Property, Efficiency, and the State: The Neoliberal Critique of Bureaucracy, 1945-1970

Friday, October 28
3:00 pm - 4:30 pm

Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society
5701 S. Woodlawn Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60637

Recent accounts of neoliberalism have contested the view that neoliberals were unreflective free-market ideologues.  During the 1930s and early 1940s, when neoliberalism was principally a European discourse, it accepted the need for a strong, efficient state, and looked askance at ultra-libertarian views.  It is often suggested, however, that, as neoliberal networks skewed toward the United States after World War II, the connection between the strong state and neoliberal social policy was lost. This paper argues that such a contrast is too simplistic.

Many aspects of what we think of as neoliberal policy — contracting out, simulating market competition in the public economy, the use of target-setting and incentives in the provision of public services, the treatment of recipients of state aid as consumers — are unthinkable without the postwar emergence of a post-neoclassical political economy that was designed expressly to analyze and intervene in the American administrative state.  In time, this form of political economy produced the classic critiques of bureaucracy and planning that undergirded the new public management theories of the 1980s.  Crucially, however, this was a critique produced within, and designed to operate upon, the administrative structures of the American polity.

The paper focusses on state bureaucracies and think tanks that were involved the neoliberal transformation of political economy after the war.  In these sites, we find the key figures in the construction of a new, deflationary economic theory of politics, administration, and law, including Gordon Tullock, William Niskanen, Armen Alchian, and Ronald Coase.  Despite its pretensions to deliver an insurgent critique of government bureaucracy, neoliberal social policy must be seen as itself, in part, a creature of big government.

Joel Isaac is a senior lecturer in the History of Modern Political Thought at the University of Cambridge, and a fellow of Christ’s College. He also holds a Pro Futura Scientia fellowship for 2016-2019. His first monograph, Working Knowledge: Making the Human Sciences from Parsons to Kuhn (2012) was awarded the Gladstone Prize by the Royal Historical Society. Isaac is currently writing a book on the revival of political economy in the twentieth century. This project examines arguments about human sociability, practical reasoning, property, and the state, as they were refracted through modern idioms such as neoclassical economics, analytical philosophy, and decision theory. The ideas that resulted from this encounter of political economy and the modern human sciences, he argues, constitute the foundations of modern liberal and neoliberal thought. The working title for this research project is "The Cold War Enlightenment."