Liberalism is a governance ideology. In contrast, Foucault presents neoliberalism as an approach that was followed in a series of market and government decisions, rather than as an ideology. These ideas, of liberalism and neoliberalism, were both explored in Michel Foucault’s manuscript The Birth of Biopolitics (Foucault 1978-1979), in the eighteenth century English context for the former, and the twentieth century American context for the latter. For the purposes of this paper, the liberalism of eighteenth century England will be referred to as ‘classical liberalism’, and the neoliberalism of twentieth century United States will be referred to simply as ‘neoliberalism’. In a nuanced way, Foucault shows that one need not subscribe to the ideals of classical liberalism in order to follow a neoliberalist approach, and vice-versa. That is, while they may often result in similar decisions being taken, there is no inherent commonality between classical liberalism and neoliberalism; they are distinct and do not depend on each other. By examining what Foucault believed classical liberalism to be, what neoliberalism was, and by drawing the distinctions between the two, it will be demonstrated that the two labels do indeed refer to distinct approaches to governance.
On the whole, classical liberalism is thought to be an ideology of how one ought to govern. It concerns itself with questioning whether government is governing too much, or too little, with a preference for a less intrusive government leading to a tendency to challenge more on the “too much” side. Indeed, classical liberalism is an exploration of the space devoid of an overbearing government, but practical insofar that it acknowledges the need for some governmental restriction. People must be free, but to discover a state in which freedom is an achievable goal for all, the actions of some must be restricted to a certain degree in the interest of the freedom of the many. There is, in the classical liberal state, a constant negotiation between freedom as a function of minimalist government intervention in the affairs of its citizens, and between a perception of danger that requires government to restrict every individual’s freedom to the minimal extent required to ensure the greatest possible freedom for the greatest possible number of individuals.
The function of government is thus to ensure and to limit freedom. That is, laws must be viewed in the context of enabling and limiting freedom. Further, the law’s purpose is to give its citizens rights, or to give them or the state utility. A law that is freedom enabling usually is a law that bestows or protects people’s rights, whereas a law that brings the citizen or the state utility is usually freedom limiting. The law’s role can be seen as a trade-off between security and freedom. For example, an individual may desire to publish a book, and the right to do so is codified into freedom-giving law. In contrast, the...