‘Tiresome name-calling’: neoliberalism and its malcontents

Dan O’Brien has an article in today’s Irish Times titled ‘Ireland ill-served as President becomes increasingly partisan and political’, in which he criticises Irish President Michael D. Higgins’s recent speech ‘Toward an ethical economy’ for its ‘tiresome name-calling of the reactionary left’, which is to say, its use of the term ‘neoliberal’. My response is below. For previous comments on Dan O’Brien’s treatment of neoliberalism, see here and here. For a note on why I write such comments, see here.

It’s a shame John Waters isn’t reading Dan O’Brien’s article online. If he were, he’d be able to click on the link to the speech supplied at the end of this piece and weigh up whether O’Brien’s ‘detailed critique’ stands up to scrutiny. Unfortunately, newsprint shows a steely indifference to mouse clicks. In his previous article on neoliberalism, in which he also described ‘neoliberal’ as a term of abuse, Dan O’Brien prescribed ‘reason and evidence’ as the triumphant antidote to those seeking to close down debate through ‘name-calling’. I would therefore recommend that the lurking mob present click on the speech itself and apply reason and evidence before drawing their own conclusions.

It is worth noting the omissions from Higgins’s ‘intellectual company’: Durkheim, Amartya Sen, Joseph Stiglitz, Adam Smith and Aristotle. None of them would fall under the category of ‘firm left-winger’ that O’Brien applies to the other individuals quoted. (None of them is Irish either, a fact that would appear to trouble Dan O’Brien).

In the speech, Higgins counsels ‘a reflection on economic issues in a way that respects the thread of discourse, even if we are to disagree’. And his speech counterposes the intellectual thought and hugely influential political project of Mises, Hayek and Milton Friedman with what other thinkers –not all of whom are left-wing, contrary to the claims made by O’Brien- have to say about the relation between economic thought and society. This is an honest intellectual exercise. However, for those consumed with the notion that how you ought to be classified is more important than the ideas you express, this is clearly anathema.

What Dan O’Brien seems anxious to deny is the idea that neoliberalism is a legitimate name for a social and historical phenomenon. As a consequence, he avoids the substance of the speech altogether and erects a straw man: Michael D Higgins is abusively slapping labels on people in pursuit of a political agenda.

I think he should take a good hard look in the mirror.

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