Margaret Thatcher: Revolutionary, Leader

…[H]er longest-lasting impact has been neglected. Indeed, it is so long-lasting that it is yet to fully play out, even now.
Margaret Thatcher changed the Right from a reactionary movement into a revolutionary one … .

Mark Wallace

The Conservatives in Britain needed to become revolutionaries. American Conservatism was started by William F. Buckley, Jr. and was meant to be revolutionary, or at least counter-revolutionary, and many of its early thinkers were former Communists who thought of themselves as continuing a revolutionary struggle.

Mrs. Thatcher pointed out nicely against whom the revolution must be made: crony capitalism:

Too many people and industries preferred to rely on easy subsidies rather than apply the financial discipline necessary to cut their costs and become competitive. Others preferred the captive customers that a monopoly can command or the secure job in an overmanned industry, rather than the strenuous life of liberty and enterprise.

Margaret Thatcher: Rebuilding an Enterprise Society Through Privatisation.

Saying “the State” is the problem is only partly true. Millions benefit from the State as it currently operates, and most of them are not employees of the State. They are rationally self-interested in keeping things as they are.

Choosing “the strenuous life of liberty and enterprise” is a moral choice at least as much as it is a self-interested one.

“Greed is good” does not get you capitalism. Greed is more easily satisfied by turning state power to personal gain. Capitalism, or the better term, free enterprise, permits great personal gain, and improves the lives of many people over time. But it cannot rely on self-interest alone to keep it going. It is a way you have to decide to live, individually, and as a nation.

Once upon a time I read a book which showed me that the growth of the state and the slow extinguishing of freedom and enterprise were virtually inevitable. The beneficiaries of each incremental increase in state power, of each incremental loss of personal freedom, were acutely focused on gaining and keeping their advantages. The losers in this process were diffuse, unfocused, distracted by everything else in life.

The common good had no champion, as a practical matter. In terms of strictly material incentives, it never would.

Worse, in terms of non-material incentives, it is even worse. To go against the currently powerful, the currently well-connected and prestigious, will lead to scorn, insults and derision.

And I eventually came to understand that pushing back against this process is precisely what is meant by the word leadership, under current conditions.

There is always a “them” who are the current ruling group. They are the ones dealt into the existing game, its apologists and advocates. To take them on, to organize and lead an opposition movement, the leader must have extremely strong character. Such a leader must be self-assured, know how things really work, and have a very thick skin. The leader must have no regard for conventional wisdom and no respect for the often unstated limits of what can be done or, even more, what is “simply not done” or “simply not said.”

As a practical matter, such a leader must have the capacity to speak plainly and clearly to a majority of ordinary people who are quietly victimized in the existing game, to show them how certain changes will be good for them, and good generally. They do not lead by force or lies, they lead by telling hard truths and gaining assent to the hard path to better things.

Mrs. Thatcher was such a leader.

Mr. Reagan was such a leader.

We need more of them. But they are always scarce.

Fortunately, though scarce, there have always been a few of them.

And as things get worse, people turn to them, reluctantly, out of necessity.

May God grant us more such leaders in the troubled days ahead.


Michael Barone sent the following anecdote:

My one significant exchange of words with Mrs. Thatcher.
I asked, perhaps a bit obsequiously, whether it was a weakness of her philosophy that its success depended on having a strong leader like her or Ronald Reagan.
She responded in her booming voice: “But isn’t that always true?”
After a pause: “Isn’t that ALWAYS true?”
Your point, exactly.

Mrs. Thatcher was correct on this point.

The system does not go of itself.

There has to be leadership.

There is no alternative.


I have been schlepping around for 20 years a copy of The Anatomy of Thatcherism by the late Shirley Robin Letwin. It is very good after about 50 pages.

