How Neoliberalism Worms Its Way Into Your Brain

There is no other word for the bipartisan convergence around certain economic dogmas…

I detest the word “neoliberalism.” I mean, it really makes me cringe. I generally impose a strict rule that writers are not allowed to use it. (Though we do offer a coupon for one free use, and as the editor I cannot be prevented from printing as many coupons as I like.) I have a few reasons for disliking the term: It’s imprecise, it’s misleading, and it is unintelligible to the majority of literate adults. And yet I’m torn, because I also think that it captures a very real tendency. I worry that overusing shaggy theoretical terminology can both alienate readers and result in vague or meaningless writing. But the underlying phenomenon that “neoliberalism” describes has occurred, and I agree with the perspective laid out by Mike Konzcal, who says:

I find that the term neoliberalism generally confuses more than it enlightens. I prefer when people just refer directly to what they are criticizing, be it the expansion of the marketplace into our everyday lives or the Democrats’ turn away from the New Deal. … [Yet] there’s a good reason the term has become popular. 

Let me explain why I think “neoliberalism” is an important term, albeit one that should rarely be used by magazine writers who would like people to actually read their articles. It captures the tendency of people who are nominally “on the left” to make arguments based on conservative premises. For example: Republicans argue that their tax cut will increase GDP, reduce the deficit, and reduce taxes for the middle class. Democrats reply that the tax cut will not increase GDP, will not reduce the deficit, and will not reduce the middle-class’ tax burden. Both parties are arguing around a shared premise: The goal is to cut taxes for the middle class, reduce the deficit, and grow GDP. But traditional liberalism, before the “neo” variety emerged, would have made its case on the basis of some quite different premises. Instead of arguing that Democrats are actually the party that will reduce the middle class’ taxes, it would make the case that taxes are important, because it’s only through taxes that we can improve schools, infrastructure, healthcare, and poverty relief. Instead of participating in the race to cut taxes and the deficit, Old Liberalism is based on a set of moral ideas about what we owe to one another.

Now, one reason I dislike the “neoliberalism” framework is that I’m not sure how much this nostalgic conception of the Great Liberalism Of Times Past should be romanticized. But it’s obvious that there’s a great deal of difference between New Deal/Great Society rhetoric and “Actually We’re The Real Job Creators/Tax-Cutters/GDP Growers.” And it’s also true that over the last decades, certain pro-market ideological premises have wormed their way into the mind of ordinary liberals to the point that debates occur within a very narrow economic framework.

Let me give you a very clear example. Libertarian economist Bryan Caplan has a new book out called The Case Against Education. It argues that the public school system is a waste of time and money and should be destroyed. Caplan says that students are right to wonder “when they will ever use” the things they are being taught. They won’t, he says, because they’re not being taught any skills they will actually need in the job market. Instead, education functions mostly as “signaling”: A degree shows an employer that you are the type of person who works hard and is responsible, not that you have actually learned particular things that you need. Credentials, Caplan says, are mostly meaningless. He argues that we should drastically cut public school funding, make education more like job training, get rid of history, music, and the arts, and “deregulate and destigmatize child labor.” Essentially, Caplan believes that education should be little more than skills training for jobs, and it’s failing at that.

Now here’s where “neoliberalism” comes in. Caplan’s argument is obviously based on right-wing economic premises: Markets should sort everything out, the highest good is to create value for your employers, etc. But let’s look at a “liberal” response. In the Washington Monthly, Kevin Carey has a biting critique of Caplan’s book, which he says is based on a “childish” philosophy. Carey says that education is, in fact, useful for more than signaling:

Caplan is not wrong about the existence of signaling and its kissing cousin, credentialism, which describes the tendency of job categories to accrue more degree requirements, sometimes unnecessarily, over time. But these are banal and unchallenged ideas in the economics profession. … In his 2001 Nobel lecture, [Michael] Spence warned that people who use job markets to illustrate signaling run the risk of concluding, wrongly, that education doesn’t contribute to productivity. This wrongheaded argument is the essence of The Case Against Education… Eric Hanushek, a conservative economist and well-known skeptic of public school funding, has documented a strong relationship between average scores on international tests and the growth rates of national economies. Put simply, well-educated nations become prosperous nations, and no country has become well educated without large, sustained investments in public education.

Carey mounts a strong defense of public education against Caplan’s attack. But look at how he does it. Caplan has argued that education doesn’t actually make students more productive or give them skills useful for thriving in the economy. Carey replies that while this is partly true, education does actually increase productivity, as we can see when we look across nations. Everyone in the discussion, however, is operating on the implicit premise that the measure of whether education is successful is “productivity.” And because of that, no matter how strong the liberal argument is, no matter how stingingly critical it may be of libertarianism or privatization, it has already ceded the main point. We all agree that education is about maximizing students’ value to the economy, we just disagree about the degree to which public education successfully does that, and whether the solution is to fix the system or get rid of it. The debate becomes one of empirics rather than values.

