There is no such thing as society

A comment from a Woman’s Own interview in 1987 is often repeated, but rarely in context:  ”There is no such thing as society”. Its relevance was made explicit with the publication of the second volume of Margaret Thatcher’s autobiography in 1993:

they never quoted the rest. I went on to say: 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 to look after our neighbour. My meaning, clear at the time but subsequently distorted beyond recognition, was that society was not an abstraction, separate from the men and women who composed it, but a living structure of individuals, families, neighbours and voluntary associations.

That detail derives from the work of Friedrich Hayek, which was much admired by Margaret Thatcher. The unifying theme of Hayek’s extensive writing is that the most enduring social institutions are shaped by spontaneous evolution, rather than by intellectual design. That “there is no such thing as society” reflects the idea that inter-dependent social systems and institutions bring a natural order to human affairs. Its details are evident in the common law, in rituals and in customs and practices handed down the generations. This evolving order allows individuals to give expression to their personal choices; and, by those choices, systems and institutions are shaped through continuous adaptation.  

Such “natural” structures are denigrated by left-of-centre intellectuals who sense that humankind can achieve a more rational order by design. Or, as Hayek writes, “One’s initial surprise at finding that intelligent people tend to be socialists diminishes when one realises that, of course, intelligent people will tend to overvalue intelligence.”

 

Any practical consideration of the broadest interests of “society” vanished with the emergence of a world economy structured upon the division of labour, free access to markets and individual choices. Our atavistic dispositions to the morality of the tribe, where individuals are bound by personal relationships, could never have supported the extended socio-economic order that has brought unsurpassed material benefits. Beyond the tribe, it is impossible for anyone to aim directly at the well-being of the community, because it is impossible to comprehend the vast network of interactive obligations and the full consequences of any single human action. Any attempt to impose an order created by rational design would be undermined by a complexity of detail that cannot be understood holistically as “society”. For those reasons, Hayek concluded that “society” is a term deployed when people “do not quite know what they are talking about.”

Yes, where Adam Smith talked about the division of labour, Hayek emphasised the division of knowledge — a devastating argument against central planning. I’m always impressed, too, by Hayek’s point that even the person who knows the most knows only a tiny fraction of all the knowledge that is available to someone. The gentleman in Whitehall may know better (than a child of four!), as Douglas Jay said, but he doesn’t know very much (and it’s not even clear that he learns from his mistakes).

The problem with the term ’society’, and the same applies to ‘community’, is that everyone thinks they know what it is, and so use the term in an unreflective manner. This means that people can use the term without having to be specific about what they are actually referring to.

Somebody from the IoD was telling me today that they were speaking at a Tory conference event on whether small government was more compassionate. Same problems arise. ‘Compassionate’ means ‘to suffer with’. Mother Theresa was compassionate; a young person looking after their disabled father is compassionate. A government that takes a pound from my next door neighbour to give to the person across the road is not being compassionate – it is forcing my next door neighbour to suffer, but nobody in the government suffers. As it happens, my next door neighbour may be suffering but he is not being compassionate either because compassion is a virtue and therefore has to be chosen.

Anti-market intellectuals employ the famous phrase to avoid the bother of producing an argument. Mrs Thatcher says that ‘there is no such thing as society’. This is flat wrong and she is plainly bonkers and, literally, anti-social. A woman who argued long and hard for the utility of markets, self-help and charity is held to have no understanding of the social order and societal relations between free persons. Mrs Thatcher simply meant that society is an interdependency of things, human agents, but no thing in itself. It is no person and neither acts nor cares to. Politics now, however, supposes that society wants a thing done and Mr Leviathan is just the person to do it.

The right never learned the lesson though, they went on to try and design institutions which mimic markets. The fatal flaw however is they are still designed and controlled politically.If the right truly believed in markets they’d relinquish state control over them, but they’d rather use legislation and regulation to allow their favoured interests to flourish at the expense of everyone else.

