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What do the ‘neoliberal shills’ believe in 2023?

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Can one be called a shill and wear it proudly? Apparently, if you are a “neoliberal shill”, and especially if you put yourself forward as a contestant in the American-based Center for New Liberalism’s annual “Neoliberal Shill Bracket.” 

Like synthpop and shoulder-padded blazers, neoliberalism was a big thing in the 1980s, but has lost its sheen in the following decades to the point where “neoliberal” is used as an insult on the internet. 

Toronto-based Hub contributor Steve Lafleur said anybody who is a proponent of market economics has been called a “neoliberal” or a “neoliberal shill” at some point, even if neoliberals believe in other ideals such as globalization. He says that calling himself a “neoliberal shill” is a tongue-in-cheek reappropriation of the word. 

“If you’re going to call us that, then great, that’s what we are then,” says Lafleur, who says the ideology of neoliberalism and its evolution into a pejorative label is steeped in early 2000s politics and culture. 

CNL Community & Communications Manager Tobin Stone says that in 2018, a Reddit user suggested to CNL co-founder and director Colin Mortimer that he should create an ESPN-style bracket modelled after March Madness. Instead, the CNL created a bracket of 64 neoliberal figures with an online following and began a Twitter competition that was decided via Twitter polls.

“As far as we know, the Neoliberal Shill Bracket was the first real bracket like that to be run on Twitter,” says Stone. 

The winner is whomever the Twitter users decide did the most good for the world in the past year. 

These winners have included Bastiat the Twitch streamer in 2021 and Cato Institute Fellow (and past Hub Dialogues guest) Scott Lincicome in 2020. Niskanen Center fellow Matt Darling ultimately won the 2023 Neoliberal Shill Bracket.

“It’s a bunch of centre-left people advocating for centre-left pragmatic ideas,” says Stone regarding the CNL, which has dozens of chapters across North America. “Free markets, but also recognizing the need for a strong social safety net because markets sometimes have benders.” 

While the CNL identifies itself as centre-left, and is affiliated with the Progressive Policy Institute, the bracket was open to people on the centre-right like Lafleur. As an entrant in the competition, Lafleur made housing a key platform in his campaign to get votes in the Twitter polls. 

Housing is one of the top issues discussed by the CNL, and has been since it was created. 

“Since the beginning, housing has always been one of those things that we cared about because we believe in free markets and we believe that regulation for housing has gone too far,” says Stone. “We see that a lot in the U.S…it happens in Canada too, where you have these extreme zoning laws, regulations about how large a lot size has to be, how many units you can have on a lot. What a building is supposed to look like, how tall it can be.” 

Washington DC-based Shill Bracket entrant Laura Duffy considers neoliberalism to be an ideology aimed at achieving “flourishing” for everyone through economic growth, a strong safety net, and maintaining strong democratic institutions.

During her effort to win the Shill Bracket, Duffy asked her supporters to donate money to the Against Malaria Foundation, a charity based in the United Kingdom. While she was eventually eliminated before the final round, Duffy and her supporters ended up raising over $6,300 for Against Malaria.

Due to vote-buying and the involvement of bots in the Shill Bracket, the contest’s rules were altered in the final round so that the winner was determined by how much more money a candidate could raise for Against Malaria, with Stone crediting Duffy for inspiring the rule change. When Matt Darling eventually won the 2023 bracket, over $34,000 had been raised in total. 

Effective altruism was the centrepiece of Duffy’s bid to win the Shill Bracket. Effective altruism is a philosophy that promotes efficient charity, and the CNL picked Against Malaria for what they say is the charity’s effective use of its donations. 

It is an often-contentious philosophy due to the backing of public figures like FTX-founder and accused fraudster Sam Bankman-Fried and philosopher Peter Singer, whose views on euthanasia and infanticide are especially controversial. 

Duffy says that although neoliberalism and effective altruism are distinct movements, similarities remain.  

“Practically, neoliberals and effective altruists are pretty focused on evaluating programs through the lens of cost-effectiveness, and we often think about impact in terms of how much good we can do on the margin,” says Duffy. “Effective altruists, for instance, challenge us to spend more of our charitable dollars in low- and middle-income countries, because that’s where they can do the most good for the most people.” 

Duffy says austerity and harmful deregulation have hurt neoliberalism’s appeal, but she believes concepts should be redefined over time. 

“Reading zoning regulations, analyzing the distributive effects of carbon taxes, and arguing for economic benefits of immigration? Sounds pretty cool to me,” says Duffy. 

Lafleur, who graduated from Wilfrid Laurier University in 2010, says that “neoliberal” was being used as an insult by those on the political Left, even when he was a student. 

“Now, it’s different. It’s more people on the Right (that) are starting to become a little bit more skeptical of globalization and trade,” says Lafleur. “Now it’s almost more of a populist thing than a left-wing thing.” 

