The death of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher reminds of us that legacies are no short term project. Thatcher served from 1975 to 1990 as leader of the Conservative Party. That 15-year tenure — as with the reign of all political figures — was a mixture of success and failure.
Perhaps the most obvious of her successes was ascension to the head of Britain’s Conservative party; in so doing, she became the first woman to serve as prime minister. There’s an irony in her achievement given that only six years earlier she had told a reporter, “I don’t think there will be a woman prime minister in my lifetime.”
Given her nickname, the “Iron Lady,” one wonders whether the caution exercised in disputing the idea of a woman prime minister was an artifact of hesitance or understated strategy.
The Soviet press gave her the nickname after a 1976 speech in which she declared, “the Russians are bent on world dominance.”
A few years later, Thatcher found a close ideological kinship with U.S. President Ronald Reagan. The pair had much common ground in their core conservative beliefs. Those beliefs led her to espouse moral absolutism, nationalism and a preference of individual rights versus those of the state.
In 1987 she famously declared, “There is no such thing as society.”
While such statements might appear as little more than political hyperbole, that sentiment presages much of the modern neo-conservative movement.
Thatcher’s claim reflects what philosophers and social scientists term “methodological individualism.” The idea underlying methodological individualism is that society is reducible as the aggregate of individual actions, choices and mentalities. In other words, we only have society as the result of individual decisions.
In 1944, Karl Popper provided a clear statement of the idea, “[MI is] the quite unassailable doctrine that we must try to understand all collective phenomena as due to the actions, interactions, aims, hopes, and thoughts of individual men, and as due to traditions created and preserved by individual men.”
This perspective flies in the face of many other well-established sociological and economic assumptions. In particular it undermines virtually the whole of macroeconomics.
Even so, it provides an almost linear ideological pedigree to many of today’s most hotly contested assumptions about individuals and society. In particular, we can see variants of this philosophy peek through the political rhetoric of Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), an acolyte of Ayn Rand’s hedonistic ramblings.
In 1982, Paul wrote with glowing praise about the “immortal words” of Howard Roark, the hero of Ayn Rand’s novel, The Fountainhead. Paul mourned the “fact” that “man” had lost touch with the Roark-ian ideal — that average people had little purpose other than to thwart the achievements and greatness of higher beings.
As he stated, “The new world man crawls on all fours, submits, acquiesces and seeks the security of the mindless mob of mediocrity.”
While one might take Paul’s admonition as a “fancied up” version of “it’s hard to soar with eagles when you work with turkeys,” it comes off as somehow self-important and elitist.
The other malignant manifestation of MI can be seen in the U.S. judicial system’s increasing affinity for the idea of corporations as people. As the basic postulate of MI would subordinate the collectivist idea of a corporation, they must be redefined as individuals in order to fully embrace their position as the ultimate Übermensch — the Over-man … the Superman.
The idea of Superman leads us right back to Thatcher. When the Soviet press termed her the Irony Lady, they were off just a little. In the light of history, her constitution was not iron. Rather, she was clearly the Woman of Steel.