Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Margaret Thatcher on the Failure of Socialism, November 22, 1990

by Michael Kaplan

This is a brief video excerpt from Margaret Thatcher’s last speech in Parliament as Britain’s prime minister. Thatcher, who served as prime minister from 1979 to 1990, was known as The Iron Lady for her unflinching resolve to defend liberty and defeat communism abroad and socialism at home. Together with her friend and ally Ronald Reagan, Thatcher restored free market capitalism and dismantled a large chunk of Britain’s social democracy—its blue model. This set the stage for Britain’s economic revival, transforming the old Mother Country from the shabby, worn out, post-imperial basket case of the 1970s, to the dynamic, wealth creating, though perhaps too multicultural, “Cool Britannia” of Tony Blair and his successors.

Here is a transcript of the of the speech, parts of which are included on the video. And here is a link to a video of the full speech at the Margaret Thatcher Foundation website, and at YouTube.

In the excerpt shown in the video, Thatcher takes on two Labour MPs who charge her with transferring resources from the poor to the rich, thus making the poor poorer. She responded, in classic Thatcher fashion, by accusing her opposition of wanting to keep the poor poorer so long as the rich didn’t get richer—the essence of socialism:
People on all levels of income are better off than they were in 1979. The hon. Gentleman is saying that he would rather that the poor were poorer, provided that the rich were less rich. That way one will never create the wealth for better social services, as we have. What a policy. Yes, he would rather have the poor poorer, provided that the rich were less rich. That is the Liberal policy. . . .
I think that the hon. Gentleman knows that I have the same contempt for his socialist policies as the people of east Europe, who have experienced them, have for theirs. I think that I must have hit the right nail on the head when I pointed out that the logic of those policies is that they would rather the poor were poorer. Once they start to talk about the gap, they would rather that the gap were that—[indicating]—down here, not this—[indicating]—but—[indicating.] So long as the gap is smaller, they would rather have the poor poorer. One does not create wealth and opportunity that way. One does not create a property-owning democracy that way.
Debates in Britain’s House of Commons have always been much more in your face, substantive, and colorful than the sound bite dribble that’s been the common fare of the U. S. Congress in recent years. Mrs. Thatcher was the undisputed mistress of the parliamentary style. In this The Iron Lady was quite worthy of her great Tory predecessors, Disraeli and Churchill. Indeed, she qualifies as a leader in the Jacksonian mold. As the daughter of a small businessman (a grocer) Thatcher had a clear understanding of the importance of entrepreneurialism in creating wealth and promoting liberty. And she knew that socialism was a dead end. Thatcher conveyed this message to the soon-to-be Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, when she first met him in December 1984. The interchange, pieced together from various sources by Claire Berlinski in her biography of Thatcher, went something like this:
Gorbachev told Thatcher it was time to end the Cold War.
Thatcher told Gorbachev it was time to end communism.
Gorbachev told Thatcher that communism was superior to capitalism.
“Don’t be silly Mr. Gorbachev. You can barely feed your own citizens.”
“To the contrary, Mrs. Thatcher! Our people live joyfully.”
“Oh do they? Then why do so many of them want to leave? And why do you prevent them from leaving?”
After the meeting, Thatcher famously said of Gorbachev, “We can do business together.” But while they could do business together, Thatcher had let Gorbachev know that there could be no moral equivalence between democracy and communism, which was still an evil empire. And this, Berlinski argues in her biography, gets to the heart of Thatcher’s greatness as a leader: her moral imagination, a quality she shared with Reagan. While Thatcher certainly wanted to promote the economic well-being of her people, what really mattered were the moral values—individual liberty, responsibility, the rule of law, and self-reliance—that made economic prosperity possible.

Thatcher’s determination to bring down the British welfare state and her unflinching moral commitment to advance liberty, strengthen traditional moral values, and unleash the entrepreneurial energy of the British people to allow them to create prosperity and pursue happiness, put her at odds with the upper-class elite types who dominated the Tory Party leadership. Thatcher was in fact the only American-style conservative leader that contemporary Britain or Europe has produced, and she was repudiated by her party for it. Thatcher’s principled and charismatic style of leadership, like Reagan’s, is sorely needed today. Tony Blair, though he was from the Labour Party, was a principled champion of liberty and capitalism in Thatcher’s mold. From what I’ve seen so far, I don’t think David Cameron, the new Tory prime minister, with his aristocratic background and upbringing (he’s a fifth cousin of Queen Elizabeth), is about to launch a revival of Thatcherism in his party.

© 2011 Michael Kaplan

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Thaddeus Russell, “Renegade” Historian: Drunkards, Freeloaders, Rioters, and Prostitutes Were the True Pioneers of American Liberty

by Michael Kaplan

Every once in a while an intellectual rebel stirs up controversy in the staid halls of Academe by challenging politically correct interpretations of history. Thaddeus Russell, Columbia University Ph.D., formerly a professor at Barnard College who now teaches Occidental College, is just such a renegade. His, shall we say, unconventional teaching and writing on American history earned him the name “Bad Thad” from his students, as well as the displeasure of the senior faculty at Columbia and Barnard. Russell recently published his controversial ideas about the critical role of social renegades—drunkards, prostitutes, tavern owners, slackers, pirates, rioters, and many others—in advancing American liberty in a book called, naturally enough, A Renegade History of the United States. The Founding Fathers, in Russell’s version of history, were far from the champions of liberty that Americans have always made them out to be. I’ve posted here a video of Russell discussing his ideas with John Stossel on the Fox Business Network.

