What is Neoliberalism?

Neoliberalism is a globally dominant economic philosophy with three hallmarks: deregulation, privatization, and elimination of import tariffs and export subsidies. Hallmark neoliberal reforms include removing state protection of labor unions, decreasing state oversight of nuclear power plants, replacing state employees in military and civil service sectors of government with contractors, privatizing or closing state-run public goods and services (public housing, public schools, public lands, public tranportation, public services, public benefits programs). Neoliberal regimes have often made it easier for capital to flow across borders, but more difficult for people to follow it.

What is known about its influence on public health?

Neoliberalism in public health manifests as the non-profit industrial complex. The role of the State in monitoring public health has been relegated to private, non-for-profit organizations. The core of neoliberalism is the delegation and provision of public goods by private organizations.

In essence, private philanthropic and social work organizations have replaced the State. Military, security, and international development service have also increasingly been contracted to private organizations. The State then uses non-profits to avoid paying for basic social provisions, and uses non-profits for the "surveillance, control, derailment, and everyday management of political movements," and specifically to:

  1. Monitor and control social justice movements;
  2. Divert public monies into private hands through foundations;
  3. Manage and control dissent in order to make the world safe for capitalism;
  4. Redirect activist energies into career-based modes of organizing instead of mass-based organizing capable of actually transforming society;
  5. Allow corporations to mask their exploitative and colonial work practices through "philanthropic" work;
  6. Encourage social movements to model themselves after capitalist structures rather than to challenge them2

What are some radical critiques and interventions?

The economic consequences of these policies have been the same just about everywhere, and exactly what one would expect: a massive increase in social and economic inequality, a marked increase in severe deprivation for the poorest nations and peoples of the world, a disastrous global environment, an unstable global economy, and an unprecedented bonanza for the wealthy. Confronted with these facts, defenders of the neoliberal order claim that the spoils of the good life will invariably spread to the broad mass of the population - as long as the neoliberal policies that exacerbated these problems are not interfered with by anyone! – Robert McChersney

There is no such thing as a "free market," for a myriad of reasons explained partially by Robert Reich here. One hundred forty seven corporations own 40% of the world’s wealth, and 737 corporations own 80% of the world’s wealth.1 Nearly every industry is subsidized by the state, including agriculture, biotechnology, information technology, and natural resources. The government provides legal rules, regulations, and policies that allow markets to operate (usually to the benefit of the industry, occasionally to the benefit of the consumer, see: Ralph Nader)

Some industries have no choice to be subsidized by the state, and these are called natural monopolies. You can’t have a free market for electricity, oil and gas, IT, highways, etc., since the costs to start these ventures are astronomical. "Free markets" spawn a monopolistic system with the wealth and means of production concentrated in the hands of very few privileged groups. “Free”-ing markets leads to further concentration and monopolization, and this has been known since markets were developed in Europe. Adam Smith warned against this (and advocated progressive taxation and welfare as a safeguard – he would have been a democratic socialist to any modern day observer). Lenin, of all people, explained monopolization to be a function of imperialism, the last stage in advanced capitalism.

Neoliberalism isn't a scientific study of political economy — it’s an ideology with the answers already built in. Even by their own simplistic guidelines, there’s no way commodity prices would equalize in a monopolistic environment. Humans are also not rational actors, which we’ve known since the advent of psychology, if not at least since the advent of advertising/PR – and yet this is a basic premise for free market neoliberal economics. With respect to the field, it is far more complicated than two (incorrect) assumptions, but much of it is middling around the edges of neoliberal dogma. We know markets are good – let’s prove that. This is essentially the opposite the scientific method.

Important critics of neoliberalism

Important critics of neoliberalism include Noam Chomsky, author of Profit Over People, Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine, and Arundhati Roy, among many other socialist, environmentalist, and anti-globalization activists. Marxism stands in contrast to neoliberalism, not solely due to Marx’s treatment of value being inherent in the labor used to produce a commodity, rather than its market value as determined in exchange. This is not a great measure either (primarily due to the advent of intellectual property), but it’s a hilariously apt measure for a market’s un-freeness when cheaply produced commodity sell for egregious amounts for arbitrary reasons (see: diamonds as the most obvious example.)

What are some significant sources for background research?

What are some directions for radical public health research?


Africa Europe Faith and Justice Network, The Impact of neoliberal policies on health.

Janes CR, et al. (2006), Poor medicine for poor people? Assessing the impact of neoliberal reform on health care equity in a post-socialist context. Global Public Health 1(1):5-30.

World Health Organization definition of "Neo-liberal Ideas"


Related topics

Charter Schools
Food Security
Tax Increment Financing

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License