There’s a new name for the government’s vision of Britain in 2017. The ‘Shared Society’ is Theresa May’s moniker for her agenda that is supposed to make society work for everyone. That is, her agenda for how government is going to make society work for everyone. For the new vision is very much about the state, unlike David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ which to an extend was about empowering individuals and communities to take control.
May is not only distancing herself from her predecessor, she’s dealing a blow to Tory royalty. Margaret Thatcher’s famous and often misinterpreted line ‘there is no such thing as society’ was a criticism of an entitlement culture and a lack of individual responsibility, of always looking to the state for answers. Society does of course exist, it is the sum total of social relations, how people associate and interact with one another. But society is not the state. That was what Thatcher was trying to convey. May’s vision of society is very much conflated with the state. People should look to the state for answers. According to May ‘it is the job of government to encourage and nurture the social and the cultural unions represented by families, communities, towns, cities, counties and nations’. This matches the world view of the Left who has long believed state and society to be one – and it is anathema to the very idea of a free society. It emphasizes the collective over the individual’ it legitimizes violation of property rights in the pursuit of the common good. Government can legitimately intervene in any social relation to ‘correct the injustice and unfairness that divides us wherever it is found’, as May puts it.
Rejecting the Thatcherite view of society is not just rhetoric. It creates a slippery slope towards increased collectivism. The problem is that she endorses the world view of the Left, abandoning the arguments for the individual over the state. It is intellectual surrender and marks the end of an era.
Society is not and should never be confused with the state. Society should never be based on force and violation of individual liberty, it should be voluntary. By conflating the terms, then ‘anything a government does to an individual is not only just and untyrannical but also “voluntary” on the part of the individual concerned’, as Murray Rothbard puts it in ‘Anatomy of the State’. It is hence essential that we resist and do not espouse this world view.
May puts forward a vision of society that validates any and all state interventions, however invasive. What the policy follow-through will be remains to be seen. May is no ideologue, she is a career politician who has never held a job in the private sector. And this new initiative is a career move, designed to secure her the office of Prime Minister for the foreseeable future. May knows that big parts of the electorate feel left behind, marginalised and forgotten. And she knows that many are susceptible to the easy solution of looking to a benevolent government for answers to their problems. This rhetoric will play well. Even an impotent Labour party must take some satisfaction in such blatant a capitulation to their tenet. For libertarians however, these are challenging times. Individual freedom and sacrosanct property rights never felt within reach, but in Theresa May’s Britain it sadly feels even further away.