If you’re getting lessons in democracy from Margaret Thatcher, you’re doing it wrong

16 Jul

Here’s a photo of a letter Margaret Thatcher sent to Friedrich von Hayek on February 17, 1982, in which she draws a comparison between Britain and Pinochet’s Chile.  I wrote about the letter in chapter 2 of The Reactionary Mind.

It now turns out, according to Hayek scholar Bruce Caldwell, that there is no No one has yet to discover—not in the Hayek or the Thatcher archives—a preceding letter from Hayek to Thatcher, even though, as many of us have wondered about this letter before.assumed. So we don’t know what exactly it was that Hayek said that elicited this response from Thatcher. Hayek scholar Bruce Caldwell speculates, in an email to John Quiggin that I was copied on, that Thatcher may have been remarking here upon comments that Hayek might have made—about the need for Thatcher to abolish the “special privileges” of trade unions in Britain (as Pinochet had done in Chile)—at a dinner on February 2. But the Thatcher letter does refer to a February 5 letter from Hayek, so it’s difficult to say for sure.

Here’s the text of the letter:

My dear Professor Hayek,

Thank you for your letter of 5 February. I was very glad that you were able to attend the dinner so thoughtfully organised by Walter Salomon. It was not only a great pleasure for me, it was, as always, instructive and rewarding to hear your views on the great issues of our time.

I was aware of the remarkable success of the Chilean economy in reducing the share of Government expenditure substantially over the decade of the 70s. The progression from Allende’s Socialism to the free enterprise capitalist economy of the 1980s is a striking example of economic reform from which we can learn many lessons.

However, I am sure you will agree that, in Britain with our democratic institutions and the need for a high degree of consent, some of the measures adopted in Chile are quite unacceptable. Our reform must be in line with our traditions and our Constitution. At times the process may seem painfully slow. But I am certain we shall achieve our reforms in our own way and in our own time. Then they will endure.

Best wishes.

Yours sincerely,

Margaret Thatcher

Update (10:40 am)

Brad DeLong raises a good question in the comments (as did my mom in an email to me). This is also a question I’ve had myself.  I’ve made some inquiries; will report back on what if anything I find out.

Update (5:25 pm)

In the comments (and in an email to me), John Quiggin explains that he checked back with Caldwell about that February 5 letter. Caldwell, who’s the editor of Hayek’s collected works, doesn’t have a copy of it, and others who’ve looked in the Hayek archive at the Hoover Institute have not found it. John did a quick check of the Thatcher archives and didn’t find a copy of it there either.

17 Responses to “If you’re getting lessons in democracy from Margaret Thatcher, you’re doing it wrong”

  1. John Protevi July 16, 2013 at 9:17 am #

    What’s up with the capitalization of “Socialism” versus the no caps on “free enterprise capitalist economy”? The former is an “ideology” and the latter is not?

  2. J. Bradford DeLong (@delong) July 16, 2013 at 9:20 am #

    So what, then, is the “letter of 5 February” to which Thatcher refers?

    • Corey Robin July 16, 2013 at 10:06 am #

      I had the same question; following up.

  3. Kristan Overstreet July 16, 2013 at 9:53 am #

    What I find appalling is the subtle implication in Thatcher’s letter that she has no moral qualms with Pinochet’s repressive dictatorship- only regret that she can’t apply the same methods in Britain. The woman really was a piece of work, wasn’t she?

    • Jonny Butter July 16, 2013 at 12:01 pm #

      The phrase I like is ‘high degree of consent’.

    • Brian July 16, 2013 at 2:17 pm #

      Where exactly are you getting that impression?

      There is no expression of regret. She says, contra Chile’s approach that, “Our reform must be in line with our traditions and our Constitution.”

      Where is this regret you are fantasizing about? People who imagine things that aren’t there and thump their morals about those imaginary outrages are the true pieces of work.

