Brief synopsis for non-UK readers. Port Talbot is the latest UK steel plant to face closure at least partly as a result of dumping by Chinese steel producers. While the US government seems quite prepared to place high compensating tariffs on Chinese steel, the UK government had blocked EU attempts to do the same.
I used to think I knew what neoliberalism was. True it is a term that is employed far too liberally (no pun intended), but I thought neoliberals had a clear idea of what they were about. This was to keep markets free from government interference, and also to prefer almost without question market processes based on private property over state action. As a result, it was neoliberal to want to shrink the state as much as possible, as long as its role in defending markets and private property was preserved.
It was for this reason that I could say that the UK government’s actions in blocking tariffs on Chinese steel were nothing to do with neoliberalism. If China was a capitalist country where independent (from the state) producers received no state subsidies, then that would be different. But it appears that what we have instead is an all powerful state rigging a market. That couldn’t be neoliberal, surely?
I am aware that neoliberalism has a blind spot when it comes to what economists would call market imperfections. That seemed to me one difference between neoliberalism and ordoliberalism, with the latter seeing a clear role for the state in restricting monopolies. The way you could characterise this is that neoliberals started Econ 101 but skipped before the lessons on market failure, while ordoliberals held out a little longer to hear about monopoly.
That, at least, is how I saw it. I had also seen the Institute of Economic Affairs, a London think tank, as being a bastion of neoliberalism. Although often a supporter of Conservative government actions, they were not in favour of caps on immigration or Osborne’s hike in minimum wages. I was therefore rather surprised to hear its director say that the EU government would have been wrong to impose tariffs on Chinese steel. True, the idea that a producer in an oligopolistic market with high entry barriers could use its deep pockets to drive out other producers by temporarily cutting prices, and subsequently use its new monopoly position to raise prices by much more, might have been one of the economic lessons that were skipped. But when one of the most powerful states in the world does it? I would have thought that would have raised alarm bells for any neoliberal.
Either I am missing something, or I am being a typical academic (economist) in expecting an ideology and those who uphold it to be internally consistent. After all, another major example of large states interfering with markets is the implicit subsidy provided to ‘too big to fail’ banks, but I do not remember neoliberals attacking that much either. Neoliberalism is whatever neoliberals do?!