There are many things I admire about former British Prime Minister, Baroness Margaret Thatcher. I admire her Cold War anti-communism and the strong leadership she provided her country during the Falkland Islands War. I admire the honourable way in which she stood up for General Pinochet, who had been a consistent friend to the West in general and to Great Britain in particular, when he was dishonourably arrested by the Blair government during a visit to Britain.
Needless to say I also agree with many of her ideas. While I am not as doctrinaire a Hayekian as she is I am in general sympathy with her belief in economic freedom and private property and her opposition to welfarism and socialism. I can think of no better response to the silliness of anti-royalism than Lady Thatcher’s remark that “Those who imagine that a politician would make a better figurehead than a hereditary monarch might perhaps make the acquaintance of more politicians.”
There is, however, a well-known statement she made with which I strongly disagree. In an interview with Douglas Keay of Women’s Own magazine in 1987, she said “There is no such thing as society.” This was a rather bizarre statement for someone who was at the time serving as Prime Minister of a society to make. As we will see it was also a statement that was particularly inappropriate in the mouth of the leader of the Conservative Party, which Lady Thatcher was at the time. She made the remark in the context of arguing that people should take responsibility for their own lives and not expect the government to solve all their problems for them. That is a perfectly sound position which makes the absurdity of her remark stand out all the more against the background of such straightforward common sense.
As it happened, we do not have to ask ourselves what on earth she was thinking. The remark generated all sorts of comment and the Sunday Times, in its July 10, 1988 published a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office explaining what she meant. The statement reiterated the point about personal responsibility and includes these illuminating remarks about her earlier words:
But society as such does not exist except as a concept. Society is made up of people. It is people who have duties and beliefs and resolve. It is people who get things done.
This clarifies everything. She was expressing a basic concept of classical liberalism.
One of the ideas of classical liberalism is that individuals have concrete existence but societies do not. Society, according to liberalism, is an abstract idea constructed by individuals to help them better their own lives in cooperation with other individuals. Society is no more than the sum of the individuals who comprise it and to treat it as if it were something more than that, liberalism says, is to commit the fallacy of reification, the false attribution of concreteness to something that is only abstract.
Now there are some liberal ideas that a conservative can agree with. This, however, is not one of them. It is in fundamental contradiction to the conservative understanding of the nature of society. It is also a key element of the theoretical foundation for progressive social engineering. Liberalism and progressivism are both the offspring of the modern rationalist belief that human beings can create a better life and future for themselves by doing away with tradition all together and applying reason and the findings of empirical science to the planning of such a future. Progressives believe that governments should implement this planning over the objections of those who have an “irrational” preference for traditional ways of life. It is far easier to believe that a better society can be devised from scratch through rational planning and that opposition to such planning is irrational and should be overruled by the state in people’s own interests if you also believe that society itself is just an abstract concept.
Conservatives do not share the liberal and progressive faith in the ability of human reason to design a better way of living and a better society from scratch. Conservatism is the belief that a society that grows and develops, slowly and naturally, over a long period of time, will never be perfect, but will always be preferable to a society drawn up on paper by some committee of planners, no matter how intelligent they may be. A society that grows and develops naturally over time cannot be merely an abstract concept. It must exist in a more concrete sense.
The liberal idea that society is merely an abstract concept shows just how out of touch with reality liberalism is. This idea is closely connected to the liberal idea of the priority of the individual. Indeed, the two ideas are the reverse sides of one coin in that neither could be true if the other were false. The idea of the priority of the individual is that the individual is prior to all social groups and that human beings are autonomous individuals in their natural state. For this to be true society would have to be an abstract concept thought up by individuals and for society to be an abstract concept thought up by individuals the individual would have to be prior to all levels of social organization. Yet the idea that the individual is prior to society is demonstrably false. Every human being born into this world is born into a number of social groups of which he is already a member without his voluntary consent being given or even asked for. He is born into his family, both the nuclear family consisting of his parents, whatever siblings he might have, and himself, and his extended family of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. Except in the most unusual of circumstances he will have been born into a community as well. Each of these, his nuclear family, his extended family, and the community to which his family belongs, existed before he did.
The liberal theory of the priority of the individual is not only false it is the opposite of what is observably true in the real world. It follows from this that the idea that society exists only as an abstract concept and not as something concrete is false too.
