A Neo-Liberal’s Manifesto
By Charles Peters, Washington Post
September 5, 1982
While we are united by a different spirit and a different style of thought, none of these people should be held responsible for all of what follows. Practicing politicians in particular should be presumed innocent of the more controversial positions. When I use the first person plural, it usually means some but not all of us, and occasionally it may mean just me.
If neo-conservatives are liberals who took a critical look at liberalism and decided to become conservatives, we are liberals who took the same look and decided to retain our goals but to abandon some of our prejudices. We still believe in liberty and justice and a fair chance for all, in mercy for the afflicted and help for the down and out. But we no longer automatically favor unions and big government or oppose the military and big business. Indeed, in our search for solutions that work, we have come to distrust all automatic responses, liberal or conservative.
We have found these responses not only weren’t helping but were often hampering us in confronting the problems that were beginning to cripple the nation in the 1970s: declining productivity; the closed factories and potholed roads that betrayed decaying plant and infrastructure; inefficient and unaccountable public agencies that were eroding confidence in government; a military with too many weapons that didn’t work and too few people from the upper classes in its ranks; and a politics of selfishness symbolized by an explosion of political action committees devoted to the interests of single groups.
Our primary concerns are community, democracy, and prosperity. Of them, economic growth is most important now, because it is essential to almost everything else we want to achieve. Our hero is the risk-taking entrepreneur who creates new jobs and better products.
We also favor freeing the entrepreneur from the kind of economic regulation that discourages healthy competition.
Our support for workers on health and safety issues does not mean support for unions that demand wage increases without regard to productivity increases. That such wage increases have been a substantial factor in this country’s economic decline is beyond reasonable doubt.
Another way we depart from the traditional liberal’s support for organized labor is in our criticism of white-collar unions for their resistance to performance standards in the evaluation of government employes. We aren’t against government, period, as — with the exception of the national security apparatus — many conservatives appear to be. But we are against a fat, sloppy, and smug bureaucracy. We want a government that can fire people who can’t or won’t do the job. And that includes teachers. Far too many public school teachers are simply incompetent.
Our concern about the public school system illustrates a central element of neo-liberalism: It is at once pragmatic and idealistic.
Our practical concern is that public schools have to be made better, much better, if we are to compete economically with other technologically advanced countries, if we are to have more Route 128s and Silicon Valleys. Our idealistic concern is that we have to make these schools better if the American dream is to be realized. Right now there is not a fair chance for all because too many children are receiving a bad education. The public schools have in fact become the principal instrument of class oppression in America, keeping the lower orders in their place while the upper class sends its children to private schools.
Another way in which the practical and the idealistic merge in neo-liberal thinking is in our attitude toward income maintenance programs like Social Security, welfare, veterans’ pensions, and unemployment compensation. We want to eliminate duplication and apply a means test to these programs. They would all become one insurance program against need.
As a practical matter, the country can’t afford to spend money on people who don’t need it — my aunt who uses her Social Security check to go to Europe or your brother- in-law who uses his unemployment compensation to finance a trip to Florida. And as liberal idealists, we don’t think the well-off should be getting money from these programs anyway — every cent we can afford should go to helping those in real need. Social Security for those totally dependent on it is miserably inadequate, as is welfare in many states.
The pragmatic idealism of neo-liberals is perhaps clearest in our reasons for supporting a military draft. A draft would be a less expensive way to meet our need for military manpower because we would no longer have to use high salaries as a way to attract enlistees. It would also be the fairest way, because all classes would share equally in the burdens and risks of military service.
In the long run we hope a draft will not be needed. We want to see a rebirth of the spirit of service that motivates people to volunteer to give, without regard to financial reward, a few years of their lives to public service.
There is another reason for our support of the draft. We want to bring people together. When I was growing up, both the public schools and the draft mixed social classes. Today the sons of the rich avoid the public schools and scorn the military service. This is part of a trend toward separatism, not only by race but by class and interest group, that has divided the nation and produced the politics of selfishness that has governed this country for more than a decade.
The rise in the power of the interest-group lobbies has been accompanied by an increase in single-issue politics, with misleading oversimplifications of the other side’s position — as on the abortion issue, for example — and a tendency on both sides to judge a politician solely by his stand on this one matter.
I fear that the nuclear freeze, something I support, could turn into another example. I don’t mind having anti-nuclear demonstrations outside the United Nations, but I would also like to see antipoverty demonstrations outside David Stockman’s and Paul Volcker’s offices. I would like to see the anti-nuclear people concerned about non-nuclear defense issues, asking questions about MXs, B-1s, Aegis cruisers, and other dubious weapons, questions based on a belief in a strong but not profligate defense.
