Left critics of neoliberalism—or just plain old unregulated capitalism—often cite Margaret Thatcher’s famous declaration “There is no such thing as society” as evidence of neoliberalism’s hostility to all things collective. Neoliberalism, the story goes, unleashes the individual to fend for herself, denying her the supports of society (government, neighborhood solidarity, etc.) so that she can prove her mettle in the marketplace.
But these critics often ignore the fine print of what Thatcher actually said in that famous 1987 interview with, of all things, Woman’s Own. Here’s the buildup to that infamous quote:
Who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families…
It’s that last phrase (“and there are families”) that’s crucial. Contrary to popular (or at least leftist) myth, neoliberals are not untrammeled individualists. In many ways, they’re not that different from traditional conservatives: that is, they see individuals embedded in social institutions like the church or the family or schools—all institutions, it should be said, that are hierarchical and undemocratic.
Thatcher isn’t alone in this. For all their individualist bluster, libertarians—particularly those market-oriented libertarians who are rightly viewed as the leading theoreticians of neoliberalism—often make the same claim. When these libertarians look out at society, they don’t always see isolated or autonomous individuals; they’re just as likely to see private hierarchies like the family or the workplace, where a father governs his family and an owner his employees. And that, I suspect (though further research is certainly necessary), is what they think of and like about society: that it’s an archipelago of private governments.
Here’s Milton Friedman in Capitalism and Freedom:
The ultimate operative unit in our society is the family, not the individual. (32; also see 13)
And here’s Richard Epstein in a piece called “Libertarianism and Character” from a collection of essays about conservatism, edited by Peter Berkowitz:
It would be a mistake of major proportions to assume that legal rules are a dominant force in shaping individual character; family, school, and church are much more likely to be powerful influences. The people who run these institutions will use their influence to advance whatever conception of the good they hold, no matter what the state of the law.
I’ve been thinking a lot about these texts as the boys debate neoliberalism versus social democracy, and what neoliberalism is all about. What often gets lost in these debates is what I think is the real, or at least a main, thrust of neoliberalism, according to some of its most interesting and important theoreticians (and its actual practice): not to liberate the individual or to deregulate the marketplace, but to shift power from government (or at least those sectors of government like the legislature that make some claim to or pretense of democratic legitimacy; at a later point I plan to talk about Hayek’s brief on behalf of an unelected, unaccountable judiciary, which bears all the trappings of medieval judges applying the common law, similar to the “belated feudalism” of the 19th century American state, so brilliantly analyzed by Karen Orren here) to the private authority of fathers and owners.