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April 09, 2013 11:19 AM Thatcherism Retrospective

By Jonathan Bernstein

Margaret Thatcher, RIP.

I find I have very little to say about her. What matters about Thatcher, or at any rate about Thatcherism, is that there really was a significant change among elites about the power and efficacy of markets. My general sense — and to be sure, this is an impression, nothing hard and rigidly empirical about it — is that in the 1960s and through the mid-1970s, there really was a sense among many that markets were old-fashioned hokum, and that bureaucracies and other centralized planners could do many things far more efficiently. Oh, not Soviet-style central planners; by 1970, certainly, no one looked to the USSR (or China) as an economic model.

I’d put it this way: I suspect (and again, I have no solid study that I know of to cite here, but I think it’s correct) that if you looked around in 1965 the only people who would be referencing Adam Smith, at least in the US, would be a very small group of committed Goldwater conservatives. If you looked around in 1995, Adam Smith gets used by everyone across the ideological spectrum — and perhaps more by liberals than by conservatives, who seem more interested in Ayn Rand once liberals dip into Smith and discover that they like him.

Of course, what liberals learned from Smith isn’t to have “faith” in markets; it’s to respect and use the power of markets.

Now, how much of that is Thatcher, how much is Reagan, how much is generational, how much is a consequence of the economics of the time…I have no idea. For that matter, I don’t even know that the change happened at all; maybe it was just that people did a good job of selling that change. I don’t think so, though; policies such as the ACA and cap-and-trade really do reflect something different. Whatever it is, Thatcher was certainly the face of it, and I’d say deservedly so

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.

Comments

  • Michael Ryle on April 10, 2013 6:01 PM:

    It's noteworthy that when you analyze the comments pro and con about Thatcher they almost all come down to the same thing: she was tough.

    No one is saying that she was wise or compassionate or smart or prescient.

    Or if they are, the assessment is always overshadowed by the one thing that seems to matter most: she was tough.

    It's not a legacy I would wish to have.