To the Editor:
In his article on neoliberalism [“Does Neoliberalism Have a Future?,” March], Leslie Lenkowsky managed to spell my name wrong in citing one of the books he stensibly was discussing (A New Road for America: The Neoliberal Movement, edited by Charles Peters and myself). This is a picayune mistake, not worthy of mention were it not so clearly emblematic of a second—and far more telling—problem. Mr. Lenkowsky professes to criticize a book that, as far as I can tell from his article, he either didn’t read or purposely ignored because its contents would prove so inconvenient to his thesis.
Let me acknowledge a certain long-standing frustration with those of Mr. Lenkowsky’s ilk who profess to offer a definitive critique of the “neoliberal movement” without even acknowledging—much less discussing the ideas of—those few of us foolhardy souls who are actually willing to march under this admittedly awkward label. As Mr. Lenkowsky does, these commentators tend to focus on those Democratic politicians who specifically reject the label (as Gary Hart does); they also tend to rely heavily on the word of other observers as to what the movement supposedly is—much like war correspondents who report on progress at the front by talking to other reporters in the capital’s hotel bars.
Accordingly, Mr. Lenkowsky’s characterization of the neoliberal movement seems almost entirely based on Randall Rothenberg’s book, The Neoliberals. Now, I respect Mr. Rothenberg and find him an able and often perceptive journalist. But he has taken pains to reject the neoliberal label for himself. (Indeed, in failing to note this, I think Mr. Lenkowsky does him a disservice as well.) And what of Charles Peters, editor of the Washington Monthly magazine and one of, if not the, major proponents of neoliberalism? I’m obviously biased from my association with Mr. Peters and his publication (I’m a contributing editor). But Mr. Lenkowsky’s failure to mention either him or the magazine in his article—especially when he ostensibly was reviewing our book—is equivalent to my trying to analyze neoconservatism by similarly ignoring Irving Kristol and the Public Interest.
I won’t pretend that the volume Charles Peters and I edited is in any way definitive. Rather, I respectfully suggest that it would give COMMENTARY readers a far better picture of neoliberalism than they received from Mr. Lenkowsky’s twice-removed treatment. The book consists of edited transcripts from a conference on neoliberalism that was sponsored by the Washington Monthly in October 1983. Over forty panelists participated; many were self-proclaimed neoliberals, but many others were curious observers or even critics.
The conference hardly produced a unified picture of the movement; there was much disagreement. Some of us favor a draft; others don’t. Some think that the answer to rising medical costs lies in more competition; a few of us have come to embrace the more radical solution of a national-health service in which doctors work directly for the government. Even so, some degree of consensus seems to exist on a wide range of issues. Neoliberals generally favor some type of pay-for-performance for government employees—especially teachers. Some neoliberals are so concerned about the loss of accountability in political life that they urge a revival of patronage by which, say, half of all federal employees would have a direct stake in the success or failure of a President’s program. As for middle-class entitlement programs such as Social Security, most neoliberals believe they ought to be means-tested at the very least, or merged into one unified insurance program against need (much like the guaranteed-annual-income concept once embraced by George McGovern and Milton Friedman).
Mr. Lenkowsky’s selective portrait has the effect of simply reinforcing the stereotype that already is so common—that “neoliberal” describes any photogenic young Democrat who blow-dries his hair and walks around with a gleam of silicon wafers in his eye. That is why, I suspect, he chose to ignore the considerable evidence from this conference that suggests a far different picture.
Take all the supposed neoliberal enthusiasm for high technology and “industrial policy.” Not a single neoliberal panelist at the conference trotted out the “high technology as the wave of the future” line; several specifically rejected it and urged the resuscitation of ailing “smokestack” industries. As for industrial policy, some neoliberals favor it, but it is hardly a matter of orthodoxy among us. Again, at this conference not a single panelist embraced the notion, while some specifically repudiated it, opting for alternative ways of reviving basic industries, such as the employee buy-out of the Weirton Steel mill.
As for military reform, I almost laughed out loud when Mr. Lenkowsky lumped neoliberals in with those who urge “adopting more sophisticated and mobile weapons.” This is the rationale that the Pentagon has used to justify technological pink elephants such as the DIVAD gun, the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, and the F-18 fighter-bomber—all of which have been savaged in recent years in the pages of the Washington Monthly. Meanwhile, neoliberal writers (most notably James Fallows, author of National Defense) have repeatedly urged the U.S. military to stop being so enamored of high technology and rely more on simpler weapons and tactics that have the virtue of actually working on the battlefield.
I don’t begrudge Mr. Lenkowsky his judgment that neoliberalism is at times confused and even contradictory. My point is simply this: is it too much to ask that if you are going to take on neoliberalism, you at least rely on primary sources—and take aim at something other than straw men?
Phillip A. Keisling
Leslie Lenkowsky writes:
Apart from my reversing two letters of his name, for which I apologize, I am not sure just what Phillip A. Keisling is objecting to, other than that I devoted more attention to Randall Rothenberg’s book than to the one he and Charles Peters edited. I never said that Rothenberg was a neoliberal and Mr. Keisling does not claim his reporting was wrong. Therefore, I do not see why Rothenberg’s effort to present a comprehensive account of neoliberal ideas should be a less useful source than the volume Mr. Keisling co-edited which is, as he says, not definitive and, in fact, consists of comments—often quite brief and undeveloped—delivered at a neoliberal conference by people whose political sympathies were unidentified.
In any case, nothing in the Keisling and Peters book is at variance with my observations about neoliberalism, as Mr. Keisling’s letter makes clear. My point was that whether they favor high technology or smokestack, whether or not they embrace the notion of industrial policy, neoliberals seem to think our economic problems are largely due to the selfishness of special interests, a view often expressed in the Keisling-Peters volume. I thought it unlikely that their actual proposals would disprove this judgment, and Mr. Keisling’s example of a union buy-out of a West Virginia steel mill hardly makes me change my mind. And Charles Peters’s praise (which Mr. Keisling chooses to overlook), in his opening address to the conference, of the slogan of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s unlamented NRA—“We do our part”—either reinforces my claim that neoliberal thinking about the economy amounts to promoting political brokering by another name or betrays a stunning ignorance of the nature of the NRA.
Similarly, I also wrote that neoliberal ire extended not just to special interests but to anyone with specialized knowledge or training, a conclusion supported by examples drawn from the Keisling-Peters book. Mr. Keisling is kind enough to cite another in repeating the odd neoliberal argument that the existence of a career civil service is a large part of what’s wrong with the federal government.
Finally, my point about military reform was that despite a “variety of ideas for reshaping America’s defenses,” neoliberalism was strangely silent about what it would do with these forces. Mr. Keisling’s letter leaves us still waiting for some indication.
I can understand why Mr. Keisling would be upset with me for presenting a “selective portrait” of what he and his fellow neoliberals (whoever they may be) stand for. In trying to extract a few general themes from a mass of writings, one necessarily exposes their contradictions, omissions, and underlying values. I am sorry if Mr. Keisling finds the picture unsettling, but that does not change its reality.