08 April 2013

No Such Thing As Society: Margaret Thatcher's epitaph

In retrospect, Margaret Thatcher, who died of a stroke this morning, seems more like an ideologue than her Cold War ally Ronald Reagan. To her is credited a defining slogan of the movement and era that brought both Thatcher and Reagan to power. For many, the phrase, "there is no such thing as society" will remain her most infamous utterance, and perhaps a fitting epitaph. I've cited it damningly in the past, but today I was curious to learn more about the context of the sentence. She said it in 1987, during an interview with Woman's Own magazine. What she actually said has been a matter of editorial license. The magazine reported her as saying:

[Y]ou 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.

The Margaret Thatcher Foundation doesn't consider this most familiar version of the quote a misrepresentation, but its website does note that the Woman's Own editor moved an important line from one paragraph to another for the published interview. In the Thatcher Foundation transcription, we see that the magazine editor made the Prime Minister's comments more terse by cutting and combining two separate comments. First:

I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the Government's job to cope with it!” or “I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!” “I am homeless, the Government must house me!” and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business and 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 and it is, I think, one of the tragedies in which many of the benefits we give, which were meant to reassure people that if they were sick or ill there was a safety net and there was help, that many of the benefits which were meant to help people who were unfortunate—“It is all right. We joined together and we have these insurance schemes to look after it”. That was the objective, but somehow there are some people who have been manipulating the system and so some of those help and benefits that were meant to say to people: “All right, if you cannot get a job, you shall have a basic standard of living!” but when people come and say: “But what is the point of working? I can get as much on the dole!” You say: “Look” It is not from the dole. It is your neighbour who is supplying it and if you can earn your own living then really you have a duty to do it and you will feel very much better!” 


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. 

After the interview was first published, the Thatcher government went to the trouble of issuing a clarification:

All too often the ills of this country are passed off as those of society. Similarly, when action is required, society is called upon to act. But society as such does not exist except as a concept. Society is made up of people. It is people who have duties and beliefs and resolve. It is people who get things done. [Thatcher] prefers to think in terms of the acts of individuals and families as the real sinews of society rather than of society as an abstract concept. Her approach to society reflects her fundamental belief in personal responsibility and choice. To leave things to ‘society’ is to run away from the real decisions, practical responsibility and effective action.

This really is a clarification, since it points to a distinction which can be inferred from the interview between "society," which Thatcher dismissed as an "abstract concept," and "community," which she didn't.

You have got to have rules by which to live. If you live totally isolated and alone like Diogenes in the tub, maybe it does not mind (sic) but the moment you live in a community, you have got to have some rules by which to live. You have got to say: “These are the rules and we have to live by them!” Of course they will be broken from time to time, but that is quite different from there not being any rules. I mean, you could not begin to play any of the games—this is how I want mostly to explain this to children—how could you play a game unless there were certain rules to it? Our life is more important than the game. There are certain rules by which to live, and I think they want them and I think they want objective rules as they get older.

Thatcher, then, was not saying that there's no such thing as community or collective life. If not, what's the difference between the reality of "community" and the concept of "society" that so irked her? On the evidence before us, "community" consists of rules, while "society" is a presumption of mutual or collective responsibility for the well being of each individual that Thatcher found unjustified. In other words, communities can make rules for living, but "everyone must live" or "everyone must be cared for" aren't automatically among those rules and, if adopted, may be detrimental to the community. Like many modern conservatives, Thatcher believed that individual initiative was the indispensable and irreplaceable engine of human progress, and that habits of dependency upon the state, even when instilled with the best of intentions, inevitably sapped that initiative and undermined progress. Better, then, that community cultivate individual initiative by debunking the myth of society, which for our purposes means that membership in a society makes the survival of each member the responsibility of all. There was no such thing as "society" for Thatcher because she didn't believe that the world owes us a living. For someone to suggest that the people in a community could resolve to work together for the benefit of everyone does not mean the same thing, but that distinction is often lost on people like Thatcher, who tend to see collective or "social" thinking as an evasion of personal responsibility or a license for freeloading. There's more to her legacy than this, of course, but since most of her legacy is Britain's problem, this is what's relevant for the rest of us as we see Thatcher off.


Anonymous said...

There is either government or there is mob rule. Either government must take responsibility for creating a fair and just society, or the people will do it for themselves, but the results are apt to be far messier.

I don't believe any sane person on the left presumes a society in which no one works and everyone lives like a king. But when what jobs there are are being consistently shifted to other countries, then where does one turn for employment? If the "employer class" refuses to "employ" then of what use to society are they?

Samuel Wilson said...

Whether it's the government or the mob, the big question is what "fair" and "just" mean, and the disagreements over these terms have only grown deeper over the last 200 years or so.

You have your finger on one of the disagreements that has only grown deeper in modern times. One side seems to have nothing to suggest except patient endurance until the market is good and ready to create jobs. They never seem to acknowledge that every wave of layoffs bring efficiencies that make fewer workers necessary in the future, or if they do, they put the burden on the unemployed to find new ways to make themselves useful with little thought of the expense involved. These same people see themselves as champions of the individual, but their attitude betrays an indifference to individual survival should that conflict with certain higher priorities.