There is no such thing as society


A comment from a Woman’s Own interview in 1987 is often repeated, but rarely in context:  ”There is no such thing as society”. Its relevance was made explicit with the publication of the second volume of Margaret Thatcher’s autobiography in 1993:

they never quoted the rest. I went on to say: There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then to look after our neighbour. My meaning, clear at the time but subsequently distorted beyond recognition, was that society was not an abstraction, separate from the men and women who composed it, but a living structure of individuals, families, neighbours and voluntary associations.

That detail derives from the work of Friedrich Hayek, which was much admired by Margaret Thatcher. The unifying theme of Hayek’s extensive writing is that the most enduring social institutions are shaped by spontaneous evolution, rather than by intellectual design. That “there is no such thing as society” reflects the idea that inter-dependent social systems and institutions bring a natural order to human affairs. Its details are evident in the common law, in rituals and in customs and practices handed down the generations. This evolving order allows individuals to give expression to their personal choices; and, by those choices, systems and institutions are shaped through continuous adaptation.

Such “natural” structures are denigrated by left-of-centre intellectuals who sense that humankind can achieve a more rational order by design. Or, as Hayek writes, “One’s initial surprise at finding that intelligent people tend to be socialists diminishes when one realises that, of course, intelligent people will tend to overvalue intelligence.”

Any practical consideration of the broadest interests of “society” vanished with the emergence of a world economy structured upon the division of labour, free access to markets and individual choices. Our atavistic dispositions to the morality of the tribe, where individuals are bound by personal relationships, could never have supported the extended socio-economic order that has brought unsurpassed material benefits. Beyond the tribe, it is impossible for anyone to aim directly at the well-being of the community, because it is impossible to comprehend the vast network of interactive obligations and the full consequences of any single human action. Any attempt to impose an order created by rational design would be undermined by a complexity of detail that cannot be understood holistically as “society”. For those reasons, Hayek concluded that “society” is a term deployed when people “do not quite know what they are talking about.”