An American Thatcherism?

Apologies for my pre- and post-Christmas absence — I’ve been working on a number of ongoing projects and, for the past few days, meeting with various colleagues and sources. 

Briefly, I wanted to link to Arpit Gupta’s discussion of the supposed shortage of “safe assets” and David Brooks’ (excellent) column on “midlife crisis economics.”

David Brooks is a somewhat unusual figure in that he is not best understood as a movement conservative. Yet he is influenced by the Thatcherite notion, as articulated by Shirley Letwin, of “the vigorous virtues.” According to Letwin, an American-born British intellectual historian, Thatcherism was never a theory, of which there could be orthodox and less orthodox interpretations. Rather, it was a vision of a society that cultivated and rewarded certain qualities in citizens:

The individual preferred by Thatcherism is, to begin with a simple list: upright, self-sufficient, energetic, adventurous, independent-minded, loyal to friends, and robust against enemies.

The Thatcherite thesis was that these vigorous virtues had been badly undermined in postwar Britain, in part due to the expansion of the welfare state, and that they needed to be restored if Britain’s economic and cultural maladies were to be successfully redressed. These vigorous virtues were not to be understood as necessarily in tension with the softer virtues, of kindness, compassion, etc. But the basic view was that the softer virtues could only flourish once the vigorous virtues had been restored. 

In a related vein, David offers an argument about how our historical moment differs from that of the progressives of the early twentieth century, who’ve become an intellectual touchstone for contemporary egalitarian liberals:

In the progressive era, the economy was in its adolescence and the task was to control it. Today the economy is middle-aged; the task is to rejuvenate it.

Second, the governmental challenge is very different today than it was in the progressive era. Back then, government was small and there were few worker safety regulations. The problem was a lack of institutions. Today, government is large, and there is a thicket of regulations, torts and legal encumbrances. The problem is not a lack of institutions; it’s a lack of institutional effectiveness.

The United States spends far more on education than any other nation, with paltry results. It spends far more on health care, again, with paltry results. It spends so much on poverty programs that if we just took that money and handed poor people checks, we would virtually eliminate poverty overnight. In the progressive era, the task was to build programs; today the task is to reform existing ones.

Third, the moral culture of the nation is very different. The progressive era still had a Victorian culture, with its rectitude and restrictions. Back then, there was a moral horror at the thought of debt. No matter how bad the economic problems became, progressive-era politicians did not impose huge debt burdens on their children. That ethos is clearly gone.

In the progressive era, there was an understanding that men who impregnated women should marry them. It didn’t always work in practice, but that was the strong social norm. Today, that norm has dissolved. Forty percent of American children are born out of wedlock. This sentences the U.S. to another generation of widening inequality and slower human capital development.

One hundred years ago, we had libertarian economics but conservative values. Today we have oligarchic economics and libertarian moral values — a bad combination.

In sum, in the progressive era, the country was young and vibrant. The job was to impose economic order. Today, the country is middle-aged but self-indulgent. Bad habits have accumulated. Interest groups have emerged to protect the status quo. The job is to restore old disciplines, strip away decaying structures and reform the welfare state. The country needs a productive midlife crisis.

The progressive era is not a model; it is a foil. It provides a contrast and shows us what we really need to do.

A somewhat crude way of putting this is that what America needs is Thatcherism. Note that Thatcherism is notably different from Reaganism. Though the left saw Reagan as a profoundly antagonistic figure, hostile to the welfare state, to cultural permissiveness, and much else that liberals hold dear, the Reagan of 1980 was, due in no small part to the supply-side credo, the champion of a “non-zero-sum” politics that aspired to a classless, frictionless politics of shared prosperity. Read the supply-siders of the late 1970s and you’ll find that they intend to use increased tax revenues generated by tax cuts to generously fund the welfare state. Reaganism reflected a basic confidence that the vigorous virtues were intact.

Thatcherism, in contrast, rested on a more forthrightly antagonistic view of the world — there was a zero-sum (in the short- to medium-term) conflict between individuals and families of all classes who celebrated and adhered to the vigorous virtues (a minority, quite possibly) and everyone else. The hope was that structural reform would encourage a growing number of Britons to embrace the vigorous virtues, but it was understood that this would take time — and that there would be forceful calls, from the voting public, from political rivals (not just on the left), and from esteemed authorities, in the universities, the Church of England, etc., to reverse course. 

One interesting question is whether we can imagine a Republican presidential candidate who could serve as the vessel of this set of ideas. I’m not sure. I do know that candidates who criticize private equity for destroying jobs, etc., aren’t likely to be effective champions of the vigorous virtues. But Mitt Romney, a candidate who embodies many of the vigorous virtues, has never seemed “robust against enemies.” Indeed, he often comes across as eager to please, which was not a vice commonly attributed to the Thatcherites. 

On a tangential note, it is interesting to consider the vigorous virtues in light of Jonathan Haidt’s “moral foundations” thesis. Specifically, loyalty to friends and robustness against enemies are qualities that are particularly prized by conservatives; liberals, in contrast, tend to frown on tribalism and grudge-holding, which might be a reason why they’ve tended to find intra-conservative battles so pointless and puzzling. This is not to suggest that the left is immune to internecine warfare. That would be absurd. But one does get the impression that liberals are somewhat more transactional, i.e., more willing to accept half a loaf, than conservatives, for whom fidelity to principle and loyalty to the team may at times be taken to counterproductive extremes. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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