If society has concrete existence it must also have a nature. The traditional society preferred by conservatives over the artificial planned society preferred by liberals, progressives, and other rationalists is organic in nature.
What exactly does it mean to say that traditional society is organic?
The first thing it means is that traditional society has the quality, already discussed, of having grown and developed naturally over time rather than having been deliberately thought up and drawn out by a group of social planners. This is why the expression “the organic model of society”, an expression I confess to being guilty of having used in the past, is a contradiction in terms. A model is a tool of the rational planner. An architect designing a large building, a civil engineer designing the traffic infrastructure of a city, and an inventor designing a piece of complex machinery, might each first build a model so as to test his design and fix the flaws he finds before the construction of the final product begins. There can be no organic model of society because an organic society cannot be designed and constructed in this manner.
The concept of an organic society is a metaphor rather than a model. It means that to understand the nature of such a society we should think of a living organism, like a human being, animal, or plant. The way in which persons and groups within a society, relate to each other and cooperate with each other to form the society, is analogous to the way cells, tissues, and organs come together to form an organism.
There are a number of different ways in which the metaphor of an organism sheds light upon the nature of society.
Take, for example, the way the body of a complex organism like a human being, is multilayered. The human body consists entirely of cells but these cells do not come together directly to form the unity which is the body. First, cells of a similar type and function form tissues. Organs, such as the heart, lungs, and brain, are then formed out of tissues, and come together themselves to form systems like the nervous, reproductive, and digestive systems. Finally these systems, cooperating together by each performing its distinct function, make up a human body.
A traditional society is like this too. A traditional society is made up of people but individuals do not come together directly to form the unity which is society. Individuals belong to families and families come together to form larger social groups of various sorts. Families with similar education, occupations, wealth, and social status come together to form classes. Families that live in proximity to one another and who tend to do business with each other, shop in the same stores, eat in the same restaurants, send their children to the same schools, and regularly meet each other in a variety of contexts of work and play, form communities. Families that regularly meet together to collectively worship their God form religions. All of these various groups together make up a society.
As with any other metaphor the details of the analogy should not be pressed too far. The correlation that is being drawn is between the relationship of the parts of the body to the whole and the relationship between the parts of society and the whole. This does not mean that every specific part of society corresponds to a specific part of the body or vice-versa. Sometimes such a correlation may exist. That the government performs the same function in society that the head performs in the body is an observation that has been around since at least the time of Plato’s Republic. (1) Other times there may be no such specific correlation.
Parallels can be drawn between the role of the individual in society and that of the cell in the body. One can also draw parallels between the family and the cell, however. If the family is the cell then the individual is the atom. Interestingly, the term social atomization is used to refer to the alienation of the individual from society that has been brought about by modern conditions.
There is another way in which the relationship between the whole of a society and its parts resembles that of the body of a living organism and that is in its longevity. The life of a complex organism is ordinarily much longer than the lifespan of most of its cells. Its cells are constantly multiplying and replacing themselves. Indeed the fact that is occurs is one of the most basic traits that distinguishes living from dead material. The lifespans of the various cells which make up the human body vary, most falling within a range that goes from a couple of days to a little over a year. Only the cells of the brain and nervous system live as long as the body itself (2) assuming that one does not kill them prematurely by consuming toxic substances or holding to progressive ideas.
In similar fashion the lifespans of the people who make up a society vary but are usually much shorter than the lifespan of the society itself. Some people live out the threescore and ten years allotted to them by the psalmist, some live longer, and some die young for one reason or another. The lifespan of a society, however, is ordinarily measured in centuries not in years. As cells multiply, replace themselves, and die within an organism that lives much longer than they do, so generation succeeds generation as people are born, reproduce, and die, within the life of their society.
An implication of this is that the good of the whole society should be considered, not just in terms of its present living members, but of past and future generations as well. (3)
Further light on the nature of an organic society can be found by considering and answering a misconception about it.
The most common objection to the organic view of society is that it is a recipe for totalitarianism. An organic society, libertarians say, is a society in which the parts are completely subordinated to the whole and therefore the organic view of society serves the interests of despotic governments looking to justify their acts of tyranny.