John Seddon speaking on systems thinking in the public sector and the most innovative and transformational change of the last decade at the conservative party conference http://conservativerealreform.eventbrite.com/An hour of your time and a lifetime of benefit

Change the wording to ‘communities’ and you have the same concepts around today. Government and politicians are constantly referring to ‘communities’ but such abstract things do not exist, as Mrs Thatcher pointed out. On terminology – ‘civil society’ is used to mean anything which isn’t run by government (not much these days). I’m fonder of this term, as it implies government is ‘uncivil’! What confuses me is how many local voluntary action groups consider themselves ‘left-wing’ and view their actions as somehow ‘anti-capitalist’ when in fact, by organising voluntarily and achieving desired aims which the state cannot deliver they show the fallacy of a state-based system!

Yes, where Adam Smith talked about the division of labour, Hayek emphasised the division of knowledge — a devastating argument against central planning. I’m always impressed, too, by Hayek’s point that even the person who knows the most knows only a tiny fraction of all the knowledge that is available to someone. The gentleman in Whitehall may know better (than a child of four!), as Douglas Jay said, but he doesn’t know very much (and it’s not even clear that he learns from his mistakes).

The problem with the term ’society’, and the same applies to ‘community’, is that everyone thinks they know what it is, and so use the term in an unreflective manner. This means that people can use the term without having to be specific about what they are actually referring to.

Somebody from the IoD was telling me today that they were speaking at a Tory conference event on whether small government was more compassionate. Same problems arise. ‘Compassionate’ means ‘to suffer with’. Mother Theresa was compassionate; a young person looking after their disabled father is compassionate. A government that takes a pound from my next door neighbour to give to the person across the road is not being compassionate – it is forcing my next door neighbour to suffer, but nobody in the government suffers. As it happens, my next door neighbour may be suffering but he is not being compassionate either because compassion is a virtue and therefore has to be chosen.

Anti-market intellectuals employ the famous phrase to avoid the bother of producing an argument. Mrs Thatcher says that ‘there is no such thing as society’. This is flat wrong and she is plainly bonkers and, literally, anti-social. A woman who argued long and hard for the utility of markets, self-help and charity is held to have no understanding of the social order and societal relations between free persons. Mrs Thatcher simply meant that society is an interdependency of things, human agents, but no thing in itself. It is no person and neither acts nor cares to. Politics now, however, supposes that society wants a thing done and Mr Leviathan is just the person to do it.

The right never learned the lesson though, they went on to try and design institutions which mimic markets. The fatal flaw however is they are still designed and controlled politically.If the right truly believed in markets they’d relinquish state control over them, but they’d rather use legislation and regulation to allow their favoured interests to flourish at the expense of everyone else.

John Seddon speaking on systems thinking in the public sector and the most innovative and transformational change of the last decade at the conservative party conference http://conservativerealreform.eventbrite.com/An hour of your time and a lifetime of benefit

Change the wording to ‘communities’ and you have the same concepts around today. Government and politicians are constantly referring to ‘communities’ but such abstract things do not exist, as Mrs Thatcher pointed out. On terminology – ‘civil society’ is used to mean anything which isn’t run by government (not much these days). I’m fonder of this term, as it implies government is ‘uncivil’! What confuses me is how many local voluntary action groups consider themselves ‘left-wing’ and view their actions as somehow ‘anti-capitalist’ when in fact, by organising voluntarily and achieving desired aims which the state cannot deliver they show the fallacy of a state-based system!

