Ever since US President Bill Clinton coined the phrase it’s the economy, stupid!, people have been using it. Unlike Clinton, one might focus on the government. Yet, governments like to blame individuals for problems that governments have caused. Three countries show this: the USA, the UK, and Australia when examining five areas of governmental responsibility: gun crime, obesity, homelessness, problem gambling, and recreational drugs.
The current coronavirus pandemic is a prime example of governmental responsibility. Individuals cannot be blamed for the virus, and the much-beloved market cannot solve the crisis either. Instead, the coronavirus pandemic has destroyed the neoliberal belief that the individual is responsible, and the market is the best mechanism to solve problems. The first belief is that the free market is the panacea for almost all issues. However, letting the free market deal with the coronavirus resulted in the needless death of thousands.
The second belief-system is deregulation – ending red tape! What we need against the coronavirus is the exact opposite. We need regulation on social distancing, which facilities should open or close, etc. The coronavirus pandemic demands more regulation, not less. Take regulation away and chaos reigns. Third, neoliberalism’s advocates less state – no nanny state! Take the state’s ultimate regulating force, the police, away, and the coronavirus-infected people will spread the virus. We depend on the police, the state and state-run hospitals.
Finally, there is privatisation. Neoliberalism likes private health. Private healthcare for the rich is not working, as the USA shows. Americans pay more for health than other advanced nations do, only to get less in return. In short, the coronavirus has comprehensively destroyed neoliberalism’s belief-system. Virtually the same goes for neoliberalism’s claim that the individual is responsible or the cult of personal responsibility.
Much of the neoliberal argument is about the free choice myth and what philosophers call free will. The problem with free will is that the more one reads on the philosophy of free will, the more one realises that it does not exist. In Australia, for example, levels of homelessness increased by almost 5% from 2011 and 2016. It simply defies logic to argue that every year 5% more people chose to live on the street. Individual choice appears to be an ideology that covers up reality and blames the victims of well-targeted neoliberal policies.
The same goes for gun violence. There is a reason why about 14,000 Americans died through gun violence annually while gun deaths are more or less negligible in the UK and Australia. The reason is not individual choice but the availability of guns in the USA. Similarly, in the UK, about 28% of the population are thought to be obese, with a further 35% overweight. More likely than individual choice, is pro-business regulation by governments dedicated to further neoliberalism is to be blamed.
In other words, if others manipulate our choices, then we lose some of that up-to-us-ness. How this operates is relatively simple. Governments regulate social issues in favour of business and push the ideology of individual responsibility to smokescreen what it does. Free choice provides a handy ideology to shift the blame onto the victims of neoliberalism. What some like to call economic and social forces lead to firms manipulating people, actually boils down to what Marx once called profits. In his monumental three-volume work Capital, Karl Marx quoted economist T. J. Dunning:
Capital eschews no profit, or a very small profit, just as Nature was formerly said to abhor a vacuum. With adequate profit, capital is very bold. A certain 10% will ensure its employment anywhere; 20% certain will produce eagerness; 50%, positive audacity; 100% will make it ready to trample on all human laws; 300%, and there is not a crime at which it will scruple, nor a risk it will not run, even to the chance of its owner being hanged.
That is to say, if the profits are right – or what Managerialism calls shareholder value, capital will kill. The case of the 100 million tobacco industry deaths demonstrates this. Capital will do this until governmental regulation prevents it from doing so.
The relationship between neoliberal pro-business regulation – ideologically framed as deregulation – and the deaths and pathologies it creates are also shown in housing policies where governments have done two things. Firstly, they have largely abandoned the business of providing social housing. Secondly, they have implemented tax incentives that lead those with money to buy extra housing not only for themselves – holiday homes and the like – but also to rent to others; worse still, there are even incentives that make it financially worthwhile to own properties and leave them empty. In short, the four-decade-old and very deliberate neoliberal policies to give to the rich and punish the poor needs to be concealed through very powerful ideologies – free choice and individual responsibility.
Of course, ever since the invention of propaganda – today labelled public relations, as well as marketing, many corporations and politicians know how to frame the idea of free choice so that voters and consumers make the right choice, i.e. a choice that benefits neoliberal politicians and corporations. In social science, this ideology is enhanced through rational choice theories. Meanwhile, psychologists have shown that people respond to the manner in which items are described. This process is called framing. How choices are framed can help determine the choice we make. Advertisers are well aware of that, as are governments. In the worst case, free choice boils down to Sophie’s Choice.
