Madsen Pirie describes how he invited his University of Brighton audience to look at the world “through neo-liberal eyes”, rather than through the sort of eyes they are probably more used to using:
Others look at what is and compare it with a vision in their mind of what it might be. We are more empirical, comparing it to what was. Life expectancy about 150 years ago was about 30 years, and had been so for millennia. Now it is about 68 years globally, and higher than that in developed countries. We look at death to mothers in childbirth, and see it is now a tiny fraction of what it was even at the turn of the previous century. We look at infant mortality and see how that, too, is now a tiny fraction of what it was. Many of the diseases of the past have been conquered or controlled, and although there are new ones now that we live longer, we are in the process of controlling those, too. In the past most people battled to survive at subsistence level, whereas now we have more people above poverty and starvation than ever before in the history of humankind.
In other words we see things as being better than they were. Of course we can imagine a future which will be better than our present, but the empirical approach is to compare present with past, examine what made the difference, and attempt to do more of it. What made the difference was economic development and wealth creation, not the redistribution of existing wealth. It was opportunity, not equality, that drove progress, and we who support freedom want to see more of it, so that the future world will be as different from the present as ours is from the past.
I agree with everything there, except that very first sentence, about how “others look at what is and compare it with a vision in their mind of what it might be”, the implication being that we “neo-liberals” don’t do this.
I think it is truer to say that we do indeed think in exactly the empirical yet optimistic way that Pirie describes, but that we also compare what is with what might be. The difference is not that we look to the past and our opponents look to the future, but that we look more intelligently at the past than they do, and we also look to a different and better future.
I do not welcome, for instance, a future of “equality”, the sneer quotes there being because equality of the sort that is equal enough to satisfy the sort of people who demand equality will require someone to impose it, and that someone has to be unequally powerful to be doing such imposing. If you truly believe in equality, then you – you personally – will do what you can to improve the circumstances of those at the bottom of the heap. The poor will keep their freedom, thereby ensuring that whatever improvements you offer them really will be improvements. And you will not contrive these improvements by robbing richer people, because that will require you to be – unequally – powerful enough to do that, and there goes your precious equality. It will be equality that does not apply to you.
But just because I do not dream silly dreams of imposed equality, this does not mean that I dream no other dreams, dreams of freedom, dreams of progress, and yes, dreams of greater equality, that really is that, rather than just inequality that has been rearranged a little, in favour of new equalising rulers.
And nor does it mean that Madsen Pirie himself refrains from any such dreaming. He dreams – does he not? – of a future world that is – in a good way – “as different from the present as ours is from the past”. And he compares, as I do, that dreamed future with the present, to the present’s disadvantage.