Margaret Thatcher’s ‘There’s No such thing as society’ needs an update

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About the Author: Jean-Benjamin directs the operations of a New York-based workforce development company. He writes on business and economics.

“There is no society,” then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher told an interviewer 35 years ago today. It’s an infamous phrase. Critics say it’s a mandate for greed, while defenders see it as a realistic if stark statement of the Reagan-Thatcher doctrine.

Although his office later tried to quell the controversy, Thatcher never tried to walk away from the line. This continued her throughout her last term, until her retirement and after her death. At his funeral in 2003, the remark was the only one of his political quotes mentioned by the Bishop of London in his eulogy.

Recently the idea has fallen out of favor – even Thatcher’s successor Boris Johnson denied it during a 2020 speech on the pandemic – but its resistance testifies to the immense ideological triumph of Thatcherism. “Few worldviews build worlds,” wrote historian Jill Lepore. “This one did.”

In context, the quote is an observation about political rhetoric. He comes in the middle of a long interview. Thatcher talks about children and the ways they can come to appreciate personal responsibility. She says: “Too many children and people have been made to understand: ‘I have a problem, it’s up to the government to take care of it!’ “… They blame their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing!” Instead, she claimed, there are only individual men and women.

On some level, she’s not wrong. “Society” is just a construct, blurry around the edges – look at it long enough and the whole thing rots. In political debates, the idea is often used to justify liberal policies like welfare with familiar appeals to our mutual obligation and shared destiny. Thatcher and his American counterparts dismantled this. A person’s right to keep what they earn is “the essence of a free economy”, she said: no more society between the individual and the market.

Today, the economy – not society – has become our dominant collective metaphor. We make political arguments on everything from legalizing marijuana to fighting climate change to defining abortion rights by asking the question, “How will this affect the economy?” The reference to “economics” imposes structure on subjective arguments that might otherwise be contests of sheer will. Economics, with its formulas and raw facts, makes a solid substitute for the body politic. “How will this affect the economy?” is just a more serious way of asking, “What impact will this have on all of us?”

Or so we think.

But “economics” is a malleable rhetoric that can justify many things. When President Biden announced student debt cancellation last month, some argued it would threaten the economy; others said it would strengthen the economy. The first camp pointed to the risk of increased inflation, the second the role of debt in stunting the growth of new businesses. Both are correct, at least in the narrow terms in which they appeal to “economics”.

This pattern appears everywhere. Key economic metrics don’t track human-level outcomes or have different effects on different people. Since 2000, US gross domestic product has doubled and the S&P 500 has tripled, but median family wealth has stagnated. Inflation can hurt savers but help those who borrow; free trade agreements reduce the cost of many consumer goods, but also reduce the wages of some domestic workers. Even macro cycles have a unique impact on people. Like short sellers watching the market plunge: one person’s crash is another’s treasure.

However, not everything is relative. Seeking what is best for “the economy” tends to skew politics to the right. Indeed, at least in consumer capitalist systems, economic health ultimately reflects private accumulation and capital needs. In contrast, “society” implies a common obligation beyond the market. There’s a reason we talk about a “duty to society”.

If you shape abortion or student debt policies in terms of economics, you will maximize economic outcomes. What is the impact of marijuana legalization on GDP? We could speculate. But the analysis would be devoid of references to any effects that defy strict calculation, such as how such a policy might change the criminal justice system. It would also ignore human considerations beyond people’s roles as market participants. How do you place value on a parent being home rather than in jail for a minor drug offense?

Decades after Thatcher’s most famous interview, her record still casts a long shadow. She knew her words would echo. When asked what she considered her greatest legacy, Thatcher once replied, “New Labour”: a brilliant and cutting edge affirmation of how much she had dominated the vision of her successor Tony Blair. (Reagan, had he lived to see it, might have said the same of Bill Clinton’s “New Democrats.”)

Thatcher’s legacy was to provide a new conceptual framework for political rhetoric, one where individual ambition came first and economics replaced society as our main collective metaphor. If we want to usher in something else, let’s start with an equally outrageous statement. The economy does not exist.

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