Crucial to understanding the role of neoliberal governments is the fact that governments regulate markets. There is no free market. All markets are regulated. Every market depends on a legal framework provided by the government and markets depends on money also regulated by the government. There simply is no market without government. As a consequence, all market failure is government failure.
Often, when the government fails, people die as in the case of the coronavirus pandemic with right-wing populists like Trump (160,000 deaths), Modi (140,000 deaths) and Boris Johnson (58,000 deaths). Mass death is not only created through incompetence but also through, for example, US gun laws where 79 % of mass shootings involve weapons purchased legally. The US easily outstrips all other countries in the world when it comes to the number of guns per head of population.
Death not only comes from guns but also via the food we eat. Based on governmental pro-business regulation, food manufacturers deliberately add sugar, sweeteners, fats and salt to food, because in doing so they appeal to our taste buds this can indeed, form an addiction. Just like mammals can become sugar dependent, so can we. Historically, we have been sitting in a cave for the better part of the past 100,000 years. Evolutionary, we are still craving to eat cave food. The food industry uses this. Simultaneously, corporate media hides this fact under the free choice heading.
Of course, governments could ban the addition of sweeteners, or impose excise or sales taxes on beverages with sweeteners added. They could ban ultra-processed foodstuffs with no nutritional value. But governments will not do that as longs as they depend on corporate campaign funding for re-election from corporations which, in turn, depend on profits and therefore prefer governments that enable profits and deregulation. Finally, there are powerful corporate media that depend on advertising revenue and are happy to broadcast the free choice and responsible people ideology. There is an interesting symbiosis between capital, media, and politics in which everyone except the ordinary consumer and voter wins.
The very same corporate media that depends on advertising from the fast and junk food industries also tout it’s all genetics ideology even though the increase in obesity since the 1980s cannot be put down to genetics but the fact that junk and manufactured food is cheap and profits are high.
Virtually, the same goes for homelessness and the profits that can be made from building homes for the wealthy but not for the poor. Knowing this, governments changed their housing policies and stopped seeing their role as providing affordable public housing for the poor. Self-evidently, removing rent controls pushes up the price of dwellings hitting the poor harder than the rich. All these and other neoliberal measures create homelessness which takes on three categories:
1) where a person is without conventional accommodation, including sleeping rough in the street, cars or abandoned buildings;
2) where someone resides in temporary accommodation, moving regularly; and
3) where someone lives in a boarding or non-self-contained dwelling with no security in tenure.
These are the deliberately engineered outcomes of a neoliberal policy that creates a housing shortage in which the poor and the younger generations have systematically become further disadvantaged.
Comparatively worse is the so-called gambling industry even though it is not an industry at all – it manufactures nothing. In many cases, gambling is a major source of revenue for governments that likes to follow the neoliberal no-new-taxes ideology. In turn, governments don’t like to regulate gambling as it brings in handsome taxes. It is a bit like Upton Sinclair who once said, it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it. As those who understand neoliberalism know, liberalising gambling created more problem gamblers.
The almost opposite is the case when it comes to recreational drugs. In Australia, the criminalisation of recreational drugs is a failed public policy as Nixon’s war on drugs has been comprehensively lost. Even the former Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Palmer has stated that drug law enforcement has had little impact on the Australian drug market. The same goes for the USA and the UK. Still, corporate media never grows tired of announcing yet another major drug cartel arrest. This kind of sensationalism keeps up the perception that the state is acting while in reality, the drug business carries on as usual.
The US alone spends approximately $41.3bn annually on the enforcement of drug prohibition. Meanwhile, legalization does not mean that drugs would not be regulated. Yet, it would surely mean that $41.3bn would be saved and crime would ease. The day alcohol prohibition ended, Al Capone was finished. With recreational drugs, the same would happen. When drugs were legalised in Portugal, it had positive effects on the crime rate – as one would expect. Legalising drugs also led to a sharp decline in prices of drugs. At the same time, Portugal did not sink into crime, violence, madness and bloodshed on the street – the opposite happened.
The argument – It’s the Government, Stupid – shows that governmental policy is to blame for what has happened during the last four decades in five areas of governmental responsibility: gun crime, obesity, homelessness, problem gambling, and recreational drugs. Empirical evidence disproves the free choice and individual responsibility ideology. These ideologies are useful when neoliberal governments seek to blame the victims for their very own policies.
On the downside, the role of corporate media in selling the neoliberal policy of free choice and individual responsibility remains imperative. Worse, there is a Max Weber like Iron Cage established between corporationgovernmentmedia. It is a symbiosis that has trapped the public. As German philosopher Adorno once said, immovably, they insist on the very ideology which enslaves them.