In a neoliberal world, for example, tort questions — questions of negligence law — are thought of not as ethical questions of blame and restitution (who did the injury and how can the injured party be made whole?), but as economic questions about the value to someone of an injury-producing action relative to the cost to someone else adversely affected by that same action. It may be the case that run-off from my factory kills the fish in your stream; but rather than asking the government to stop my polluting activity (which would involve the loss of jobs and the diminishing of the number of market transactions), why don’t you and I sit down and figure out if more wealth is created by my factory’s operations than is lost as a consequence of their effects?
As Ronald Coase put it in his classic article, “The Problem of Social Cost” (Journal of Law and Economics, 1960): “The question to be decided is: is the value of the fish lost greater or less than the value of the product which the contamination of the stream makes possible?” If the answer is more value would be lost if my factory were closed, then the principle of the maximization of wealth and efficiency directs us to a negotiated solution: you allow my factory to continue to pollute your stream and I will compensate you or underwrite the costs of your moving the stream elsewhere on your property, provided of course that the price I pay for the right to pollute is not greater than the value produced by my being permitted to continue.
Notice that “value” in this example (which is an extremely simplified stand-in for infinitely more complex transactions) is an economic, not an ethical word, or, rather, that in the neoliberal universe, ethics reduces to calculations of wealth and productivity. Notice too that if you and I proceed (as market ethics dictate) to work things out between us — to come to a private agreement — there will be no need for action by either the government or the courts, each of which is likely to muddy the waters (in which the fish will still be dying) by introducing distracting moral or philosophical concerns, sometimes referred to as “market distortions.”
Whereas in other theories, the achieving of a better life for all requires a measure of state intervention, in the polemics of neoliberalism (elaborated by Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek and put into practice by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher), state interventions — governmental policies of social engineering — are “presented as the problem rather than the solution” (Chris Harman, “Theorising Neoliberalism,” International Socialism Journal, December 2007).
The solution is the privatization of everything (hence the slogan “let’s get governments off our backs”), which would include social security, health care, K-12 education, the ownership and maintenance of toll–roads, railways, airlines, energy production, communication systems and the flow of money. (This list, far from exhaustive, should alert us to the extent to which the neoliberal agenda has already succeeded.)