, Volume 44, Issue 2, pp 137-161,
Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.
Date: 21 Feb 2009

Neoliberalism: From New Liberal Philosophy to Anti-Liberal Slogan


In recent years, neoliberalism has become an academic catchphrase. Yet, in contrast to other prominent social science concepts such as democracy, the meaning and proper usage of neoliberalism curiously have elicited little scholarly debate. Based on a content analysis of 148 journal articles published from 1990 to 2004, we document three potentially problematic aspects of neoliberalism’s use: the term is often undefined; it is employed unevenly across ideological divides; and it is used to characterize an excessively broad variety of phenomena. To explain these characteristics, we trace the genesis and evolution of the term neoliberalism throughout several decades of political economy debates. We show that neoliberalism has undergone a striking transformation, from a positive label coined by the German Freiberg School to denote a moderate renovation of classical liberalism, to a normatively negative term associated with radical economic reforms in Pinochet’s Chile. We then present an extension of W. B. Gallie’s framework for analyzing essentially contested concepts to explain why the meaning of neoliberalism is so rarely debated, in contrast to other normatively and politically charged social science terms. We conclude by proposing several ways that the term can regain substantive meaning as a “new liberalism” and be transformed into a more useful analytic tool.

For helpful comments on earlier drafts, we are grateful to David Collier, Ruth Berins Collier, Stephen Collier, Miguel de Figueiredo, Thad Dunning, Danny Hidalgo, Maiah Jaskoski, Marcus Kurtz, Simeon Nichter, Shannon Stimson, Steven Vogel, Nicholas Ziegler, participants in the U.C. Berkeley Latin American Politics research seminar, and two anonymous reviewers. Both authors’ work on this article was supported by National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships.