Theme: Political Ideas | Content Type: Blog

Libertarian Fallacies #3: There’s No Such Thing as Society

Albert Weale

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Ben Allan

| 6 mins read

One of Mrs Thatcher’s more infamous phrases is ‘There is no such thing as society’. Indeed, so keen was she on the idea, that she actually used it twice in the 1987 interview in Women’s Own from which it comes (See Margaret Thatcher Foundation). For libertarians, the phrase is totemic. It expresses the political individualism central to their thought.

Libertarians contrast what they see as the order of individual liberty on the one hand with a collectivist economic and social order on the other. Hayek, for example, regularly distinguished between the political order of a free people and the principles of what he called ‘tribal’ societies. In the latter, he said, all its members served a common purpose. As was her way, Margaret Thatcher captured this individualism crisply when, after saying there is no such thing as society, she went on to say ‘There are individual men and women and there are families …’

Yet, although as an individualist you may not be interested in society, society is interested in you. Free individual choice can lead to a collective failure that in the end disadvantages each of us individually. If individual families in the UK would turn down the thermostats on their central heating this winter, there is a better chance of avoiding power cuts that all would suffer from. No one individual household makes a detectable difference to the demands on the electricity grip. It is the aggregation of private individual choices that overloads the system and creates a collective failure.

The logic of such collective failures is well-known. They arise in situations in which the cumulative effect of privately-orientated individual choices leads to the frustration of each individual’s choice. Restraining your demand on the electricity system is one example, but there are many more. If people do not limit their own use of water in a drought, then everyone suffers from hosepipe bans and other restrictions on use. If people scramble for goods that are expected to be in short supply in the shops, the shelves quickly become bare. If depositors seek to withdraw their money from a bank that is rumoured to be in trouble, then there is a run on the bank. If individual boats fish as much as possible, fish stocks are soon exhausted. If everyone uses private transport, road systems become congested. When everyone stands on tiptoe, no one sees any better.

In the light of the pervasiveness of collective action problems, libertarian political individualism commits the fallacy of composition: the fallacy of thinking that what is true of each is true of all.

Government action and regulation are needed to prevent or limit the effects of these cumulatively disadvantageous choices. The great theorist of this role for government was Thomas Hobbes in the seventeenth century. In Leviathan Hobbes pointed out that the way to avoid the collectively damaging consequences of the scramble for positional advantage was through a social contract. In a social contract, each party agrees to restrain their own freedom in certain ways on condition that others do the same. The role of the state, then, is to provide each with the assurance that others will not free-ride on their restraint. Through the social contract, mutual restraint that is mutually agreed upon turns out to be the way of achieving as much freedom as possible. By contrast, outside of the social contract Hobbes wrote that life is nasty, poor, brutish and short. No doubt as the Truss government’s libertarianism works its logic out, we shall soon be saying nasty, poor, British and short.

When Margaret Thatcher asserted that there was no such thing as society, her main aim was to stress the duty of people to help themselves rather than immediately turn to the government for help. Many people took exception to this view thinking it encouraged selfishness. Yet, what Thatcher was saying was in essence no different from the first part of whatJohn F Kennedy said towards the end of his inaugural speech as President in 1961: ‘ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country’. Libertarians can admire the first part of the exhortation, but baulk at the second part. To them it seems to subordinate individual aims to the collective good. But in situations in which there is a common interest in saving electricity, or water, or any other resource depleted through collective use, it makes sense for individuals to think about what their country requires and adjust their behaviour accordingly.

The ethical impulse behind individualism is a noble one. Each of us has a right to the free development of our personality. But it requires a society, resting on the basis of a legitimate social contract, to create the conditions in which that right can be exercised. In short, individualism requires some form of collectivism.

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    Albert Weale

    Albert Weale is Emeritus Professor of Political Theory and Public Policy at University College London. His latest book is Modern Social Contract Theory (OUP, 2020). 

    Articles by Albert Weale
Volume 95, Issue 1

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