Ask a Neoliberal: An Interview with J. Bradford DeLong

Ask a Neoliberal: An Interview with J. Bradford DeLong

In the 1990s, neoliberalism was a kind of utopian program. What remains after the crises of the twenty-first century?

Illustration by Anna Sorokina

Why would anyone want to be a neoliberal? It’s a hard question to answer today when the left and right both say they’re looking to put the neoliberal order behind us. But that makes it even more important to understand what made it appear so imposing not that long ago. To take us back to that moment, I spoke with J. Bradford DeLong. An economist at UC Berkeley and former member of the Clinton administration, DeLong now views the neoliberal project as a failure. But in 1999 he said it was “the only live utopian program in the world today.” We talked about neoliberalism’s origins, the sources of its appeal, and whether we have really moved beyond it. —Timothy Shenk


Timothy Shenk: I always think it’s best in a conversation like this one to start by getting our terms straight. So, how do you define neoliberalism?

J. Bradford DeLong: I try to draw distinctions between right neoliberalism and left neoliberalism, and Global North neoliberalism and Global South neoliberalism. Global South neoliberalism came from a recognition that state capacity was extremely limited, and so betting on globalization and integration—on the market rather than on the state—was the best way forward for humanity. 

Global North neoliberalism is a different beast. It was the belief that social democracy had greatly overreached and had created a society in 1979 that was too bureaucratic, too rigid, and also too equal: the rich needed to be richer so they would be incentivized to create jobs, and the poor needed to be poorer so they would be incentivized to work. 

Within the Global North, right neoliberals thought that any extra inequality was a just arrangement—that the poor really ought to be poor because they were shirkers. As Mitt Romney said, “I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” Left neoliberals thought that extra inequality was something to be greatly deplored and perhaps ameliorated. 

So we have three tribes of neoliberals, all of whom think somewhat different things. As time passes, neoliberalism as a current bent toward the right-wing neoliberal. “The market giveth, the market taketh away. Blessed be the name of the market” thought reigned, because maintaining more complicated, nuanced ideas is hard—and because there is a lot of money, both in the Global North and Global South, which benefits from propagating the right neoliberal side.

Shenk: Let’s stop here to think about chronology for ...

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