Misconceptions of Society: In Defense of Thatcher


“There is no such thing as society.”

Anti-individualists from both the left and right were outraged by this statement made by the British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, in 1987. It has become one of her more remembered quotes today.

This quote was allegedly an example of the problem of “atomistic” individualism pushed by Thatcher and Reagan and the rise of “neoliberalism” among the American and British right. The problem, the anti-individualists asserted, was that individualism separated (“atomized”) the individual from his community, family, culture, nation, and so on. Rather than viewing the individual in the context of his associations, individualism flipped this around, viewing society as merely a composition of individuals, or worse (as Thatcher did), denying the existence of society itself.

Being the leader of the Conservative Party, this upset many traditionalist conservatives. How far has conservatism fallen that the biggest voice of conservatism is denying the existence of (not to mention the importance of) society?

Of course, like so many famous quotes today, they are often misremembered, stripped of their context. Of the quotes that the average person can correctly attribute, for how many can the context be recalled as well? Very few, if any.

Looking at the full context of Thatcher’s statement, her statement not only sounds better, but fits within a larger point suggesting a defense of what the anti-individualists suggest Thatcher was ignoring. What Thatcher actually said was:

“I think we’ve been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it’s the 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’re casting their problem on society. 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. There’s no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation.”

In context, what Thatcher was actually saying was that people should be first trying to solve their own problems by taking responsibility. If they succeed, they should be looking to help their neighbors and community. If they fail, they should be looking for help from their neighbors and community. Rather than blaming a faceless entity called society for one’s problems and asking it for help through the power of the state, people should be looking to the individuals around them and maintaining those social bonds.

From a traditionalist conservative perspective, this is a defense of community, not an attack. Thatcher is defending the importance of duty and reminding people that help has to come from other individuals, not “society.” She is calling for our focus to be more on our own communities rather than the state. And she is making a very common traditionalist argument that we should be focused less on our own rights and entitlements, and more on our responsibilities.

From a left-anarchist perspective, this is a call for mutual aid. Rather than letting the “state capitalist” system manage society, communities should help one another through mutual aid. They should look out for their neighbors and their neighbors should look out for them.

And, of course, she is making the libertarian argument that we should solve problems through voluntary means rather than relying on the state.

Thatcher’s statement should, theoretically, be praised by all three of these groups. Instead, it was seen as very controversial. The context is rarely remembered, but that single sentence is.

One may wonder why, of all things, it would be worth bringing this up and explaining it again after almost 33 years. Unfortunately, it is small moments like these that get preserved in memory by so many people with only half the story. These small misremembered moments add up, leading to a distorted view of history, which distorts what we believe today.

There is a constant Battle for the Past, and it never hurts to take a moment to verify if what you’ve heard is actually the whole story. Anyone complaining about false narratives today must remember that fake news is hardly a new thing. Who knows how much of what we believe about the past is simply a false narrative, enshrined at the time or soon after, to eventually become accepted as well-known truth.

The following two tabs change content below.
Nathan A. Kreider is author of the Misconceptions column for Being Libertarian, and has written for the Austrian Economics Center, the Foundation for Economic Education, and the Liberalists. He also occasionally publishes a blog and video content, including short book reviews, which can be found on his website, nkreider.com. He can be contacted by email via [email protected]