Margaret Thatcher was a great lady, and a great political leader, reversing, by the strength of her character, a ruinous cycle of increasing state control of the British economy imposed in semi-collaboration with the British trade unions. That achievement required not just a change of policy, but a change in the way that the British people thought about the role of the state in organizing and directing economic activity. Mrs. Thatcher’s greatest achievement was not to change this or that policy, but to change the thinking of her countrymen. Leaders who can get others to change their thinking in fundamental ways rarely do so by being subtle; Mrs. Thatcher was not subtle.
Mrs. Thatcher had the great merit of admiring the writings of F. A. Hayek. How well she understood them, I am not in a position to say. But Hayek was a subtle thinker, and I think it is worth considering one instance — a somewhat notorious instance — in which Mrs. Thatcher failed to grasp Hayek’s subtlety. But just to give Mrs. Thatcher her due, it is also worth noting that, though Mrs. Thatcher admired Hayek enormously, she was not at all slavish in her admiration. And so it is only fair to recall that Mrs. Thatcher properly administered a stinging rebuke to Hayek, when he once dared to suggest to her that she could learn from General Pinochet about how to implement pro-market economic reforms.
However, I am sure you will agree that, in Britain with our democratic institutions and the need for a high degree of consent, some of the measures adopted in Chile are quite unacceptable. Our reform must be in line with our traditions and our Constitution. At times the process may seem painfully slow. But I am certain we shall achieve our reforms in our own way and in our own time. Then they will endure.
But Mrs. Thatcher did made the egregious mistake of asserting “there is no such thing as society, just individuals.” Here are two quotations in which the assertion was made.
And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations, because there is no such thing as an entitlement unless someone has first met an obligation.
There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.
In making that assertion, Mrs. Thatcher may have been inspired by Hayek, who wrote at length about the meaninglessness of the concept of “social justice.” But Hayek’s point was not that “social justice” is meaningless, because there is no such thing as society, but that justice, like democracy, is a concept that has no meaning except as it relates to society, so that adding “social” as a modifier to “justice” or to “democracy” can hardly impart any additional meaning to the concept it is supposed to modify. But the subtlety of Hayek’s reasoning was evidently beyond Mrs. Thatcher’s grasp.
Here’s a wonderful example of Hayek talking about society.
In the last resort we find ourselves constrained to repudiate the ideal of the social concept because it has become the ideal of those who, on principle, deny the existence of a true society and whose longing is for the artificially constructed and the rationally controlled. In this context, it seems to me that a great deal of what today professes to be social is, in the deeper and truer sense of the word, thoroughly and completely anti-social.
Nevertheless, while Mrs. Thatcher undoubtedly made her share of mistakes, on some really important decisions, decisions that really counted for the future of her country, she got things basically right.