My teenage children cited Lady Thatcher's quote' as an example of selfishness in days before they were born, beyond which society has now evolved. Simply showing them the unabridged text of her whole interview dispelled that misconstruct. Who could dispute that one has a duty to care for oneself and one's own first, before asking society - the taxpaying population around us - for anything at all?
I guess we take Mrs Thatcher's word and memory that that was what she really said and meant. Even though a politican. But anyway it doesn't make sense - if she can say there's no such thing as society because it's really just people doing what they do, well she could just as well have said there's no such thing as family only individuals who may be genetically related to each other, or no such thing as a football club just players. Clearly she picked on the concept 'society' for a reason, and even her broader definition of what it constitutes is woefully bare.
This is an excellent piece of recontextualisation - setting the hermeneutic record straight - and the description of an organically evolving society sounds so gorgeous that I am almost tempted to join the Tories. My only problem is the memory of a few things like the miners' strike and how that was handled. It didn't feel at the time like a very organic development. Come to think of it, didn't the Thatcher approach to the economy come ever so slightly close in one or two tiny respects to the kinds of developments described by Naomi Klein in "The Shock Doctrine" with representatives of some organic parts of certain Latin American societies (for instance) having their stomachs ripped open before being hurled into the sea from helicopters - all in the name of an utterly unorganic theory from the Chicago School? But perhaps my intelligence is leading me astray.
I'm not sure I understand the argument here - "inter-dependent social systems and institutions bring a natural order to human affairs. Its details are evident in the common law, in rituals and in customs and practices handed down the generations. This evolving order allows individuals to give expression to their personal choices; and, by those choices, systems and institutions are shaped through continuous adaptation" I think everyone would agree upon that. But making laws is the job of governments, who make popular ones and unpopular ones. It isn't a natural order, it's dictated by existing power structures. Just as the monarchy made such laws before parliamentary democracy existed. Power structures maintain themselves, and make choices beneficial to their well being. That is, the prime minister has more impact on the state of most people in the country than I do. This sort of attitude presumes the equal level of power argument, that in a democracy, we all have the ability to influence the outside world. Of course, this is rational, and logical. We all wish to maintain our own influence if we can. The argument that we should all be responsible for our effects on others and ourselves is of course very compelling. But when you have the ability to affect many, many people's lives, doesn't that mean you have even greater responsibility? Say, if you decided to sack 100,000 people or so? Aren't you then responsible for at least helping them find a new job? I'd feel responsible for laying off one employee. That's just a matter of personal ethics though. I am a great advocate to individual responsibility for oneself - but no one exists in a vacuum. No one can live without other people. You get cheap supermarket goods because they pay less money for them and have lower overheads. If they pay their staff less, the staff have less to spend on other goods. If you get paid more than other people, then that money comes from somewhere else, whether it is in this country, or another one. Of course we can see all of this, but often choose not to. This is perhaps selfish rationalisation, but it doesn't mean the actual effects cease to exist. The idea of society can be lots of things, but saying it does not exist 'in itself' is an obvious truism. Just like a football team doesn't exist above and beyond the players, and a company doesn't exist without the employees. All of these organisations can have inherent structures and cultures. Society is simply a way of describing all power structures, organisations, communities and social groupings at once. The article seems to imply that individuals make the same sane, rational choices whether they are in social groupings or not. Of course they don't. If we always made the most rational 'correct' choices for ourselves, regardless of social context, then we would not be having any debate about whether society existed or not, and the best way to make individuals make 'better' more rational choices. We are biologically programmed to look after ourselves and our kin through evolutionary necessity, we don't need any encouragement, or particular policies to enforce that. However, I think the idea that if the government just got out of the way, everyone would be happy and peaceful is naive at best, and dangerous at worst. I'm no fan of social interventionism, but Thatcher was an interventionist - despite people constantly claiming she wasn't. One woman's actions, and level of power much greater than those she made choices for, demonstrate that. She was trying to reshape power structures, and she succeeded in that. However, she took power away from the many, and gave it to the few. If she truly believed in people being responsible for themselves and their neighbours, then she would have acted that way herself, and taken responsibility for her own effects on communities. She'd still be doing something about it now, in fact. Sadly, like most creatures of power, it was about the power, and the appearance, more than it was about the actual work. Whether you like her or not, you have to admit, not many people have the power to close down a whole industry if they choose to. Even a company director of a large company has duties to shareholders to uphold, and is much more legally bound to deal with the consequences of their actions than our venerable ex prime minister was.
