Neoliberalism or neo-liberalism is the 20th-century resurgence of 19th-century ideas associated with laissez-faire economic liberalism and free market capitalism. While it is most often associated with such ideas, the defining features of neoliberalism in both thought and practice have been the subject of substantial scholarly discourse. These ideas include economic liberalization policies such as privatization, austerity, deregulation, free trade and reductions in government spending in order to increase the role of the private sector in the economy and society. These market-based ideas and the policies they inspired constitute a paradigm shift away from the post-war Keynesian consensus which lasted from 1945 to 1980.
English-speakers have used the term "neoliberalism" since the start of the 20th century with different meanings, but it became more prevalent in its current meaning in the 1970s and 1980s, used by scholars in a wide variety of social sciences as well as by critics. Modern advocates of free market policies avoid the term "neoliberal" and some scholars have described the term as meaning different things to different people as neoliberalism "mutated" into geopolitically distinct hybrids as it travelled around the world. As such, neoliberalism shares many attributes with other concepts that have contested meanings, including democracy.
The definition and usage of the term have changed over time. As an economic philosophy, neoliberalism emerged among European liberal scholars in the 1930s as they attempted to trace a so-called "third" or "middle" way between the conflicting philosophies of classical liberalism and socialist planning. The impetus for this development arose from a desire to avoid repeating the economic failures of the early 1930s, which neoliberals mostly blamed on the economic policy of classical liberalism. In the decades that followed, the use of the term "neoliberal" tended to refer to theories that diverged from the more laissez-faire doctrine of classical liberalism and which promoted instead a market economy under the guidance and rules of a strong state, a model which came to be known as the social market economy.
In the 1960s, usage of the term "neoliberal" heavily declined. When the term re-appeared in the 1980s in connection with Augusto Pinochet's economic reforms in Chile, the usage of the term had shifted. It had not only become a term with negative connotations employed principally by critics of market reform, but it also had shifted in meaning from a moderate form of liberalism to a more radical and laissez-faire capitalist set of ideas. Scholars now tended to associate it with the theories of Mont Pelerin Society economists Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and James M. Buchanan, along with politicians and policy-makers such as Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Alan Greenspan. Once the new meaning of neoliberalism became established as a common usage among Spanish-speaking scholars, it diffused into the English-language study of political economy. By 1994, with the passage of NAFTA and with the Zapatistas' reaction to this development in Chiapas, the term entered global circulation. Scholarship on the phenomenon of neoliberalism has been growing over the last few decades.