‘Neoliberalism’ as an all-purpose trend explainer

Professor Campbell said he agreed with commentators such as the academic Michael Pusey who have argued that the rise of neo-liberalism has contributed to undermining confidence in public institutions.

The middle classes now felt a need to insure themselves against failing government health and education systems.

From a SMH article on the My School website.

Within academia – with occasional spillovers into the Lodge – ‘neoliberalism’ has become an all-purpose trend explainer, some generally accepted broad change that is used to explain other changes. The evidence for all-purpose trend explainers is rarely better than circumstantial. Whenever I see an all-purpose trend explainer I turn my bull**** detector up several notches.

In this case, which is more likely: that people make greater use of private services because they have been influenced by an academic philosophy most people had never heard of until Kevin Rudd’s Monthly essay controversy, or that they make greater use of private services because government services are less appropriate or of lower quality than affluent people want? It takes ideological blindness to think that the former possibility is more likely than the latter.

14 thoughts on “‘Neoliberalism’ as an all-purpose trend explainer

  1. Presumably Campbell is not suggesting that parents have been influenced by an academic philosophy, but that the ‘underfunding’ of public schools and ‘subsidisation’ of private schools has contributed to a belief that private is better than public. The subtext seems to be that people would hold public institutions in much higher regard if only they were funded appropriately. Yet another pointless academic.


  2. This crowd do criticise talking government schools down (and this is one reason they don’t like the My School website), though I argue that polticians rarely shape opinion where people can form their own views based on personal experience. For government schools and hospitals, almost everyone has been to one or has second-hand information from someone who has.

    The irony is that ‘neoliberalism’ was for the social democrats who introduced most of the relevant reforms a way of saving public sector service delivery by making it more efficient and ensuring the flow of tax dollars needed to sustain it. While the shift to the private sector hasn’t stopped, the rivers of cash have been flowing in government schools and hospitals.


  3. Andrew, do you think “socialism” or “the left agenda” is also somewhat of an “all-purpose trend explainer”? For example when it comes to climate change, and some climate change skeptics maintain that concern for climate change is the product of the left wanting to socialise the world economy (Monckton, Minchin, and Abbott deep down inside etc pushing this line), overlooking the fact that there may just have been a general raising of environmental awareness over the last couple of decades.


  4. Krystian – I think it probably is, though in this case the accused is present at the scene of the crime. Nobody disputes that climate change abatement policy is strongly being pushed by the left, even if it can be supported without being on the left.


  5. Andrew Norton

    There is of course much to say about the apparent omnipotence of ‘neoliberalism’ to explain world history. 😉 But on the subject of MySchool, there is a curious irony in all the anti-MySchool coverage. The criticisms and fear largely focus on the anticipated actions of parents; that they will pull their kids out of certain schools; that they will quiz their local schools and teachers more about the school and its performance; that they will broaden their research before choosing a school.

    In other words, even the critics acknowledge that parents are engaged in their children’s education, and are prepared to be even much more so, if only they had access to information.

    What all the opponents – and their media allies – are silent on is the actions of individual teachers, schools, the AEU, and the state bureaucracies. Are these groups going to continue to keep their head in the sand, or are they going to step up and get involved in the willingness to change that they acknowledge the parents are already more than willing to do?

    Rather than decrying the differential affects on suburban housing markets, surely the really interesting question is what will the relevant actors and powers do when parents actually start moving kids out of certain schools?


  6. Yes good point – although there is that quote from Thatcher about the environment and risk management that is often wheeled out! Reading the article the Cambell quote is from – interesting honours thesis topic there about whether the My School website will actually effect the dynamics of the property market!


  7. Completely agree with you there Andrew.

    Whenever I hear about Michael Pusey, I’m reminded of a line by PJ O’Rourke, which could be perfectly applied to him (even going back to his “Economic Rationalism” days:

    “The danger from the left is… that they see the free market as some sort of sect or cult which we right wingers are asking people to take on faith. That’s not what the free market is.

    The free market is just a measurement. It’s a device that helps us understand what people are willing to pay for any given thing, at any given moment. The free market is a bathroom scale – you may hate what you see when you stand on the scale… but you can’t pass a law making yourself weigh less, and socialists think you can.”


  8. Con – do you think the ‘free market’ would be acceptable in any civilised country without lots of rules around how it works? Health and safety, consumer, minimum wages etc etc. It isn’t just a measurement – it’s also a product and determinant of social relationships – hence we need to shape it to our advantage.


  9. I think any idea of “shaping it to our advantage” is fundamentally unacceptable.

    Whose advantage? Over what time frame? Who is to say what is advantageous?

    Of course rules play a role, but the point Andrew (and PJ O’Rourke) is making is that critics of capitalism believe it’s some complex, constructed framework, some sort of coordinated conspiracy. It’s not. It’s about people exercising freedom. Pusey’s arguments tend to be causal, eg: Because roosters crow, the sun rises. Let’s examine the political belief and biases of roosters. If we can understand that, we’ll understand why the sun rises. It’s a fundamentally silly approach. But some people like it.


  10. “I think any idea of “shaping it to our advantage” is fundamentally unacceptable. Whose advantage? Over what time frame? Who is to say what is advantageous?”
    Well, that’s what democracy is for – but I guess that’s not really a ‘free-market’ idea either.


  11. The “free-market” is nothing but thousands, millions, of people buying and selling voluntarily.

    It is democratic and much more democratic than any political system ever devised.

    If you want coke and I want pepsi, we can both get what we want. There is no need to put it to a vote and have the 51% people imposing their choice on the other 49%. It’s precisely because the 51% can’t impose their will on the other 49% that infuriates many who dislike the free market. It’s because the free market gives people precisely what they want, rather than what a particular group thinks they ought to want.


  12. “If you want coke and I want pepsi, we can both get what we want.”
    What I want justice, fairness – not so simple is it? We’ll have to negotiate our different ideas of those things.
    “It’s because the free market gives people precisely what they want”


  13. Trying having slavery without government action to support it.

    A lot of this is strawperson dichotomies. Without rule of law and strong property rights, the only “free market” one can have is bazaar-markets–immediate swaps. There not being a lot of anarchocapitalists around (and those who are can be hilariously misunderstood) .

    I generally prefer to talk about “free commerce“, since that focuses on liberty of action rather than getting into reified debates about “the market”.

    Justice and fairness are fine things: indeed, historically commercial societies tended to concern themselves with such things rather more than societies run by non/anti-commercial elites. But to pose as if there is some automatic antipathy between justice and fairness on one side and “free markets” on the other is to set up a quite false dichotomy.

    The “policy alliance” (to use our esteemed blogger’s term) behind economic reform in this country was quite clearly based on the wish to save the Australian welfare state. But it is not as simple as saying “one can have as much justice and fairness as one is willing to pay for” because justice and fairness feeds into how well your economy works in the first place.


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