Chris, Thank you for taking the time to write such a long response. Do you represent the IEA in any way? Are you articulating something close to an IEA position? If so, I want to sign up. I agree with you that we need to start taking the idea of "no rights without obligations" seriously and apply it across the board, not just to recipients of state benefits. Friedman (I think) said that the only responsibility of business is to make profits. Thatcher helped make this sort of social nihilism a reality. The main thrust of neo-liberalism (I take it) is to unfetter the drive for profits, and that means slimming down the responsibilities of businesses along Friedman-type lines. What you seem to be arguing for is a kind of radical conservativism in which we fight against the gargantuan forces of global capital to allow the construction of new grass-roots communities, incorporating the best elements of the communities that are now being torn to pieces by market forces. Hayek said somewhere (I can't for the life of me remember where) that what he disliked about Britain in the immediate post-WWII era was the anti-business culture among Britain's best and brightest. That was a time (I take it) when people were still inspired by an idea of public service, and there was something frankly dirty about putting too much emphasis on money. I remember my old days in the NHS when the statement "I'm going into private practice" sounded something like "I'm going to open a brothel". Hayek would be pleased now to see that people like Alan Sugar have succeeded in making the naked pursuit of wealth into something sexy (and something has to be sexy now to be inspiring - it's no longer enough to be Good or Noble or Virtuous). Somehow that needs to be undone, and money-making needs to be put back into an ethically responsible place, along the lines that you sketch.
Hi Torn Halves, No, I wouldn't describe myself as a conservative actually. Quite the opposite, if conservatism is akin to neo-liberalism these days. And no, I'm not affiliated with the IEA in any way :) As for Thatcher, I grew up in her Britain, and to make it clear, I am not a fan. She made tough decisions for sure, but I don't equate tough, with good, like many people do. It just shows a lack of compassion in my opinion. And I don't think running a country is like running a war. At least, it isn't if we don't want to end up in a cold bleak future, where selfishness is actively encouraged. I'd describe myself as a liberal - I would rather people had the freedom to make their own choices in life, but I don't see that absolving anyone of responsibility for the effects they have on others. I am no fan of any power structures which unfairly take power away from normal people, whether they be governments, or capital. In my ideal world, people would be free to trade between each other, but live in a society where they were well supported, educated and valued. No one likes being treated like numbers on a company spreadsheet, or statistics on a government chart. I am not a big fan of government intervention, but sometimes it is necessary and required. For instance, our entire capitalist system would have collapsed if governments hadn't intervened a few years back. I think it is incompatible to argue that a situation which occurred out of the irresponsibility and lack of conscience of a few people would have been better were there no governments to pick up the pieces. There's some (feeble) minds in America who argue that it was caused by 'too much of the wrong kind of regulation'. To me, that is like arguing that you shouldn't have tried to stop a tank by erecting small brick walls, because the brick walls have only made it go faster. Unfettered capitalism without social conscience can be seen all round us. It isn't 'red tape' to stop overzealous electricity salesmen conning old ladies into switching suppliers - it's just compassion. No normal person wants to live in a laissez faire capitalist society, with no social values or institutions. The only people who would prosper without 'red tape' stopping them having any social responsibilities are the exact type of people we don't want to prosper in our society: sociopaths. I dislike the lazy thinking and ideology which moves us towards such arguments. Sadly, that's Thatcher's legacy, and the country I grew up in, which is becoming more like the ultra-capitalist US society all the time. Capitalism is just a system, there is nothing special, fair, or moral about it. The market doesn't and will not correct itself, unless actual human beings do something about it. It's as weak and flawed as we are, and we can allow it to encourage our competitive traits, our destructive ones, or not. There's no reason to need to encourage competition any more really. It will happen naturally, and always has. It's extremely profitable to sell drugs and prostitution, but a lot of the people who advocate 'free' markets don't advocate people being free to sell them. So arguing that conservatives should always advocate free markets is a bit of a false ideology to me. In fact, I think most good people agree most of the time, what they do and don't like. The difference is, we all disagree how to tackle the problem. I'm sure that it isn't beyond the realms of human reason to come up with something that isn't exactly capitalism, and isn't exactly communism, and isn't exactly a mixed economy either, but takes the best ideas and points from everything. Now, that's where I'd like to be.
Chris, You sound like the only sane person in a madhouse full of crazy bankers and cynical DJs, all of them sniffing some ideological cocaine through the rolled-up pages of "The Road to Serfdom". Unfortunately I don't have the time to write more now. You must have a blog somewhere. Where is it?
Not sure about Hayek's views here. Human beings are changeable and yes we do evolve as people, indeed it's almost essential these days - any glance at the thriving personal development market will tell you that. However, government is there to assist us with the basics which we will always need regardless of what stage we're at in personal 'evolution'. Housing, healthcare, education, water, utilities, and an adequate safety net to provide these things when the company we work for decides to exercise it's Hayekian right to evolve some more and leave us behind, or a virus or cancer cell decides it quite fancies evolving by making us ill. Maslows hierarchy of needs, I feel, refutes much of Hayek's philisophy. And it is the basic needs on said hierarchy that must be met by society, and adminstered through government.

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