Neoliberalism's Family Values
Recent historiography has tended to downplay the importance of the family in neoliberal revisions of the social. And yet a closer look at the key economic debates of the 1970s indicates that a focus on private family values was central to the neoliberal project of a free market order. Whether they were looking at the question of welfare reform, inheritance or the financing of higher education, neoliberal thinkers such as Milton Friedman, Gary Becker and James Buchanan were adamant that the private family should replace the social insurance state as the primary source of economic security. Focusing on the Chicago and Virginia school response to the economic crisis of the 1970s, I argue that neoliberalism should be understood as an attempt to reinvent the British and American poor law tradition of family responsibility using the combined instruments of welfare reform, tax cuts and monetary policy. Neoliberal thinkers were some of the first to envisage the democratization of consumer credit as a way of shifting the burdens of human capital investment from the state to the family. They thus imagined a new form of family responsibility that would be based on the inflation of housing prices and access to expanding credit rather than savings. Having refigured the neoliberal project in these terms, it becomes much easier to understand why neoliberals were consistently willing to collaborate with social conservatives on the question of family values - an alliance that otherwise remains inexplicable.
Melinda Cooper is Associate Professor at the University of Sydney, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. She has recently completed a manuscript Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism, forthcoming from Zone Books. She is one of the editors of the Journal of Cultural Economy and (with Martijn Konings) of the Duke University Press book series Transactions: Critical Studies in Finance, Economy and Theory.
This lecture is part of the conference “More Roads from Mont Pèlerin – Neoliberalism Studies” taking place at the WZB Berlin Social Science Center, March 20-22, 2016.