Now that both the obsequies and the ritual condemnations of Margaret Thatcher are over, the time has begun for a more analytical look at her legacy. I am not a bad person to start this off as I was neither a passionate anti-Thatcherite nor regarded by her inner circle as “really one of us”.
A point that has been missed in all the verbiage of recent days is how much her thinking owed to Keith Joseph, the Conservative who helped to put the idea of a genuine free market back on the political agenda.
In saying this I am far from trying to detract from her legacy. On the contrary, she often said: “One day people will realise what they owe to Keith Joseph.” Anyone can confirm this by looking at her Joseph Memorial Lecture of 1996 given to the Centre for Policy Studies. The first part of the lecture, on the connection between a free economy and a free society, and the last part, on the perils of the euro currency project, are still fresh and relevant.
I should like to start with a comment she made that has defined her – it was even raised at her funeral. Some see it as one of the worst things that she said; I regard it as one of the best.
“I think we have been through a period when too many people have been given to understand that when they have a problem it is government’s job to cope with it. ‘I have a problem, I’ll get a grant. I’m homeless, the government must house me.’ They are casting their problems on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no governments can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours. People have got their entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There is no such thing as an entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation.”
Thatcher meant, I believe, that people should first try to solve their own problems and those of their families and friends, and only as a last resort rely on government. The government is simply a mechanism with which people can help each other and force would-be free riders to make a contribution. I interpreted her remarks as an expression of methodological individualism (although I pity any speech writer who sought to persuade her to say those words).
I have tried to explain all this in my book Capitalism With a Human Face. Very briefly it means that the workings of complex wholes must be capable of being expressed in terms of individual components – chemical elements in terms of atoms, atoms in terms of subatomic particles and nations in terms of their citizens. Methodological individualism has been espoused by a long line of empiricist thinkers, some of very different politics to Thatcher.
The classical liberal philosopher Karl Popper, for instance, looked at the abstract concept of war. “What is concrete is the many who are killed, or the men and women in uniform.” The 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume remarked that a nation was a collection of individuals. This doctrine has also been denied by many supposedly eminent philosophers, such as the overrated G.W.F. Hegel, who said: “All the worth which the human being possesses in all spiritual reality, he possesses only through the state.”
Thatcher was well aware that the support she has been accused of withholding from declining industries in the north of the UK would have come not from a mysterious entity known as the state. It would have come from fellow citizens. She may have been right or wrong. But it was not a matter of her personal generosity. Nit-picking political philosophers have said that if she wanted to be a true methodological individualist she would not have added “and there are families” in her famous statement. It was like saying: “There are no forests, only trees and copses.” She was not so stupid as to fail to see this. But she was not teaching a political philosophy class. She was pointing out that aid for the poor, or distressed regions, had to come from somewhere – namely the inhabitants of the country concerned.
It was a pity that she was incapable of applying this reductionist thinking to foreign affairs. There are no beings such as Germany, Britain or Argentina – only complex entities composed of individuals. It is reasonable for a British citizen to value a British life more than an Argentine life, but it is unreasonable to put a zero value on the latter. It must be admitted that even if people habitually thought in these terms they might still support death as a necessary evil to avoid territorial losses and the like. But if this translation were always made it might sometimes lead to less nationalist policies. Even Thatcher must have been intuitively aware of this when she wept for 40 minutes at the loss of life when a battleship went down near the Falklands.