Madsen Pirie spoke in the recent Union debate 'This House regrets neoliberalism'Freddie Dyke

Few terms in politics are more contentious than ‘neoliberal’. Yet for Madsen Pirie, this is all part of the fun. Indeed, it’s an issue on which he has impeccable credentials: as the head of the Adam Smith Institute (ASI), a ‘proudly neoliberal’ think tank, Pirie worked from the 1970s to provide what many have called the ideological template for Thatcherism. It was the ASI who first drew up plans for privatisation of Britain’s industries, and with the aid of allies on both sides of the Atlantic helped launch a process that decisively rolled back state controls on capital and trade and made way for today’s free-market, neoliberal global economic order.

“Since no one else is claiming to be a neoliberal, it is up to us to decide what it constitutes… you take libertarianism and you add a healthy dollop of empiricism – of facts”

This has not by any means gone without criticism. Indeed, I caught up with Pirie after his participation in a fiery Cambridge Union debate: ‘This House regrets neoliberalism.’ Yet for all its fervour, participants struggled to define what neoliberalism actually was. Was it political or economic? Pro- or anti-state intervention? Generically capitalist, or something else entirely? For Pirie, such ambiguity offers an opportunity: “Since no one else is claiming to be a neoliberal, it is up to us to decide what it constitutes… you take libertarianism and you add a healthy dollop of empiricism – of facts.” Still, I wondered about the effectiveness of this when many use the term as effectively a political swear: The Guardian last year decried Pirie’s preferred method of self-identification as “the ideology at the root of all our problems”; last year, a Canadian journal of critical geography published a paper simply entitled ‘Fuck neoliberalism’.

Yet from his response, it’s clear that Pirie finds the characterisation more thrilling than galling, and he launches into what is evidently a well-rehearsed speech: “Look, almost everything that starts as a political insult ends up being adopted. The word ‘whig’ meant a sheep-stealer; the word ‘Tory’ meant an Irish bandit; ‘suffragette’ was originally an insult, it was diminutive when compared with suffragist – ‘oh these dainty ladies’ – but they took it up, and were very successful. History is full of people taking such an insult, and making it a proud self-declared name.” He smiles, and adds that he has a T-shirt saying ‘Neoliberal and proud’ – “which I wear regularly.”

But why now – what in the political climate has changed to make such a strong self-assertion necessary? For Pirie, it’s a response to the threat posed by the resurgence of forces which he sees as offering the same failed remedies to the problems of our societies, and for whom he has little patience: “When we have people like Jeremy Corbyn, advocating things that have been tried in practice and have failed in practice…nationalisations, price caps, etc., we need neoliberals to come forward and propose workable alternatives.” Still, he’s keen to stress that he’s not a doctrinaire: switching fluidly between the register of political theory and political satire, he admits that he could accept government intervention “if it was proven to work best. My basic formula is if it works, do more of it and if it don’t, do something else.”

In an age of political polarisation, it’s perhaps refreshing to see such willingness to concede to the other side. Still, I wondered whether such a reliance on facts and statistics was itself part of the problem. Can the entirety of human experience really be summed up in GDP figures? Indeed, it is noticeable that during the debate Pirie’s side spoke in terms of measurable, quantitative gains – two billion people lifted out of poverty, a doubling of global life expectancy since 1978 – whereas his opposition spoke largely from personal experience: of the mental health pressures the modern market economy places on students and academics (a key argument used during the recent UCU protests), or of growing up in the post-industrial devastation of County Durham. Pirie is sympathetic: in his view, the post-1970s neoliberal regime is not about “crass materialism” but about choice: “you could use affluence to pay for Sony iPhones” – he laughs – “sorry, Apple iPhones – I could get put in prison for that!” but then says wistfully “you could also solve education, fund symphony concerts, public museums.”

The post-1970s neoliberal regime is not about “crass materialism” but about choice

Pirie is no stranger to questions of method: unusually in the policy world, his background is not in economics but in philosophy; he has historically been a staunch advocate of the teaching of critical thinking and logic. I probe him on whether there is a lack of it in our public life: “Oh, I’m dead stressed at the amount of illogicality that goes on, with [the government] saying the most amazing statements that plain logic defies. I could just sit down in Parliament and every day see another logical fallacy.” While I’m not entirely convinced that all argumentation can be reduced to a set of discrete rules, I take his point about political dysfunction: moments before interviewing him, I had received a BBC News notification detailing how the government had somehow managed to bungle its own Brexit bill.

At this point, a Union officer who has been patiently sitting by interjects: “One more question.” “No no, two more,” Pirie insists. He’s clearly enjoying himself. I ask him about Brexit: has his vision of a liberal, internationalist Brexit been challenged by the events of the last two years? He responds with a casual insouciance: “Not at all: we’ll acquire our sovereignty, and lo and behold we’ll be an example to the rest of the world.” He insists that “we’ll be more generous on immigration”: a perhaps welcoming difference from a lot of the other discourse surrounding Britain’s exit from the EU, but nonetheless one that is perhaps hard to imagine in the wake of the Windrush scandal.


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Finally, what of the relationship between neoliberalism and democracy? For many, especially on the left, the willingness of neoliberal ideologues such as Milton Friedman to collaborate with authoritarian regimes (famously Chile under the dictator Augusto Pinochet) represents the movement’s original sin. Controversially, Pirie does not deny this: “You can have authoritarian neoliberalism – like Pinochet’s Chile, or China today – but I happen to take that view that economic freedom is actually worth quite a lot.” For him, the right to political resistance is just one freedom among many, and “certainly less important than the right to choose what job you’re going to do, where you’re going to work, or how you’re going to spend your money.” It’s a point you’re unlikely to find in any of the centre-right broadsheets, but he doesn’t deflect from its contentiousness: “There you have it, an argument in favour of authoritarianism from the Adam Smith Institute.”

Perhaps it’s because of his biting humour that he can veer so far from the political mainstream without causing controversy: indeed, as we finish up we are approached by another Union official, this one with the results from the debate: Pirie’s side has won, by one vote. “Really?” he inquires, mixing surprise and satisfaction.

“Good lord! At left-wing Cambridge?”