‘There is no such thing as Society’

In politics, off-the-cuff comments can prove long lasting. Much quoted examples include Harold Macmillan’s ‘Events, dear boy, events!’, Harold Wilson’s ‘A week is a long time in politics’ and Margaret Thatcher’s ‘There is no such thing as society’. Taken from a Woman’s Own interview in 1987, the last of these achieved instant notoriety, but it was not an unguarded remark.

The explanation came with The Downing Street Years: ‘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.’

This explanation derives from the work the Austrian born Nobel Prize-winning philosopher, Friedrich Hayek. In 1981, Margaret Thatcher instructed the House of Commons that ‘some of his books ... would well be read by some honourable members’. On her recommendation, Hayek was made a Companion of Honour in 1984. And there was mutual esteem. In 1985, Hayek’s expressed wish for the British economy was another twenty years of Mrs. Thatcher’s government.

The unifying theme of Hayek’s extensive writing in many overlapping areas - including economics, ethics, law, philosophy, politics and psychology - is that the most enduring social institutions are those that are shaped by spontaneous evolution, rather than by intellectual design.

The claim that society does not exist reflects the idea that such inter-dependent systems and rules bring a natural order to human affairs. Details are evident in the common law, in rituals and in customs and practice that are handed down the generations. This evolving order allows individuals to give expression to their personal choices. And by those choices, the systems themselves are shaped though continuous adaptation.

Such ‘natural’ structures are denigrated by left-of-centre intellectuals who sense (wrongly) that humankind can achieve a more rational order. 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, and to suppose that we must owe all the advantages and opportunities that our civilisation offers to deliberate design rather than to following traditional rules ...’

Any realistic 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. Cohesion across such highly developed systems rests upon a self-adjusting, rather than a rigid, social order. And because there are so many outcomes that cannot be foreseen or adequately traced, its morality is founded upon actions rather than consequences,

Against that background, there can be no ‘society’ that equips itself with rules. Rather, a consensus on rules emerges as individuals strive to interact coherently. Social rules are tested in a continuous process of trial and error. This spontaneous process of adapting rules should not be confused with the spurious entity of ‘society’, from which individuals might expect entitlements and whose ends individuals must serve.

According to Friedrich Hayek, ‘society’ is a label that is used when people ‘do not quite know what they are talking about.’ An illustration was provided by Bryan Gould’s farewell to the Labour Party and to Britain in 1994. Referring both to ‘Mrs. Thatcher’s notorious assertion’ and to John Major’s ‘nebulous theme of back to basics’ he continued, ‘people will be better off and society will work better if government does its job properly’ and that ‘it is society that makes us what we are. If society is strengthened we are all strengthened’. Empty statements such as these illustrate a disposition to hide socialist agenda behind the empty assertion that ‘society ought’. Which returns us to the point: ‘There is no such thing as society ... [no] abstraction, separate from the men and women who composed it, but a living structure of individuals, families, neighbours and voluntary associations.’

                                                                                                                                                                    (c) G R Steele 2000