Russell does have a point, though he pushes it way too far. The Founding Fathers were primarily interested in political liberty and the protection of property rights. Men like George Washington, John Adams, and the rest, were generally conservative in their social outlook. They wanted to preserve the self-governing civil society of independent householders that already existed in British North America, while releasing it from Britain’s shackles of monarchy and aristocracy. So their first priority was to establish viable institutions for an independent, self-governing republic. But the Founders, as Russell rightly points out, were elitists who wanted to maintain an orderly society in which elite men of property and education would serve as fathers of the people, restrain popular passions, and govern the republic on the people’s behalf. Most of the Founders (Jefferson was an exception) were not prepared for the upsurge of populist energy, popular assertiveness, and social mobility unleashed by the Revolution. And they were certainly not countercultural radicals. (Lately, as I told my class, I’ve tried to imagine how George Washington would react to watching a Lady Gaga video.) Christian morality, the Founders firmly believed, was the essential bedrock of a self-governing republic. Securing the liberty of social outcasts to flout the Protestant work ethic and pursue unconventional lifestyles was definitely not on their agenda.

Here is another video of Russell discussing his ideas, this time with Ted Balaker on

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Two Tributes to Andrew Jackson as the Embodiment of the American Spirit

by Michael Kaplan

The Lion in Winter.  Andrew Jackson in 1840, by Jacques Amans.

Respecting the character of Andrew Jackson and his influence, there will still be differences of opinion. One fact, however, has been established: during the last thirty years of his life, he was the idol of the American people. His faults, whatever they were, were such as a majority of the American citizens of the last generation could easily forgive. His virtues, whatever they were, were such as a majority of American citizens of the last generation could warmly admire. It is this fact which renders him historically interesting. Columbus had sailed; Raleigh and the Puritans had planted; Franklin had lived; Washington fought; Jefferson written; fifty years of democratic government had passed; free schools, a free press, a voluntary church had done what they could to instruct the people; the population of the country had been quadrupled and its resources increased ten fold; and the result of all was, that the people of the United States had arrived at the capacity of honoring Andrew Jackson before all other living men.

Andrew Jackson, more than any other individual, embodied the American spirit in all of its strengths, weaknesses, and contradictions. In life and in death, Jackson was a controversial figure. To his supporters in the Democratic Party, Jackson (like Washington) was Cincinnatus. They celebrated their Hero as the knight-errant of the frontier, tribune of the people, and the champion of democracy. But to the political opposition—supporters of Henry Clay and the Whig Party—Jackson was Caesar, “King Andrew the First,” who abused executive authority and trampled the Constitution under foot.

Old Hickory was a true American original whose life exemplified the values and culture of Jacksonian America. He rose from a childhood of poverty and deprivation to achieve renown as a military chieftain and the supreme political leader of his generation. And Jackson achieved all this through the force of his personality. As historians Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton write: “His was a brutish world in which freedom and violence were so inextricably intertwined that those who prospered did so less by virtue of their social connections . . . than because they were tough enough to strike at potential enemies before they could land the first blow.” Jackson thus made his reputation as a skilled practitioner of the art of violent confrontation: first by fighting duels with his Tennessee rivals, later by defending American liberty and advancing American empire in wars with the Indians and the British. Liberty, as Jackson understood it, meant personal autonomy and the freedom of local interests from federal interference. This was the liberty of white male patriarchs, like Jackson, to lead their families and be masters of their domains. Jacksonian men were first and foremost the protectors of women, children, and the community. As he moved from the local to the national arena, Jackson developed a passionate belief in the unity of the American nation that could not be compromised by sectionalism. A strong union, he believed, was needed to preserve America’s hard won liberty. Building a North American empire through ethnic cleansing of the Indians, in which Jackson played a central role, allowed white Jacksonian men to see themselves as a band of brothers united in the defense of liberty. Unfortunately, Jacksonian nationalism also forged a racially exclusive definition of who was an American and who was entitled to enjoy the blessings of liberty.

James Parton, Jackson’s first major biographer, understood why Old Hickory embodied the American character better than any other figure. Unlike their European forebears, Americans did not passively accept what fate and circumstance handed out. The Jacksonian code of honor valued courage above all else, viewing life as a struggle against those hostile forces conspiring to grind a man down into the dust. On the early American frontier those forces could be savage Indians, perfidious Britons, the capriciousness of nature, or treacherous eastern elites. Yet the Jacksonian American, like Jackson himself, conquered all enemies and surmounted all obstacles, to emerge triumphant as the master of his destiny. As Parton put it, “not only had [Jackson] no such word as fail, but no belief, not the slightest, that he could fail in any thing seriously undertaken by him. And he never did.” Of course not all Jacksonians met success and triumph in their lives; many pioneers on the frontier fell victim to those forces lined up against them. But they did go down fighting. Jackson’s life story was the ideal to which those Americans who shared Jacksonian culture and values looked up to and tried to emulate.