Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Monday, April 15, 2013

Looking for "society"? Margaret Thatcher didn’t bother.

One of peevish Margaret Thatcher's better offerings was her insistence that “there is no such thing as society." Her assertion that only individuals—in co-operation or on their own—do the building and the stealing, and care for and oppress others should be accepted readily in our secular age.

Her statement, however, put conservatives on the defensive then, and, as David Frum found out last week, still does. It shouldn't. Indeed, it represents, if anything, modern conservatism’s right of passage in this enlightened age.

What would you expect a trained scientist to say?

Science hasn’t entirely turned the human mind into chemistry. However, it has long debunked the notion that individuals answer to ideologies or consider them higher and wiser than us.

Social scientists roll up data about how our minds and opinions evolve over time, and venture to guess what "society" thought just yesterday, and which societies are reasonably happy and which ones are sick. However, statistical aggregations have no life of their own.

Science has left us responsible. There’s no higher conscience assigned to check our conscience; no public interest we didn’t invent ourselves.

Hillary Clinton didn’t demonstrate that she was a left-winger or a socialist when she urged us to “Stop thinking about the individual and start thinking about what is best for society.” She was just being a Clinton: emphatic and imprecise at the same time. Margaret Thatcher only refused to pretend that individuals owe anything to a generality, literally to a blank check.

Orators, cardinals in the Vatican, and torturers get in our way by claiming that “society” has overriding interests. Further, they tell us to behave by implying that it has values of its own that are better than ours.

Theocrats and so-called “organic” conservatives can claim that society and its instrument-the powerful modern state—are, somehow, their god’s or history's handmaid, and not merely what a lawful majority of free men and women determine to favor at the moment. However, there is no way a prudent, democratic conservative or a liberal dare accept such mumble-jumble.

Calling on Texans to be Better Texans, New Yorkers to be better Americans, and Romans to be better Romans sounds fine. However, insisting that there is a Greater Good loses its charm when the proponent is wearing a pistol, or a mask, or calls himself a prophet.

Margaret Thatcher governed in harsh times harshly. We are free to not mourn her passing. However, it’s not acceptable to have one honest statement marginalized as extreme or libertarian.

Pointing out that “society” is only a word was neither anti-social nor hardhearted. There’s no hidden agenda buried in her curt sentence. Thatcher asserted simply that conservatives can also respect and can champion rationality in politics.

Surely, our leaders can be humane—and persuasive—without inventing for us a conscience better than our own.

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