A Critique of Neoliberalism Sincerely, A Sanders Supporter

Richard Elliot, UMBC:

As the title states, I am a Bernie Sanders supporter. I feel it is important that I disclose this before beginning my argument. I, like many other young progressives, feel that neoliberalism is not true progressivism. Sure, it beats the far-right politics currently espoused by Republicans, but it is far from what we need.

For anyone who needs background, I define neoliberalism as an approach to economics and social studies in which control of economic factors is shifted from the public sector to the private sector. Former President Bill Clinton, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and economist Thomas Friedman are three of the most recognizable neoliberals. Neoliberalism has been typified by a focus on balanced budgets, market solutions, free trade, and moderate approaches that are co-opted from both liberals and conservatives. Bill Clinton is the archetype neoliberal in this way: he supported free trade agreements such as NAFTA and CAFTA, proposed “tough on crime” legislation in the 1994 crime bill, and deregulated banking by repealing Glass-Steagall.

Free trade has had a harmful impact on American workers. Prices are better and we can utilize our comparative advantage, but Ross Perot was right when he said there would be a “giant sucking sound” of jobs if NAFTA passed. From the signing of NAFTA through 2010, nearly 10.7 million jobs were displaced from the United States. Most of these jobs were high paying, unionized manufacturing jobs. Others have argued that, despite net increases in U.S. employment, workers have suffered from stagnating wages and the threat of losing their jobs. Free trade is not the worst idea to me and has been effective at preventing war by tying economies together, but it has certainly been harmful for many American workers and has generally benefitted the wealthy corporations, allowing them to keep costs low by moving abroad. In the time since the 1994 crime bill has passed, incarceration has increased precipitously, particularly among African-Americans and Latinos. Mandatory minimums and the “three strikes” rule have crowded our prisons. Even the chief architect of the bill, Jack Brooks, and Bill Clinton have noted the increase in incarceration. I certainly agree with some elements of the bill, such as the Federal Assault Weapons Ban and the Violence Against Women Act, but the bill overall had a negative impact on American society, particularly minority communities.

The repeal of Glass-Steagall is perhaps the worst mark on the movement. The Gramm-Leach-Biley Act removed barriers that prevented banks, security companies, and insurance companies from serving as a combination of the three companies. Economist Joseph Stiglitz said that the repeal of Glass-Steagall brought about the Great Recession by encouraging “investment bank culture.” However, not all groups agree with this idea. For instance, one site lists an abundance of loans being issued as the primary cause and FactCheck.org lists the deregulation of banks as one of several major causes of the Great Recession.

My final criticism is that the neoliberal movement co-opts elements of mainstream Republicans and Democrats in a way to gain votes. Free trade, bank deregulation, and deficit hawkishness appease economic conservatives. Middle ground solutions to social issues like civil unions and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” appease social conservatives. Meanwhile, neoliberals are supposedly more electable than progressive leftists and thus attract moderates and “pragmatic progressives”. I personally believe this year’s election on the Democratic side will determine whether the party goes back to its progressive roots or remains a haven for neoliberals.


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