I say this not because I disagree with them – though I do on some matters – but because of the respects in which I agree with them.
I agree that capitalism has been a force for progress – as, of course, did Marx. I agree that hard-core libertarianism is a difficult position to sustain; it always required a very selective reading to suggest that Adam Smith was a libertarian. And I agree on the need for some kind of mixed economy.
However, there are (very roughly speaking!) two types of mixed economy.
In healthy versions, the government corrects market failures whilst the market corrects government failures, and government acts to support entrepreneurship, perhaps in more ways than merely providing stable property rights – for example by ensuring the availability of finance and funding or even conducting fundamental research.
In unhealthy versions, however, we have crony capitalism in which the state supports capitalists at the expense of workers and funnels cash towards favoured clients.
And here’s the problem. For many of us, neoliberalism – insofar as it means anything – is the ideology which helps sustain the latter. Many on the left use “neoliberalism” to describe not just free market economics but also managerialism, hostility to the working class, the crass pursuit of wealth and power and the use of the state to enrich capitalists for example via the too big to fail subsidy to banks.
Now, Sam intends to re-appropriate “neoliberalism” in much the same way as gays have reclaimed that fine word, “queer”. But I’m not sure this is wise. There’s a big difference here. Those who used the word “queer” to attack gays deserved to be slapped down. But many of those who use “neoliberal” as a boo-word are potential allies of Sam.
Here’s what I mean. Both Sam and much of the left favour a liberal approach to immigration, and both would deplore an industrial strategy that favours big business over small. In both respects the left and the Adam Smith Institute can make common cause against Tory statism – though of course they differ in other respects! The use of the word “neoliberal” would jeopardize this alliance; it could be seen as an attempt to troll the left, and would exacerbate the mindless tribalism that disfigures politics.
So, how should the Adam Smith Institute describe itself? The problem here, of course, is that simple words cannot describe a complex reality. Perhaps an improvement would be simply to say they are advocates of an open society. And we need these.