I confess my first reaction to news of Margaret Thatcher’s death was to stifle a yawn. After all, she’d been long past doing anyone either good or ill. But after witnessing the sorry spectacle of reactionary old men at the Adam Smith Institute and Heritage Foundation attempting to crawl into Thatcher’s coffin and be buried alive with her, and people at Mother Jones who should know better referring to her policies as “free market extremism,” I feel compelled to write something.
As evidence that Thatcher “brought economic freedom to Britain” (Reason, April 8, 2013), Ira Stoll mentions her privatization of state industries, reduction in the top income tax rate, and value-added tax increase that “shifted the tax burden to consumption rather than income.”
Jim DeMint of the Heritage Foundation, lauds Thatcher not only for her assault on Big Government (“DeMint on Lady Thatcher, Freedom’s Champion,” April 8, 2013), but for being America’s steadfast partner in the fight for the global spread of liberty.
Larry Kudlow — the ridiculous CNBC business wonk who probably doesn’t take off his wing tips with dress socks and sock garters even when he’s intimate with his wife — said that “‘Freedom’ was always her watchword” (“Thatcher, Freedom, and Free Markets,” April 8, 2013).
So much for the hype. What’s the reality?
“Free enterprise” and “individual responsibility” are so far from any relevance to neoliberal capitalism that I can easily imagine a massive piece of totalitarian architecture in London, chief city of Airstrip One, with Ministry of Free Enterprise and Individual Responsibility written across its face in 10-story letters.
The neoliberal revolution has resulted in little if any overall reduction in the size of government. Neoliberalism is just another form of state capitalist intervention, with accumulation of “private” capital at taxpayer expense. Despite all the anti-“big gummint” rhetoric, Neoliberalism must in practice maintain massive levels of government spending to buy up the corporate economy’s excess product and utilize excess capacity. For the elites who carried out the revolution, Thatcher was just a useful idiot, a way of packaging their statist agenda in the wholesome imagery of nineteenth century liberalism.
That innocuous phrase “shift of the tax burden from income to consumption” covers a whole host of libertarian sins. While she lowered the top tax rate from 83% to 60%, she cut the basic rate only from 33% to 30% — and eliminated the bottom rate of 25% altogether for the underclass. She almost doubled the VAT from 8% to 15%, and made the regressive poll tax the main source of revenue for local government. So what she actually did was not so much reduce the tax burden as shift it from returns on capital and accumulated wealth to returns on labor.
What about Maggie’s heralded “privatization” of state industries? Neoliberal “privatization” of government activity may leave a larger share of functions under nominally private direction — but operating within a web of protections, advantages and subsidies largely defined by the state.
The same applies to the rest of the so-called “small government” agenda. Spending cuts on social services are more than offset by other forms of subsidies (including “Defense”) to the operating costs of corporate enterprise. Neoliberal trade agreements include a legal framework (e.g., so-called “intellectual property” rights) designed mainly to protect big business against the market. “Deregulation” is really just reregulation — a shift of state activity in a more pro-corporate direction.
Thatcher’s hatred of Big Government apparently didn’t extend to the use of eminent domain to make way for subsidized highways, as evidenced by the siege and subsequent bulldozing of Wanstonia to make way for her beloved M11, part of her “greatest road-building program since the Romans.” But then subsidies to the car culture and to Big Business’s long-distance shipping costs is seldom counted as part of Big Government.
What people like Stoll mean by “economic freedom” can be seen from the utterly idiotic claim that the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile was bad for personal freedom but “good for economic freedom.”
Those who dismiss Pinochet’s forcible suppression of workers’ right to associate and organize as irrelevant to “economic freedom,” oddly enough, are the same people who make the freedom of capitalists to buy, sell and own the means of production the defining characteristic of “free market capitalism.”
Pinochet’s “economic freedom” agenda explicitly included, as a major component, the violent liquidation of the labor movement. His soldiers visited factories and asked managers to point out labor activists for subsequent torture and “disappearance.” What kind of “economic freedom” is it when the state’s secret police terrorize an entire population in order to reduce the bargaining power of labor, so that the business climate will be conducive to capital investment?
That the Adam Smith Institute Director Madsen Pirie places repeated emphasis on the comparative number of “days lost to strikes” before and after the Iron Lady’s accession to power (“She was a giant among men,” April 8, 2013) suggests he shares Pinochet’s idea of “economic freedom.”
As for Thatcher’s defense of the “values and freedoms so fundamental to our way of life” that Stoll makes so much of, they don’t bear much looking into. When challenged by a reporter on the futility of drug criminalization (“Even my chauffeur smokes pot.”), she responded “Tell me who he is. I’ll have him arrested.” Like her counterpart Reagan in the United States, Thatcher began a thirty-year slide into police statism, and the erosion constraints on unreasonable search and seizure and other common law due process guarantees, that was built on by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
Thatcher’s solidarity with America in “the global cause of freedom,” as DeMint puts it, is a phrase that only makes sense when interpreted with the help of the Newspeak Dictionary. Thatcher was one of the most faithful and tireless friends to torturers, military dictators and death squads the world ever knew — just so long as they were enemies of the Soviet Union and limited their terror to labor organizers and land reform activists.
In short, as a defender of “economic freedom” and every other kind of freedom, and as a promoter of “free enterprise” and “individual responsibility,” Margaret Thatcher was a complete and utter fraud. And the sycophancy of her cult-followers is nothing short of sickening.
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