8 thoughts on “Margaret Thatcher: Revolutionary, Leader”

  1. Excellent points.

    “Capitalism” is a vague term that needlessly muddles important issues. Freedom is what matters, not business and certainly not incumbent businesses. Businessmen are not necessarily any more or less friends of freedom than professors or politicians are. The good things about businessmen are that, unlike professors and pols, they are usually in business to give customers something that those customers want, and they usually aren’t interested in power for its own sake. But many businessmen are only too happy to use state power to harm competitors and gain advantage for themselves at the expense of the public. Margaret Thatcher knew these things. Many of today’s conservatives either fail to understand them or are in cahoots with the state and use the conservative label as camouflage.

  2. And yes, leadership is always unpopular. We have lousy leaders now for the most part. There are people out there now who would be good leaders. However, they are unavailable, either because they won’t run in the current political environment where their talents would be wasted, or because the electorate does not yet perceive a need for such leaders. Let us hope that people will turn to them before the situation gets much worse.

  3. Mancur Olson also wrote “The Rise and Decline of Nations” which makes much the same point. The Political Science types don’t offer anything of value AFAIK for solving our problems. It takes a good economist to see what the problem is, but the politicians have no problem finding Economists who will tell them that what is in their political interest happens to be in the public interest. In the short run opportunism usually trumps reality.

  4. “The good things about businessmen are that, unlike professors and pols, they are usually in business to give customers something that those customers want, ….”

    Yes Jon, I thought it worth repeating. To the extent the business, the economic, arena is steered away from that simple idea, the worse off general society is.

  5. First, the power of the free-market comes from the win-win results of peaceful, honest deals between private deal makers.

    Whenever gov’t makes a deal, there is at best a win-lose result, and often a win-lose-lose deal, for instance when bureaucrats win but poor folk lose (over time) and taxpayers lose with more gov’t aid to the poor. (Tho calling those who get short term benefits to continue staying in a poverty trap losers is a bit subjective; they often do get a more comfy today.)

    The free-market is what peaceful economics is.

    Anti-organization groups, like the Lib Party, are unlikely to have good leaders, because leaders need to lead collective action. Inspiring Libertarian iconoclasts, like Rand or Heinlein or … Ron Paul (??), are seldom such great leaders. Rather, it more likely for a Reagan or Thatcher or John Paul II to be a great leader AND be influenced in key ways by liberty arguments.

    Who looks like a good Libertarian Leader this decade?


    Here’s a testimonial from Niall Ferguson:

    “But what made Thatcherism so impressive to a young punk like me was Thatcher’s own aggressiveness. Yes, there was a streak of punk in her, too — in the way she gloried in confrontation, right to the very end of her 11 years in power. As early as 1975 she had come up with a wonderful line about the Labour Party: “They’ve got the usual Socialist disease — they’ve run out of other people’s money.” This she contrasted memorably with what she called “the British inheritance”: “A man’s right to work as he will, to spend what he earns, to own property, to have the state as servant and not as master… They are the essence of a free economy. And on that freedom all our other freedoms depend.” It was Hayek armed with a swinging handbag, and I loved it.”

    Free enterprise involves a constant cycle of destruction and creation that is as real and unrepealable as the changing seasons. Destruction of the inefficient, costly, and obsolete at times. Creation of the novel and valuable at other times.

    In theory government action can allow for a smoother operation, i.e. “greasing the gears”. Programs to aid research and development might be a good example of aiding the creation process. Ending entrenched socialist controls might be a good way to aid the destructive process.

    In practice, however, government policies are often too late a response in a dynamic system such as our economy (at best) or a disguise for crony-ist transfers of power and wealth (at worst).

    Here’s where Thatcher was a truly inspiring and effective leader. She was keenly aware of what government was good for and what it wasn’t, and she masterfully executed her policies based on that awareness.

    Libertarians aren’t anti-organization. They merely understand when collective action is effective and when it isn’t. We know of the madness of crowds but we also know of the wisdom of crowds. Knowing the difference is crucial. As Charles Mackay said:

    “Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one”

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