In answer to this objection it should be pointed out that while specific despots may have used the organic theory in this manner the idea that government should have absolute control over the lives of its people by no means follows from the view that society is best understood as an organism. Earlier, I pointed out that the contractual model of society, which is part of the classical liberal worldview held by most libertarians, is itself an important element in the theoretical justification of progressive social engineering. Progressive social engineering is when the government, in order to achieve progressive goals like universal economic and social equality, interferes with the customs, traditions, mores, and folkways which people follow in their everyday lives. The idea that society is an abstract concept, a contract drawn up by individuals for the good of individuals, eliminates many of the objections people might have to this sort of heavy-handed government interference with the way of life they have learned and inherited from their parents and ancestors. Several objections to such social engineering arise, on the other hand, out of the idea that society is a living organism.
Indeed, the idea that the government should have absolute control over the lives of its people does not logically follow the idea that society is an organism at all. Think about it. Throughout your entire life, the cells, organs, and systems in your body perform various functions. How many of these do you consciously control? Do you ordinarily think about how your lungs inhale and exhale air and instruct them on how to do a better job? Do you regularly tell your heart when to beat? Do you find yourself bossing your kidneys and your liver around or passing laws in your brain regulating the way your skin absorbs sunlight or your white blood cells fight off infection? If you had to consciously control all the internal processes in your body you would be unable to function. Neither can a society function when its government tries to micromanage all the affairs of its members. If anything, the organic metaphor suggests that government should have less control over the affairs of a society’s members than you have over the involuntary processes and functions that take place in your body. This is because the people who make up a society possess something which the cells and organs which make up a human being do not possess and that is the ability to reflect, deliberate, and make choices.
The organic understanding of society, then, is not consistent with tyranny. The idea that the members of a society are parts of an organic whole is not an excuse for government oppression. It means that when people go about their everyday lives, voluntarily acting in ways influenced by the customs and traditions that have been passed on to them, which have developed throughout their society’s history to serve its needs, their actions contribute to the greater good of the whole society. When a man and a woman marry each other, have children, raise those children to both fend for themselves and cooperate with others in accordance with the customs and rules of their society, this serves the good of their society as a whole, which cannot survive unless a new generation follows the old generation.
A conservative is someone who prefers this kind of traditional, organic, society to one drawn up on paper by even the most competent of planners. For this reason “there is no such thing as society” is a phrase that does not belong in the mouth of the leader of a party which professes to be conservative.
(1) Ironically, of course, when Plato places this observation in the mouth of his mentor Socrates in The Republic, Socrates and his friends are engaged in thinking up a hypothetical, ideal model of a city-state.
(2) The claim that all of the cells in your body are completely replaced every seven years is a myth.
(3) Those who would question how the good of people now deceased could be affected in the present are invited to read the accounts of Solon’s interview with Croesus of Lydia found in Herodotus’ Histories and Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, and the discussion of this interview in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. When, according to Herodotus and Plutarch, the Athenian lawgiver Solon in his travels met Croesus, the king displayed his wealth to him and asked him if he had ever known a happier man. He was not pleased when Solon answered yes and proceeded to name Tellus, Cleobis, and Biton, all of whom were dead. Solon told him that because the fortunes of man rise and fall “and him only to whom the divinity has continued happiness unto the end we call happy; to salute as happy one that is still in the midst of life and hazard, we think as little safe and conclusive as to crown and proclaim as victorious the wrestler that is yet in the ring.” Croesus would learn what Solon meant when he lost his kingdom and life to the conquest of the Persians. Aristotle, in Book One of his Nicomachean Ethics asks “Must no one at all, then, be called happy while he lives; must we, as Solon says, see the end? Even if we are to lay down this doctrine, is it also the case that a man is happy when he is dead? Or is not this quite absurd, especially for us who say that happiness is an activity?” He then takes the question further than Solon himself had taken it by questioning how the fortunes of children and descendants affect the happiness of the dead. “It would be odd, then, if the dead man were to share in these changes and become at one time happy, at another wretched; while it would also be odd if the fortunes of the descendants did not for some time have some effect on the happiness of their ancestors.” The quotation from Solon is from Plutarch’s account of his life as translated by John Dryden. The quotations from Aristotle are from W. D. Ross’ translation of the Nicomachean Ethics.
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