Response to Professor Todd May (Aeon Ideas)

Todd May, a Professor of Humanities at Clemson University, has responded to a question posed by Aeon Ideas asking:

Is the pursuit of individual freedom now more cause than cure of the social problems facing the most developed nations?

Professor May’s response is that a wave of deregulation and privatisation efforts in Western Countries through ideologically motivated  ‘neoliberalism’  have left individuals without the basic social protections required to live a meaningful life. In May’s thesis ‘Neoliberalism is a threat’.

I’ve read many similar articles, usually by humanities academics, in their criticism of 21st century capitalism. I feel that they always falter in three respects:

Firstly, it is not useful to characterise the move toward deregulation and privatisation in the 1980s and 1990s as ideologically motivated.

There were many reasons behind the policy changes, mostly boring, evidence-based public administration concerns such as  inflation and population growth. Moreover, such reforms were driven by a growing understanding of the benefits/detriments of bureaucratisation and the efficiency gains that result from privatisation. In my country, Australia, these reform efforts were lead by our left wing Labor Party with support from the trade union movement.

Secondly, despite claims that social protections have been decreasing, there has been a tremendous growth in legal protections for individuals in Western countries since the 1990s: particularly in areas such as consumer protection, occupational health and safety law and environmental regulation. I don’t see how this fits the ‘neoliberal turn’ model. Not to mention the growth of behavioural economics, which is highly skeptical of “rational choice” and “homo-economicus” models.

Thirdly, I agree with May’s claim that you can’t have “freedom” without also having access to basic social necessities. There is no benefit in a “freedom to starve”. However, once we go beyond basic social necessities: food, shelter, health, education etc. It is incredibly difficult to know what an individual’s “wants” and “needs” are. This is why an emphasis on individual choice (part of the ‘neoliberal’ turn) is so important for policy makers. Generally, people are better placed to know what they value than governments. This is not an ideological proposition, it is an empirical one, and not one well answered by May’s article.

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