It is an irony and paradox that successful conservatism often requires radical solutions. So it was with Margaret Thatcher’s revolution in Britain, which by breaking the most ossified and reactionary elements in the economy ended up saving the country for the long term (notwithstanding today’s impasse, which I’ve no doubt it will overcome in due course).
Late 1970s Britain was enmired in inflation, union hooliganism, energy crises and much else besides as the soft-socialist state eternally mishandled the commanding heights of the economy that were (nominally) under their control.
But Thatcher’s assessment of the problem, and thus of the concomitant solution, was moral rather than simply economic or technocratic. Economic policy to an extent conditions character, or at least will prefer particular virtues in a people to others. Socialism, by entrenching group benefits deprived persons of their individual responsibility, and thus robbed them of dignity and meaning in their lives. As she said: ‘In the end, the real case against socialism is not its economic inefficiency, though on all sides there is evidence of that. Much more fundamental is its basic immorality.’
It is true to say, as Theodore Dalrymple does, that Thatcher assumed too much in the way of the survival of the old British values – thrift, hardihood, common decency, enterprise and so forth – in the population at large, and so didn’t do enough to re-cultivate them. Thus, no important reforms occurred – indeed damage was done – in the areas of welfare, health, and education; areas which by any estimation must be among the most important for which an individual citizen might take responsibility.
The result was a move towards a more economically successful, but more consumerist society. But this is only to say that her moral theory wasn’t realised in policy to its fullest extent. Thus, the new frontier for today’s admirers of Thatcher should be to effect a shift of emphasis in the sectors of welfare, education and health provision back towards individual responsibility. Australia is not in the state of disrepair that Britain was during the 1970s, yet we are trapped within a period of prolonged torpor. The Liberal party is bereft of ideas, and a Labor government will entrench the difficulties we face.
Australia’s GDP per capita for the last two quarters measured 0.0, and -0.1. While technically we haven’t had a recession in recent memory, our continued mild growth (by standard measure, not per capita) is predicated on an immigration Ponzi scheme. According to the Global Innovation Index, Australia ranks 76 in innovation efficiency (how many outputs we get for our inputs), compared with Switzerland (1), Germany (9) and the UK (21). Part of this may be due to the leviathan that is Australia’s regulatory state. The WEF’s Global Competitiveness Index ranks the satisfactoriness of Australia’s regulatory burden at number 80. Again, compare this with competitors like Singapore (1), Germany (7), USA (12) and NZ (21). Our universities, self-advertised beacons of creativity and innovation, are in reality slothful heaps of vested interests, where 70 per cent of expenditures are assigned to their own administration and where wicked politics of identity, class and race are incubated and then disseminated into the media, corporate and broader intellectual spheres. Culturally, we’re in deteriorating condition, as can be seen by the proliferation of anxiety, grievance culture, trigger warnings, minority and fringe political parties and politicians’ and voters’ nervous overturning of prime ministers.
To extend the Thatcherian promise to our present crisis would be to extend personal responsibility further into the domains of education, healthcare and welfare. It would be to reinvigorate society morally as well as economically, and provide it with a sounder ethical basis rooted in the best ideals of the West.
Mandatory enforced savings accounts, such as we currently have for superannuation, from which we could pay for healthcare or draw funds when out of a job, would radically cut bureaucracy, create greater competition amongst service providers, and create a greater individual resilience and prudence in each citizen. Instead of unproductive money filtered (and attenuated) through multiple organs of state, money kept in savings accounts could be reinvested to stimulatory effect. Leftover money at the end of one’s life could of course be left to one’s children or assignee, and there would remain a social safety net for those who hadn’t accumulated enough funds to cover a healthcare or welfare crisis.
Government spending on social security and welfare, health and education amounts to roughly 60 per cent of the Australian federal budget. Serious reforms and savings in these areas are essential to shockproof our society from future economic earthquakes.
Education in Australia is in need of wholesale reform. Elementary and secondary schools must return to notions of academic excellence, high literacy levels in English and mathematics, personal discipline and responsibility; and there should be more merit-based selective schools to enable upward mobility of children from poorer backgrounds. As every political philosopher since the ancients has known, the character of the educational system determines the character of the polity. To this end it should be animated by traditional notions of voluntarism and aspiration. What we don’t need are smaller classrooms, and more classroom time – which don’t materially improve student performance. What we need is better discipline to reduce distraction, greater emphasis on self-control and concentration, increased focus on self-education (particularly silent reading) as well as greater knowledge of and respect for our history and civic culture, so as to engender cultural cohesion.
Sluggish, inefficient, and ideologically-suspect universities should be defunded, reorganised and generally brought to heel. This will likely require a confrontation of the sort that Thatcher precipitated with the unions. But as a species of vested interest and institutional corruption, the analogy between universities today and unions in Thatcher’s time is apt.
Finally, we require a commitment to deregulation as an animating principle, not in toto (Thatcher, for instance, strengthened banking regulations) but where regulation is unnecessary and stifling of creativity, innovation and productivity. The regulatory state, successor to the socialist state, may not be as visible; this doesn’t mean it’s not as corrosive.
Margaret Thatcher was one of the twentieth century’s greatest radicals and greatest conservatives. Liberals and conservatives should study her again if they wish to rebuild their promise.