Left-neoliberalism in a nutshell

I use the phrase left-neoliberal from time to time but never bother explaining it. Given that my posts explaining different philosophical approaches to economic and political issues have proven more popular than I expected, I figure that readers might appreciate a brief post on the details of left-neoliberalism.

Like the rest of the left, left-neoliberals identify certain problems with the present slate of economic and political arrangements. Over 50 million Americans live in poverty, around 50 million more Americans live just above poverty, income and wealth are distributed very unequally, and so on. Left-neoliberals recognize that this kind of economic inequality is unjust, and think that government policies should be reconfigured to remedy the problems created by it.

Although left-neoliberals diverge in different ways from one another, they generally support a policy scheme that combines laissez-faire capitalism with large amounts of tax-funded income redistribution. More traditional left-liberal approaches try to fix economic injustice through unionization, government subsidies, and business regulation, among other things. Left-neoliberals, on the other hand, accept the free market economic analysis that claims these traditional approaches lead to economic distortions and other kinds of problems.

In deference to this free market analysis, left-neoliberals line up against distortionary government policies of all sorts. In the place of these traditional policies, left-neoliberals prefer that the government redistribute income directly through tax-and-transfer programs. This kind of approach claims to be the best of both worlds: it encourages maximum economic growth and efficiency while also achieving substantial equality and welfare for even the poorest in society through redistribution.

So on the left-neoliberal view, barriers to trade should be eliminated, business regulation should be kept to a minimum, and markets of all sort — including the labor market — should be as flexible and unrestrained as possible. That does not mean left-neoliberals never want the government to intervene in the marketplace; rather, it means that left-neoliberals only want the government to intervene to correct market failures, e.g. to internalize the costs of environmental destruction, fix information asymmetries, and prevent single-firm market domination.

So in short, left-neoliberalism is a left-wing approach to economic policy that tries to remedy economic injustice by 1) constructing a laissez-faire capitalist system, 2) using tax-and-transfer programs to directly redistribute income, and 3) using government regulation to fix market failures. As with all views, many criticisms are levied against left-neoliberalism. The two most prominent criticisms center around left-neoliberalism’s lack of a theory of politics and its inability to account for non-welfare harms.

Left-neoliberalism’s dim view of unions puts the theory at odds with the working class’ primary political agent, organized labor. Critics suggest that this anti-union position creates practicality problems for the view. The only way to achieve the left-neoliberal policy agenda is to mobilize enough electoral heft behind it. But one of the most significant left-wing electoral and lobbying actors in the United States is organized labor. So many left-neoliberals find themselves in an impossible political situation: they want to get rid of unions while also pursuing a policy agenda that will have basically no chance of passing if union political organizing no longer exists.

In addition to this political problem, critics of left-neoliberalism point out that economic injustice does not purely consist of income issues. For instance, Corey Robin had an interesting piece recently about the history of struggles for employee bathroom breaks. Even to this day, some employers deny their workers the ability to use the bathroom as they please, forcing some workers to wear adult diapers and to rely on other ad-hoc methods of urinating without going to the bathroom.

This kind of workplace coercion is something that the left-neoliberal framework cannot prevent. So critics argue that more comprehensive approaches to the problem — for instance a socialist economy where workers self-manage their own workplace — is the only one which can really remedy the full scope of economic justice problems, while left-neoliberalism only remedies the income inequality problem.

So that is left-neoliberalism in a nutshell. Left-neoliberals prefer minimally regulated capitalist economies with substantial income redistribution. Its critics complain that left-neoliberalism ignores the importance of certain political actors that fight for the economically disadvantaged within government, and that it ignores the important non-income harms that laissez-faire capitalism also generates.