      • Sam Holloway July 17, 2013 at 8:39 am #

        “I am sure you will agree that, in Britain with our democratic institutions and the need for a high degree of consent, some of the measures adopted in Chile are quite unacceptable. Our reform must be in line with our traditions and our Constitution.”
        Translation: this is England, and even our leftists our Englishmen, not swarthy little Latin American mongrels; we can’t just flood the streets with tanks and secret police and kill and torture all of them. We have to rely on more subtle and officially sanctioned means to achieve our ends.

        “At times the process may seem painfully slow.”
        Translation: Since we can’t assert our desires in a more Pinochet-like fashion, alas, our process will take a bit longer.

        Thatcher was a brutal, genocidal technocrat, yes, but a highly educated one who was aware of the value of official decorum. Her ‘regrets’ were apt to be declared somewhat circumspectly.

  4. neffer July 16, 2013 at 2:11 pm #

    Mrs. Thatcher seems to be writing a “Thank you but no thank you letter.” Which is to say, it is not reasonable to put much stock into her view of Chile or anything else. What she clearly says is that whatever strides Chile has made, what occurs in Chile is no model for the UK because the UK is a democratic country, not a dictatorship. Moreover, she had no use for Allende.

    Whether or not she thinks the reforms made in Chile, by the means they were made, is acceptable for Chile, cannot be determined by this letter. She merely comments on the results, not how they were achieved. And, judging from her comment as to the fact that the UK is a democracy, it sounds rather like she objects to the means; that, of course, is speculation.

    • Chip Daniels July 17, 2013 at 8:36 pm #

      Mr. Thatcher’s painfully shy and timid nature, her unwillingness to speak forthrightly and risk offense was of course, legendary.

      • Blinkenlights der Gutenberg July 18, 2013 at 3:41 am #

        I LOL’d

  5. Brian July 16, 2013 at 2:25 pm #

    So what you’re saying is that lesson from Margaret Thatcher, that reforms in a democratic society must be made in accordance with the traditions and Constitution of that society, is wrong?

    So, what is Cory Robin’s approach to democracy? Violent convulsive and bloody revolutions? Coups d’etat? Military juntas?

    Here is what Margaret Thatcher is saying here:

    “Our reform must be in line with our traditions and our Constitution. At times the process may seem painfully slow. But I am certain we shall achieve our reforms in our own way and in our own time. Then they will endure.”

    Perhaps this is too difficult for the seeker of the perpetual outrage to understand. But what she is saying is that while Chile may have been able to undertake some remarkable reforms, those are not in accordance with British traditions and Constitution. And while it may appear to be slower, it’s actually better because those reforms will be more enduring.

    • Brian July 16, 2013 at 2:28 pm #

      correction:

      *the methods of achieving those reforms is not in accordance…
      *And while our approach may appear slower, it’s actually better

    • jonst July 18, 2013 at 3:16 pm #

      “remarkable reforms” is certainly one way of putting it.

  6. Mitchell Freedman July 16, 2013 at 3:39 pm #

    What would we say if an American political leader had written a Marxist professor who had extolled the great economic strides of the Soviet Union (going from 1/50th of American GNP to just half of American GNP):

    “I was aware of the remarkable success of the Soviet economy in raising the economic growth rate over the decades. The progression from the Tsar to a socialist oriented economy is a striking example of economic reform from which we can learn many lessons.

    “However, I am sure you will agree that, in the United States with our democratic institutions and the need for a high degree of consent, some of the measures adopted in the Soviet Union are quite unacceptable. Our reform must be in line with our traditions and our Constitution.”

    One can just imagine! And Brian thinks people are reading too much into it? Perhaps so, but when one reverses things, one sees how different the world is after 60 years of a Cold War and the subsequent “War on Terror.”

  7. John Quiggin July 16, 2013 at 5:16 pm #

    After passing on Bruce Caldwell’s response, I noticed the reference to the letter of 5 February and checked back. But no such letter appears in either Hayek’s or Thatcher’s files, as far as can be determined so far.

  8. Claude Horvath July 16, 2013 at 10:22 pm #

    Thanks for letting it be known with just what ‘delicacy’ elected leaders treat their public.

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  1. Margaret Thatcher Against Friedrich von Hayek’s Pleas for a Lykourgan Dictatorship - July 16, 2013

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