I think the only possible salvation for this republic is a citizenry that is determined to inform itself on a broad range of important issues — and that will vote for an elected official on the basis of his or her stand on all the issues. We now have a Congress that is petrified of offending any single, passionate group — even private boat owners — and that won’t change until the members know we’re not going to throw them out of office on any basis other than overall performance.
The only way we are going to destroy the escalating power of the lobbies is to destroy single-issues politics. Today everyone is imitating the National Rifle Association. That’s the way to have a successful lobby. It’s also the way to ruin America.
We have made dividing ourselves against ourselves into a virtue. While it is certainly necessary at times, the adversary approach to problems has come to dominate our national life, at a disastrous cost to all of us.
In industry, our adversarial system has been a major factor in making our corporations less efficient than their foreign competition. In Japan auto workers think about how they can improve their products; in America, they think about filing grievances.
The adversary relationship between Congress and the White House all too often paralyzes government. It has led to a situation where Congress cannot trust the information provided by the executive branch. As a result Congress has set up its own bureaucracy, including a budget office, to develop the same information that is supposed to be provided by federal agencies.
Finally, the adversary system of justice helps to create a society where differences are magnified, breeding suspicion and mistrust, instead of calmly reconciled. That’s why we favor a no-fault approach to two of the major court-cloggers — divorce and auto accidents — and the use of mediation in most other cases. Mediators would not have to be lawyers. They could be elected by their neighbors or selected by the parties to the dispute.
This brings us to another fundamental tenet of neo-liberalism: We generally oppose requiring a law degree or similar paper credentials for most jobs. People should be judged on their demonstrated ability to perform, not on their possession of degrees and other credentials.
One of the problems facing the new liberals is the way we are misunderstood by the old liberals. I am sure that most of them have read what I have written here as advocating a return to the days of the Vietnam draft, robber barons, Tammany patronage, and coerced prayer. I have, of course, advocated none of those things. In each case I have said something different, and it is important that the old liberals attend to the difference.
At the same time, the new liberal must be willing to risk misunderstanding. Risk is indeed the essence of the movement — the risk of the person who has the different idea in industry or in government. That is why we place such a high value on the entrepreneur. The economic, social, and political revitalization we seek is going to come only through a dramatic increase in the number of people willing to put themselves on the line, to take a chance at losing all, at looking ridiculous.
Risk-taking is important not only in career terms but in the way one looks at the world and the possibilities it presents. If, for example, you see only a narrow range of choices, if you are a prisoner of conventional, respectable thinking, you are unlikely to find new ways out of our problems. That’s why some neo-liberals, who are on the whole internationalists and free-traders, are willing to consider such bizarre ideas as getting out of NATO, forgetting about the Persian Gulf, embargoing Japanese cars, or requiring that, in part at least, they be built here.
From all this you can see that neo-liberalism has two kinds of opposition from other liberals. One is from the traditional anti-business, pro-union, throw-money-at-social-problems liberal; the other, very common in Washington, is the respectable liberal — the Brookings Institution is his spiritual home — who sees the possibility of change as so small that he is willing to take seriously only proposals that fall within that narrow range.
If you’re thinking this is a crazy, impossible idea, you may be right. I don’t think so, but I’ll concede the possibility in order to get to the next point, which is that neo-liberalism is not just a program but a new way of looking at things, a new lens, a wide-angle lens. You’ll have to consider more wrong answers. But the point is that you will also see more right ones.
When your ship is sinking, it may not be enough to look just at that hole in the hull and think about how to repair it. You may need to think of a new law of physics or remember an old one, like Keynesian economics, that no longer is fashionable. If you look through a narrow lens, you’ll see only the hole. The wide angle just might save you.
First of all h/t Atrios who brought this to my attention. Secondly you may complain I selectively quoted. Of course I did, it’s larded with sops and promises they never intended to keep. This is the agenda they wanted. To be fair I mostly cut out all the threats to privatize public schools, cut entitlements, and eliminate civil servant’s unions and job protection (I still included some, there are a lot of them).
They wanted to shut up the unions and environmentalists and feminists and LGBT activists to get the Christian bigot Dominionists off their backs (Huck Finns? They’re racists, always have been. They believe in White Jesus). Peters does in fact advocate “a return to the days of the Vietnam draft, robber barons, Tammany patronage, and coerced prayer”. Any promises of reduced credentialism are laughable on their face. That “adversarial relationship”? That’s called Democracy.
Charles Peters merely gives expression to a movement that started long before and now permeates our political culture, that the voting public are inconvenient nuisances because they are so “partisan”. You see to a D.C. insider like himself their concerns don’t matter and are not worth listening to.
The Neo Liberal “Centrists” are doing everything they possibly can to normalize and legitimize Trump. Fortunately he keeps preventing them from doing that, it’s his only positive quality.