Carey doesn’t make a case for an alternative “liberal” notion of education,  and doesn’t question the values underlying the “banal and unchallenged ideas in the economics profession.” But unless liberalism is to be something more than “a difference of opinion over the correct way to maximize productivity,” it’s important to defend a wholly different set of principles. Otherwise, what if it turns out that providing art and music classes is a drag on productivity? What if teaching students history turns out to make them worse workers, because they begin to see a resemblance between their bosses and the robber barons? What if the study of philosophy makes laborers less compliant and docile? If we argue that music is actually economically useful, then we’ll have no defense of music if it turns out not to be useful. Instead, we need to argue that whether music is economically useful has nothing to do with whether students deserve to be exposed to it.

Here’s a clear illustration. Donald Trump heavily pushes the idea that school should be job training, to the point of saying that “community colleges” should be redefined as vocational schools because he doesn’t know what “community” is. (You can blame Trump’s ignorance, but this is partially because the right has spent decades insisting that “society” and “community” are meaningless terms and the world consists solely of individuals, and the left has not had good explanations in response.) A UCLA education professor, Mike Rose, critiques Trump and Betsy DeVos for defining vocational education “in functional and economistic terms — as preparation for the world of work[,] reduced to narrow job training.” Sounds right! But then here’s what Rose says about why vocational education must be more than training:

Intellectual suppleness will have to be as key an element of a future Career and Technical Education as the content knowledge of a field. The best CTE already helps students develop an inquiring, problem-solving cast of mind. But to make developing such a cast of mind standard practice will require, I think, a continual refining of CTE and an excavation of the beliefs about work and intelligence that led to the separation of the academic and the vocational course of study in the first place. [In addition to basic skills], students will need to learn the conceptual base of those tools and techniques and how to reason with them, for future work is predicted to be increasingly fluid and mutable. A standard production process or routine of service could change dramatically. Would employees be able to understand the principles involved in the process or routine and adapt past skills to the new workplace? … To borrow a phrase from labor journalist William Serrin, we need “to give workers back their heads” and assume and encourage the intellectual engagement of students in the world of work. That engagement would include education in history and sociology, economics and political science. What are the forces shaping the economy? How did we get to this place, and are there lessons to be learned from exploring that history? Are there any pressure points for individual or collective action? What resources are out there, what options do I have, how do I determine their benefits and liabilities?

Rose argues that workers should be given an education in history and sociology. Why? Because it will make them better workers. The future economy will require more adaptable minds with better critical reasoning skills, and wider courses of study will help prepare students for that future economy. Yet the argument is still: Education shouldn’t just be job training, it should also incorporate the liberal arts, because the liberal arts are also helpful on the job. Our defense of a liberal education remains instrumental. Of course, often when liberals make these arguments, they defend them by saying that instrumental arguments are more successful than moral ones. You’re not going to get anywhere arguing that workers deserve history courses, you have to say that they need them. But I’ve always been skeptical of that defense for a few reasons. First, if it turns out that learning history won’t actually produce better tech workers, your whole argument collapses. Second, it’s dishonest, and people can usually detect dishonesty. Third, it takes us yet another step further toward the universal acceptance of the conclusion that economic values are the only values there are. (Also, let’s be real: No business is going to be fooled into thinking it’s a good idea to teach their workers how to use “collective action” to exert pressure.)

I gave a similar example recently of the difference between the way a neoliberal framework looks at things versus the way a leftist does. Goldman Sachs produced a report suggesting to biotech companies that curing diseases might not actually be profitable, because people stop being customers once they are cured and no more money can be extracted from them. The liberal response to this would be an empirical argument: “Here’s why it is actually profitable to cure diseases.” The leftist response would be: “We need to have a value system that goes beyond profit maximization.”

Neoliberalism, then, is the best existing term we have to capture the almost universal convergence around a particular set of values. We don’t have debates over whether the point of teaching is to enrich the student’s mind or prepare the student for employment, we have debates over how to prepare students for employment. Economic values become the water we swim in, and we don’t even notice them worming their way into our brains. The word is valuable insofar as it draws our attention to the ideological frameworks within which debates occur, and where the outer boundaries of those debates lie. The fact that everyone seems to agree that the purpose of education is “job skills,” rather than say, “the flourishing of the human mind,” shows the triumph of a certain new kind of liberalism, for which I can only think of one word.

We will have a more thorough examination of The Case Against Education, along with an explanation of an alternate left conception of the purpose of schooling, in our May-June edition. Subscribe now to make sure you receive it when it comes out! 


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