Nonetheless, Lafleur believes neoliberalism remains the baseline of the world economy, even if it has been tested recently in countries like the United States and the United Kingdom. Lafleur says the renegotiation of NAFTA, one of the most high-profile protectionist promises of President Donald Trump, did not result in a monumental change. 

“Even if somebody whose whole political identity is premised on being a nationalist-protectionist and they aren’t rolling things back then we’re probably in a stronger position than it seems like we are,” says Lafleur. 

The Hub unveils a new team of contributing writers

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The Hub is celebrating its second anniversary by announcing a new team of contributing writers that will be regularly filling our pages with top-notch insights.

Readers can still enjoy the regular schedule of news dispatches, interviews, viewpoints, and, now, a regular rhythm of some of our best contributors. Our readers will be familiar with these writers, either because they are some of the most respected experts in their fields or because they’ve already written some of The Hub’s most popular viewpoints.

Get to know our writers by reading about them below and, before long, you’ll be seeing their insights regularly on our website and our daily newsletter Per Diem.

Amanda Lang, an award-winning business journalist, will bring her experience as bestselling author and leading journalist to exploring the intersections of economics, business and public policy to a bi-weekly podcast and YouTube series at The Hub. We are also looking forward to Amanda’s occasional contributions as viewpoint writer.

Ginny Roth, the national practice lead for government relations at Crestview Strategy who previously worked at Queen’s Park and as party organizer for the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, will be writing about culture and governance. Ginny has written popular essays for The Hub on family policy and Canada’s birth rate, empathy for NIMBYs, and how the concept of intersectionality can be useful. Her experience extends from policy and theory to the pragmatic realities of political life, giving our readers a 360-degree view of the issues.

Howard Anglin, a doctoral student at Oxford University who has previously served in key roles in the prime minister’s office and the office of the premier of Alberta, will continue to be The Hub‘s most elegant writer on virtually any topic that occurs to him. Howard has been one of this publication’s most prolific and most-read writers since The Hub launched two years ago, even writing a rebuttal to our founding essay. Howard never fails to surprise. Case in point: his most popular piece in the last year was a top 10 list of non-Christmassy Christmas movies.

Joanna Baron, the executive director of the Canadian Constitution Foundation, a legal charity that protects constitutional freedoms in courts of law and public opinion, will be writing on legal issues for The Hub. Joanna’s ability to illustrate where law and culture collide is unparalleled, such as in this piece about the perils of over-active regulators.

Karen Restoule, the co-founder of BOLD Realities, which works to advance economic reconciliation, will write for us on Indigenous issues. Karen has written popular pieces for The Hub on the dark realities of reconciliation and how to commemorate Canada’s National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. Karen is Ojibwe from Dokis First Nation.

Richard Shimooka, a senior fellow at the Macdonald Laurier Institute, will be our expert voice on defence and foreign policy. In just the last few months, Richard has explained why spy balloons were suddenly being spotted in North America, the political element of the war in Ukraine, and why Canada is far behind in the race for the future of warfare.

Steve Lafleur, a public policy analyst based in Toronto, has written some of his best stuff recently about how Toronto is unlivable. Somehow that struck a chord with our readers. Steve will continue to write for us about housing and economics to which, as a proud neoliberal, he tends to bring rational, market-focused solutions. There’s no better example of that than Steve’s recent piece pointing out the strange logic of plastic bag bans, which quickly became one of more most popular pieces ever.

Trevor Tombe, a professor of economics at the University of Calgary and a research fellow at The School of Public Policy, will continue to help Hub readers make sense of public finances and how it will affect them. Recently, Trevor has explained why homes remain unaffordable despite recent interest rate hikes that drove down prices and, if you’re looking for good news, he laid out why the Canadian Pension Plan is in good shape these days. Trevor even took the time last year to explain why he, and most other economists, were wrong about inflation. That’s exactly the kind of intellectual rigour and honesty that we love at The Hub.

Rounding out the crew of contributing writers is Malcolm Jolley, who has been a regular wine columnist at The Hub for nearly two years. Malcolm offers practical advice, such as which wine to buy for the holidays, but he also makes some fascinating forays into the broader culture. His essay on the “third places,” between work and home, and his tribute to the civil rights lawyer Clayton Ruby are two of his strongest pieces.

Patrick Luciani will also continue to contribute bi-weekly book reviews on Fridays, which will cover politics, history, and culture. Patrick’s defence of Steven Pinker’s rationality, his clear-eyed appraisal of the Cuban Missile Crisis after 60 years, and his sympathetic view of Robert Kagan’s Iraq War regrets are all examples of the kind of balanced wisdom he brings to The Hub.

Jack Mitchell, The Hub’s poet-in-residence, will continue to brighten up our daily newsletter Per Diem with his lyrical and insightful epigrams. Jack is based in Halifax, where he is an associate professor of Classics at Dalhousie University, and his latest book, The Odyssey of Star Wars: an Epic Poem, a retelling of the original Star Wars film trilogy, is available for purchase.