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[Flashback Interview] The Iron Lady on Individual Self-Reliance (“There is no such thing as society.”)

“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. She 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.”

Margaret_Thatcherby Scott L. Vanatter

Four score and seven years ago Margaret Thatcher was born in Grantham, Lincolnshire County. Today she belongs to the ages.

Of course, she always has belonged to the ages — at least since her principled leadership helped bring Britain back from the brink of a crippling socialist ruin. For good reason a Soviet journalist labeled her the Iron Lady. With Ronald Reagan she led the free world in the face of a once fearful Soviet Union.

Below are excerpts of an interview she gave as Prime Minister at No. 10 Downing Street, on September, 23, 1987. It was immediately controversial because she made the case that there was “no such thing as Society.” The thrust of her argument was to focus on what was the key ingredient of a successful and thriving Nation. Individuals. Like Milton Friedman, like Ronald Reagan, like any freedom loving peoples, Thatcher knew instinctively and empirically that self-reliant individuals — taking personal responsibility for their own lives – make up a good and growing nation. And world.

After the interview was finished and controversy began, her office made the following statement. Note: She did not back down in the slightest. She reiterated the point made in the interview. “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.  She 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.”

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Towards the end of the interview Mrs. Thatcher directly addressed the issue of who has the responsibility for solving the people’s problems. In this salvo, she broaches the idea that there is “no such thing” as society.

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!

What does she mean by this? She explains with a succinctness that Milton Friedman would approve.

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.

What can go wrong with the idea of a “safety net”? She explains.

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!”

Not only is “society” not at fault, she explains, but, in reality “there is no such thing as society.” She goes on to more fully describe what does exist, “a living tapestry of men and women” who “take responsibility” for themselves.

But it went too far. If children have a problem, it is society that is at fault. 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 addressing the need for charity (even a formal, national organization) for truly needy children, she tells how “it is not a question of money,” but of being “responsible for your (own) behavior!”

You are left with the problems of human nature, and a child who has not had what we and many of your readers would regard as their birthright—a good home—it is those that we have to get out and help, and you know, it is not only a question of money as everyone will tell you; not your background in society. It is a question of human nature and for those children it is difficult to say: “You are responsible for your behaviour!” because they just have not had a chance and so I think that is one of the biggest problems and I think it is the greatest sin.

Asked whether the government should help, she replied that it is “best” to have problems “solved within the family structure.”

The important thing is that . . . a nation of free people will only continue to be a great nation if your family life continues and the structure of that nation is a family structure. . . . The overwhelming majority of people live in the traditional family. Yes, there will be problems. There always will be and there always have been in life, but the overwhelming majority of people live within the structure of the family and the family continues. That is necessary because when there are problems, and there always will be—after all, the whole of religion is that the good Lord came into the world to help those who had these great problems—most of the problems will be solved within the family structure. You have to accept that these problems will occur, but it is best to have them solved within the family structure and you are denying the solution unless the family structure continues.

Further, she connects the benefits of “private property” to that of “personal responsibility.”

We want the spread of personal property ever wider, not only because we want the material benefits to spread further wider, but because we believe when you have that personal property you get a much greater feeling of responsibility because you have to exercise responsibility towards it. Because you respect your own you respect also other people’s. Therefore, it is a way of bringing about much greater sort of personal responsibility to a society of which you are a part, and also a way of having some of the means in which you can help people who are unfortunate, or help some of the great things which you have a personal interest in. . . . We are putting a good deal more emphasis on housing, so that people who will live in rented accommodation for ever will, I hope, be able to have more choice of what landlord they shall have and I hope that we can bring more private renting back, because that really was one of the things that enabled people to move from one town to another—rent a property for a time and then buy.

A “responsible nation” is made up of success being spread even more widely through people’s “own efforts.”

It really is a mixture of spreading the outward and visible signs of success ever more widely, but you can only do it through people’s own efforts. You have to inspire their own efforts and then not take so much away from them that they have not the chance to go on improving themselves and increasing their personal property to their own and family’s advantage.

And the way in which you use that is really the expression of the light of the spirit and also the ever wider opportunity. You only really get a responsible nation, responsible both to your own people and to other people, when you get a nation of responsible people and this is the way we wish to go about it.

Thatcher concludes by reiterating that “a sense of responsibility” and “a sense of contribution matters.” That is it not enough to “ooze sympathy” on deprived children. She then ends with an observation on what “happiness” really is.

A sense of responsibility, yes, but not only a sense of responsibility, a sense that their contribution matters. I learned from a very able teacher, again when I was Secretary of State for Education and I watched her teaching some of her other teachers to teach. “Look! Even though you are with deprived children, it is not enough just to ooze sympathy on them. Often, the way to make them feel they have some part in life is to make a demand on them, something that they can do and give them a chance to do it!” Because, as you say, when children do these things, it makes them feel they have a contribution to make, but you must never in fact use children to do the housework, if I might put it that way, and I think they can help.

Happiness is not doing nothing! Happiness is doing something and happiness in an adult consists of having a very full day, being absolutely exhausted at the end of it, but knowing that you have had a very full day.

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The nation that deprecates individual self-reliance plants the seeds of its own future demise. Even before such an awful national day, this deadening deprecation insidiously infects too many with a dulling of life causing for them, their individual demise. Create too many of these individual tragedies, and a nationwide catastrophe obtains.

However, that nation which enthrones individual self-reliance expands both freedom and the ability to lift those who have not yet caught the vision. As we create many self-reliant individuals, we create a nation which serves as the beacon Reagan often re-envisioned. The city set on a hill, which forever serves as the world’s last best hope.

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Mrs. Thatcher was interviewed by Douglas Keay, of Woman’s Own. An edited version of the interview was published there on 31 October 1987 under the title “Aids, education and the year 2000!” Later, a statement was issued by No.10, and published in the Sunday Times  on 10 July 1988.