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Thatcher and the Politics of Prudence

Yesterday Mark Levin, popular radio talk show host and best-selling author, suggested (without mentioning my name) that my post on Margaret Thatcher was fundamentally at odds with, and even schizophrenic with, my post last week, in which I spoke about a conservatism that “places a premium on prudence and takes into account shifting circumstances and public sentiments.”

How could I praise political moderation and prudence one week and the Iron Lady the next?

A fair question, and one that affords me an opportunity to explain why the Thatcher example actually underscores my point about the conservative temperament and political moderation rightly understood.

Margaret Thatcher was a tower of political strength–principled, strong, determined, and courageous. (A nice summary of her accomplishments can be found here.) But what was the one area, as both a candidate and as prime minister, she stayed away from? The National Health Service–England’s socialized medical system. In fact, in her memoirs she praised the NHS. And Thatcher promised in her 1982 Conservative Party Conference speech that the NHS was “safe with us.”

This is similar to what Ronald Reagan did with the New Deal, promising not to dismantle it. On the contrary, Reagan spoke about our nation’s “ironclad commitment to Social Security.” Reagan, in 1980, even went so far as to reassure people he would not dismantle Medicare, which of course was a product of the Great Society. (Avik Roy points out that “the closest thing to Medicare reform that Reagan tried was to introduce a new system of price controls into the program, called the Resource-Based Relative Value Scale, in 1988…. Indeed, Reagan’s most significant contribution to our health-care system was to help create a new entitlement—EMTALA–that guaranteed that anyone could get free access to emergency room care regardless of their ability to pay, including illegal immigrants.”)

What to make of these decisions by both Thatcher and Reagan?

I suppose one could argue–quite unfairly in my view–that they were unprincipled, weak, and RINO-like. The other interpretation is that they were conservative in the way I described last week: prudent, realistic, and wise enough not to engage in a political Pickett’s Charge.

Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan picked their battles wisely, didn’t make the perfect the enemy of the good, and didn’t fight on issues that may well have led to their electoral loss–and therefore, in the process, foreclosed their chance at being historically great figures. They also took into account the settled views of the public, at least at the moment in time in which they governed. That doesn’t mean that over time things couldn’t change–as indeed they have on Medicare, with Republicans offering conservative reforms that go far beyond anything envisioned by Reagan. 

But I for one wouldn’t criticize Thatcher for not engaging in a frontal assault on NHS or Reagan for not engaging in a frontal assault on the New Deal. They marshaled their political capital in order to make profound changes in other areas, where they had a decent chance for success. So Reagan, for example, ushered in the supply side revolution while Thatcher privatized many British industries that had been state-controlled.

I wish, by the way, that Prime Minister Thatcher had been able to undo NHS and replace it with a free market system. But what one might have wanted her to do based on a conservative wish list, and what she was in fact able to do, are two different things. The conservatism I described last week is, I think, the conservatism Thatcher and Reagan more or less subscribed to in practice.

There is something of a divide on the right, perhaps not so much in terms of the end most of us seek (lower taxes, limited government, more competition, accountability and free market reforms) than in terms of how conservatives ought to deal with political reality as they try to advance conservative causes. Margaret Thatcher made her own inner peace with the NHS. And she was still one of the most consequential and successful conservative leaders of the 20th century.


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