values, I was actually discussing this with some Canadian banking mucky mucks at a party not too long ago and we sort of came to the conclusion that the reason no Canadian banks failed or really had the same problems at all during the recession was not a matter of regulation at all, but indeed that our financial culture here is very small-c conservative. They don’t take the same sorts of risks, and a lot of that comes from the character of the people and their shared culture. The Canucks I know in that world are a lot like 19th century English bankers. Almost stuffy.

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  3. Could it be that the real commonality those countries share is relative peace and stability? This whole discussion reminds me of this quote as well:

    “Out of every hundred new ideas ninety-nine or more will probably be inferior to the traditional responses which they propose to replace. No one man, however brilliant or well-informed, can come in one lifetime to such fullness of understanding as to safely judge and dismiss the customs or institutions of his society, for those are the wisdom of generations after centuries of experiment in the laboratory of history.”

    ~Will and Ariel Durant, The Lessons of History, 1968

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  4. My argument may seem like a chicken and egg argument on the surface, in the sense of “what came first: the peace and prosperity or the government that values peace and prosperity”. But, I’d say that most of the time it’s the latter, whether that government has as its basis democracy, communism, socialism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Shintoism, Islamicism, or whatever.

    I think the idea that countries which focus on peace and economic prosperity tend to get that is a pretty reasonable, non-trivial, and important idea considering all the wars that surround us to which we have apparently habituated: the War on Terror, the War on Drugs, the War in Afghanistan, the War in Iraq and how those “wars” relate to the current state of our civil and economic life.

    (For commenters who might want to make this into a straw man, I’ll go ahead and say yes, our war spending is directly related to our bad economy, although it’s not the only cause, and probably not the most significant cause.)

    We in the United States and in some of the other countries on that good governance list have a large degree of legislative and jurisprudence continuity precisely because we haven’t experienced recent coups or regime changes. Countries like Singapore and Hong Kong inherited the British colonial continuum and were developed into their modern incarnations with the preservation of that continuum in mind, despite their present racial makeup.

    Japan is not really an exception, since Japanese jurisprudence was extremely advanced at the time of the Meiji Restoration (as a viewing of “Rashomon” would clearly show), and the “Westernization” of Japan was not so much cultural and deep as technological and visceral: despite changes in fashion and governmental structure, the Japanese cultural hard-core elements definitely remained and definitely remain.

    While we debate healthcare reform for months here in the U.S. like it’s the end of the world and ultimately make relatively insignificant changes to the existing system, people in a relatively stable Kenya celebrate the tenth or so anniversary of a non failed-state government that doesn’t simply seize land from peasants, that doesn’t rig elections, and that doesn’t murder its political rivals.

    What is then to be said for an India that has been constantly mobilized for religious civil war, a west Africa where peasants’s arms are cut off, a southeast Asia where radicals take over airports and government buildings, a Latin America where drug cartels dominate economic and political life, a China where until recently the elite has been more preoccupied with maintaining ideological purity than delivering clean water to every citizen, and an eschatologically paranoid Islamic world, except that there is no stability? And what citizen, non matter how capable, of those unstable countries would ever choose to become an infotech entrepreneur or a novelist if the trials and tribulations of his day to day life consisted of providing drinkable water for his family?

    We can sit in our plush Ikea desk chairs and argue over whether or not liberal philosophy, conservative philosophy, liberaltarian philosophy, libertarian philosophy,or culture is truly the cause of the success of America and all the other successful nations, but such a success probably has a lot more to do with bandits not coming into our cities and tanks not rolling over our protestors than any nebulous buzzwords, that is, to quote out of context the great W. Somerset Maugham, Americans are free to fornicate and think about big business.

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  5. What comes to mind for me w/r/t liberaltarianism and the international comparison is that the libertarianism component is strongly connected to ideas of individual liberties/civil liberties, particularly expressive liberty. Yet, most, if not all of the countries on this list come up lacking in that regard when compared to the United States. The UK has illegal literature, The Sweden Democrats, as noxious they may be, are banned from party advertisements in the media, the Swiss banned minarates, Japan’s criminal justice system is an oxymoron, Singapore and censorship go hand in hand, and in Germany – for obvious reasons – insult is criminally punishable, though satire is permissible as long as it respects human dignity.

    The two most free countries on the list are probably Denmark and an auxiliary of the PRC, Hong Kong.

    Surely there are things to look for from an economic standpoint as being worth emulating but cultural and political limitations on freedom of expression in these countries ought to be factor in discussing their culture/neoliberalism.

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