Wednesday, 17 September 2014

What's new about neoliberalism?

A while ago I wrote about an academic article I’d had published that suggested successive governments’ alcohol policies can usefully be labelled neoliberal.  The reason this was worth saying, I suggested, was that some policy commentators have talked about policy entering a new phase since 2008, as confidence in market mechanisms and individual rationality have faltered in light of the crash and recession and there’s been an increasing emphasis on community-focused interventions through developments such as Blue Labour, Red Toryism, and David Cameron’s idea of the Big Society.

The first step in this argument is to note that governments have loosened regulation of the alcohol industry, particularly through the 2003 Licensing Act, but also well before that, from the 1980s on.  Phil Mellows has suggested that the Beer Orders can be seen as neoliberal, as (however misguidedly) they sought to open up the market to greater levels of competition.

But in itself this could just be liberalism.  The same arguments about competition were made in the nineteenth century in terms of the Beer Acts.  What made these more recent developments neoliberalism, I argued, was the peculiar way in which government was clearly panicked about alcohol and worried about particular types of drinking.  Alcohol strategies were published by successive governments, and millions of pounds were spent on advertising campaigns to persuade the public to Know Your Limits, know your Units, and behave on a night out in a sober fashion.

This can be seen as neoliberal because it isn’t based on a belief that a person’s own way of laying out their life is by definition the best for them.  Rather, the government thinks it knows best, and it’s unhappy about the results produced when British people (who are born to binge?) are invited to binge.

For most of the twentieth century, the response by government to such a feeling of unhappiness would have been to change the environment that seemed to produce that outcomes – hence the Central Control Board (CCB) and the retention of relatively restrictive licensing laws even after the end of the First World War, more or less through to the 21st century.  It’s not really important what this period is called (some would question the term ‘expansive liberalism’ which a few social policy academics use), but it’s clearly quite different to the approach to alcohol policy taken by successive governments in the past 30 years.  In this more recent approach, the market is taken as given, and it’s the individual drinkers who are told to change.

It’s possible to say that the 20th century was unusual in terms of the restrictions put on the alcohol trade, but I’d argue that such a position is misleading.  Retail of alcohol has been licensed for centuries, and it was only for rare periods of history that numbers of pubs, inns, taverns, alehouses and so forth were determined solely by market forces.  In fact, schemes comparable to the CCB were in operation in a range of towns at various points in the early modern period, on the basis that directly controlling the numbers of licences wasn’t enough; the profit motive should also be removed from licensees’ day-to-day operations.*

So far, so neoliberal.  And yet, writing recently about the particular context for England’s apparently neoliberal alcohol policy (it unsurprisingly involves the carnivalesque, in case you were wondering), I was reminded of James Nicholls’ work on liberalism and alcohol policy, and his broader work on the history of alcohol policy, which notes how many of the same arguments and dynamics crop up again and again – if in slightly different forms.  This reminded me that there isn’t a single ‘liberal’ position in relation to this unusual substance, alcohol.  TH Green was a liberal who advocated prohibition, while this was anathema to JS Mill.  Perhaps we could see the 20th century as a form of watered down (or beered up?) TH Green style liberalism, and the current period as Millian?  (This post owes much to James Nicholls.)

The distinction between the period from 1915 to the 1980s and the time since then is, in my account, that both had clear view of how people should drink, and accepted the free(ish) market wouldn’t produce these, but the solutions to this perceived problem were different.  The first sought to change the environment in which people made their drinking decisions; the second sought to change the people.

The latter might sound distant from an idea of pure, classical liberalism that values individual judgement, but is in fact remarkably similar to the views of Adam Smith or Mill.  They accepted that there were higher pleasures, or that the desire for drunkenness was a bad thing – but argued that education, exposure to alternative pastimes and changes in working conditions would be better solutions than limiting the numbers of alehouses or prohibiting the sale of alcohol altogether.

Hasn’t that been the hope of Labour and Coalition policies?  Drop MUP but keep funding Units, Would You and Change for Life to show people the ‘better’ life they could have?

Maybe this neoliberalism isn’t so new after all.

*See the chapter by James Brown in this excellent book.

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