On Twitter the other day, I asked a question:


If you spend much time in left-leaning precincts of the urban policy world, “neoliberal” and “neoliberalism” are words you hear an awful lot. Notably, they are only ever used by people who do not believe that the word applies to them: “neoliberal” always refers to someone else, and is almost always a term of accusation. Sometimes, but rarely, there is a definition attached. The rest of the time, the reader is assumed to already understand what “neoliberal” means. But the word is applied in so many situations, and so broadly, that I’ve heard more than a few jokes along these lines:


But I think it merits taking slightly more seriously than that. (Not that I’m picking on Ted here, since he followed up on his joke by offering a real attempt at a definition.) So I asked Twitter for help.

Mostly, I didn’t get a huge number of replies – maybe ten, several of which were communicated to me privately through email or direct messages. From that, I take some combination of: a) I don’t actually have that many followers; b) most people aren’t that interested in defining abstract terms; c) people aren’t really sure what “neoliberal” means.

But still, I’m going to take a stab at a few possibilities. I don’t mean this at all to be comprehensive or definitive; I’m thinking of it mainly as another way to attract some feedback.

1. Laissez-faire economics

In one sense, this is the most obvious definition. Most sources that speak to the origins of the term seem to agree that the “liberal” in “neoliberal” refers to classical liberal economics. (Though even some of these acknowledge that pinning down an exact meaning is difficult.)

Hayek: Neoliberal?

On the other hand, it’s hard to square this definition with the actual use of the term in urban contexts. I think it’s fair to say, for example, that mayors Rahm Emanuel in Chicago and Michael Bloomberg in New York have become poster children for neoliberalism in American local government. But while both of them have pursued some policies that would fit the free-market bill – privatization of public services, an emphasis on business-friendly deregulation – they’ve also embraced aggressive, and expensive, intervention in the private market. In Chicago, which I’m more familiar with, spending hundreds of millions of TIF dollars on building subsidies, infrastructure investments, and business incentives basically is Mayor Emanuel’s economic development program.

It isn’t necessary to judge the merits of those policies to see that they’re quite far from a Friedmanite, don’t-pick-winners approach to government. If neoliberalism is all about free markets, then either Emanuel isn’t a neoliberal, or he’s a very selective one.

2. A theory of politics

In poking around the Internet on this question, I came across this piece by Henry Farrell of Crooked Timber. Farrell has an interpretation of neoliberalism that I haven’t seen explicitly espoused elsewhere, but which I think hits some important notes. For Farrell, neoliberalism isn’t about free markets – it isn’t even really about any principles or policy commitments that are different from standard left liberalism. It’s about a theory of politics:

A theory of politics is a necessary condition for thinking about the relationship between policy measures and politics. A proposed policy measure that seems desirable in principle (because e.g. it is cheaper than another alternative) may not be so desirable if it has malign political consequences (it materially strengthens interest groups who have malign long term objectives)….

Lefties have a clearly discernible theory of politics, which has to do with collective action, and the building and sustenance of mobilizing organizations…. But neo-liberals – not so much, apart from a historical belief in the power of technocratic discussion to reshape politics. This not only means that they are less effective than they should be, but that they may push for policies that do long term political damage.

I’m not quite sure how to evaluate the accuracy of this argument, but it certainly resonates with some of the criticisms of neoliberal politicians and writers that you hear even from people who clearly do have major differences with what they perceive as neoliberal principles and policies. In particular, the accusation that neoliberals are somehow out of touch with real people – with communities – in a way that goes beyond policy disagreements. To go back to Ted Whalen for a second:


For me, the “market economics toolbox” implies a lot more than an inclination towards laissez-faire. It implies an approach to human behavior ruled by rational choice theory, and a policy approach that tends to treat people as free-floating individuals who desire to satisfy any number of preferences with regards to schools, public safety, and jobs, but aren’t super picky about how those preferences get satisfied. In other words, it suggests an inability to understand community, identity, respect, justice, or other values that often get short shrift in rational choice models. It suggests policymakers who may not realize, for example, how upsetting the loss of community resulting from a neighborhood school closure might be – even if your kid ends up going to a somewhat better school as a result.

In this reading, then, the leftist critique of neoliberalism is about a failure to understand the nature of power, and, as a result, the need for people- and community-centered organizing, rather than technocratic tinkering. This failure, moreover, may not be accidental, or simple naivete, but the result of a analytic “toolbox” that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to understanding power struggles in that way.

Or not.

This seems, I think, like an important piece of the puzzle. But it suggests nothing about the motivations or interests of “neoliberals.” Which brings me to…

3. The growth coalition

This, to be honest, has been my fuzzy interpretation of the term for a while. The people and policies identified as neoliberal seem to reflect less any ideological commitment to markets, or naivete over how politics works, than the priorities of the good old-fashioned urban civic and business elites who have been ruling cities like Chicago and New York for decades. If you’re new to the terms “growth coalition” or “growth machine,” this is a very brief overview, and this is a somewhat longer one. But the basic idea is that the urban governing coalitions are driven mainly by a desire to grow the value of their property by, among other things, improving infrastructure and intensifying land use.

This explains both (laissez-faire-seeming) disinvestment in social services and aggressively interventionist economic development policy. On the other hand, if neoliberalism is just growth machine politics, then what, exactly, is new about it? Most leftist writers, after all, seem to take the position that this neoliberalism is a relatively new, or at least newly influential, force in American local politics. Is that really the case? Or is there something that differentiates the growth coalition of, for example, Rahm Emanuel from that of Richard J. Daley?

Daley: neoliberal?
Daley: Neoliberal?