The discredited Left can find little to say, save that she was “divisive.” How refreshing, then, to hear the enthusiasm in the equally widespread reports that former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who died Monday at age 87, managed in her remarkable 11-year tenure at Downing Street to vanquish socialism and restore the free market to Britain.
She was indeed a remarkable leader who did what many considered impossible. Unfortunately, these good-hearted reports could seem to declare victory in a struggle yet ongoing.
Yes, socialism calls for collective ownership of lands and factories, and Mrs. Thatcher’s success at privatizing many state-controlled industries — British Telecom, British Gas, Rolls-Royce, British Airways, British Coal, British Steel, the water companies and electric system, even privatizing some public housing — breathed new life into the foundering economy of the United Kingdom in the 1980s, even as her victory in the Falklands restored much of England’s lost prestige and credibility.
But tax-funded old-age pensions, tax-subsidized housing and schooling (no matter how enervating), and especially a sharply graduated income tax designed to punish the wealthy and shower the poor with the earnings of others (no matter how this discourages work and job creation) are also basic tenets of socialism, and those remain stubborn fixtures in Britain, as well as here.
What history must decide is whether the economic boom of the freer Western economies in the 1980s — juxtaposed against the dramatic collapse of the decrepit yet still murderous failed experiment of the Soviet Union — marked a turning of the tide, or a mere breathing space before another wave of ascendant state socialism.
Biographies note as though it’s an oddity that Margaret Thatcher, who rose to champion wealth creation, to stare down England’s destructive unions, to single-handedly launch the fleet that defeated the tin-pot dictators of Argentina, — “England’s most formidable woman since its greatest sovereign, Elizabeth I,” as George Will would have it — was born the daughter of a greengrocer.
She grew up in the family’s apartment above the shop, learning the values of thrift, discipline and industry as the dutiful daughter of Alfred Roberts, a grocer and Methodist lay preacher who eventually became mayor of Grantham, Lincolnshire.
Thatcher said she learned much about the world simply by studying her father’s business. “Before I read a line from the great liberal economists, I knew from my father’s accounts that the free market was like a vast sensitive nervous system, responding to events and signals all over the world to meet the ever-changing needs of peoples in different countries, from different classes, of different religions, with a kind of benign indifference to their status,” she wrote in her memoirs.
“The economic history of Britain for the next 40 years confirmed and amplified almost every item of my father’s practical economics. In effect, I had been equipped at an early age with the ideal mental outlook and tools of analysis for reconstructing an economy ravaged by state socialism.”
If her background seems odd, it’s only because the current ruling political classes, in America as well as England, are so lacking in men and women of character who learned from childhood to think of businesses not as cash cows, to be looted at will in the name of “social justice,” but as engines of wealth and job creation, guided by hard-working families for whom dinner on the table depends on struggling to eke out that little 2 percent profit each month.
A disciple of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, Thatcher promoted a program of sound money, laissez-faire, social fluidity and upward mobility through self-reliance and other “vigorous virtues,” Mr. Will notes.
Britons defied expectations by responding with enthusiasm. In 1979, she won the most lopsided election since 1945. Then she won twice more — something that hadn’t been accomplished in a century and a half.
And now the Iron Lady is gone.
Will the free market she championed prevail? It would be easy to say “time will tell” — easy, but wrong.
In fact, the verdict is already in. It was in three centuries ago, after the Pilgrims at Plymouth spent their first two seasons starving because no one would work the communal fields knowing their lazy neighbors would get an equal share of the crop, until finally in 1623, out of desperation, Gov. Bradford “assigned to every family a parceel of land. This had very good success; for it made all hands very industrious,” whereafter “Instead of famine, now God gave them plentie, and the face of things was changed, to the rejoysing of the harts of many, for which they blessed God. And … any generall wante of famine hath not been amongest them since to this day.”
Ronald Reagan is gone. Margaret Thatcher is gone. They were only politicians, after all, wrestling with “the art of the possible.” But the immutable rules of economics that they championed live on. We defy them at our peril.