The lumping together of the US and Britain as a shared 'variety of capitalism', most famously by Hall and Soskice, has a certain analytical appeal, but necessarily papers over various cultural and historical differences. Maybe times of crisis make this even harder to sustain. Looking at the direction of higher education funding in the UK, my anxiety is that the British are capable of uniquely bad variations on the 'American' model of capitalism, that the US itself does not have to tolerate.
Acccording to Hall and Soskice, both nations have Liberal Market Economies (LMEs) in contrast to European and Japanese Coordinated Market Economies (CMEs). But while the US has the diverse bookshops, boutiques and cafes of downtown Manhattan, we have Oxford Street, effectively Stanstead airport without the seating. When American neo-liberals sought to unleash market forces in the 1970s, they merely had to roll back Democrat legislation and wait for their capitalist friends to do the rest. We had to invent privatisation, PFIs and various new public management trickery in order to convince ourselves that we are an enterprising nation, when quite evidently we are not.
Now consider higher education. It can be argued that the US has long treated a university degree as a private good, associated in the mind of the student with large amounts of debt, and heavily subsidised for the poor through scholarships. If one couldn't be bothered to think for a moment, one might choose to describe this as 'fair'. The model is also associated with stronger university-business links, better practical application of science, and overall a comparatively high level of R&D spending as a proportion of GDP (though this fell under Bush).
Why would Britain not want this? The answer is that Britain could indeed want this, but may find it impossible to replicate for the following reasons.
Firstly, the fairness brigade might want to put down their John Rawls, and pick up Michael Walzer's Spheres of Justice. This means dropping hallowed metaphors of 'level playing fields' and equality of opportunity (which don't seem to be having much effect in the first place), and considering how different sociological forms of inequality do or do not influence one another. Walzer's argument, very simply, is that there are multiple spheres of inequality in any society. The task is not to erradicate them, but to ensure that none trumps or determines all of the others. So, for example, political contests cannot become dictated by economic contests (which is where the US most conspicuously fails), or vice versa.
When looking at British and American neo-liberalism, the question is whether each society has robust enough non-economic forms of inequality to withstand the unleashing of capitalist relations of domination into more and more spheres of society. To put this another way, resistance to capital in the social, cultural and political spheres is dependent on non-capitalist elites and non-capitalist forms of competition, or alternatively aristocracy of some kind.
The LME/CME model is faintly Polanyian, issuing thoughts of 'disembedded' versus 'embedded' markets. What both Polanyi and the varieties of capitalism perspective miss is the Walzerian point, that market inequality is often best resisted not by 'equality', 'society' or being 'embedded', but by rival forms of inequality and by becoming disembedded from parallel social, cultural and political arenas of competition.
The anxiety regarding British neo-liberalism is that it has been used to subsume non-capitalist elites (academics, cultural elites, the BBC, the judiciary) within the logic of the market. Where the US has a fiercely competitive culture of scholarship, which is tinged by a mindset of enterprise but not remotely reducible to it, Britain has invented the Research Assessment Exercise to ensure that scholarly inequality is technically commensurable with the logic of economics.
The US university sector operates a bit like a market (there are various ways in which it self-evidently is a market, such as competing for top professors with offers of cash) but it is not the market. US universities are business-like (Weber noticed this over a century ago) but they are not businesses. The commitment to the public sphere as a non-market space of discovered inequality runs very deep, which admittedly has the side-effect of capital seeking to buy dominance of it via Fox News.
By contrast, my fear is that Britain in the future will become like a Gary Becker fantasy, in which 'human capital' is entirely governed by a logic of return on investment, of universities selling the humanities in the same way that Thomas Cook sells the Maldives, of MBA-style rankings (based on average salary after graduation) infecting undergraduate education to the point where campuses are over-run with law and marketing students, while scholarship and intellectualism simply appear like monopolies to be broken up. As Zizek argues in this piece, given Kant defined an Enlightened society as one where people had free use of "public reason" (i.e. separate from their occupations and professions), what is currently going on amounts to an attack on this use of reason, and thereby on Enlightenment.
What this all suggests is that any form of justice, from a Walzerian perspective, is extremely path dependent and fragile. Different spheres of inequality must be allowed to emerge organically, and then be kept strategically separate. Neo-liberalism may have been an Austro-German intellectual invention, but its applied form was entirely American - the Chicago School were offering a rationalisation of economic and political norms that were already present in American society. And because they were already present, they had emerged alongside rival forms of conduct that could potentially resist them. It is difficult to imagine even the most market-friendly American government managing to alter Harvard University's priorities or notion of value even slightly.
Britain, as has been our fate, was the great experiment in artificially generating US-style dynamism via government. The outcomes are potentially worse, given the lower levels of competition in non-market areas of society. Our elites are sleepier, less competitive and less assertive of their rights to remain separate from capitalism. A government-driven neo-liberalism, such as our's, is better able to bring all corners of society within a single logic. Hence the same model, same policies, that have emerged in a vaguely tolerable way in the US, are imposed without the necessary cultural checks and balances over here. Maybe, in the face of the marketization of everything, it's time to stop demanding less inequality, but more inequalities.