It's A Gray Area: Lessons from Thatcherism remain relevant

As you know, Margaret Thatcher died April 8 at the age of 87 after serving as Britain's prime minister from 1979 until 1990. We owe her a debt for at least two reasons, one of them principled, the other cautionary.

First and foremost, Thatcher took office at a time when Britain's economy had become stagnant and inflation was rampant. This owes in large part to the government having introduced the welfare state and nationalized a number of businesses, including railroads, telephone services, airlines and gas companies. In addition, labor unions were then so strong that they were in many ways dictating how companies could manage their businesses.

A story from Winston Churchill illustrates the two approaches. After one of his speeches, Churchill happened to be in a men's room at a urinal when Clement Attlee, one of his longtime political nemeses, came in and walked up to a urinal right next to him.

Now most men know that it is an unwritten rule that when the urinals are not crowded, you leave a space between your and someone else. So when Attlee moved next to him, Churchill stopped his business and moved one urinal over.

Attlee noticed this and said, "You're getting a bit modest in your old age aren't you, Winston?" To which Churchill responded, "I know you, Clement, and whenever you see something that is big, private and works well, you always try to nationalize it."

Thatcher reversed much of the government's intrusion into the marketplace. In so doing, she often quoted the words of Abraham Lincoln, "You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong; you cannot bring about prosperity by discouraging thrift; you cannot help the wage-earner by pulling down the wage-payer." That is the principled lesson she exemplified for us.

Thatcher did this by privatizing nationalized companies, cutting government subsidies to businesses, reaffirming the right of businesses to manage themselves and seriously reducing government spending. In other words, she put into practice the teachings of economists like Friedrich Hayek in his book "The Road to Serfdom," and Milton Friedman in his book "Free to Choose."

This approach directly served to balance the government's books, reduce inflation and bring back economic strength to Britain. And it reversed what had become known as "the ratchet effect," in which the state is rewarded for its failures with even more power.

Along the way, naturally, Thatcher made some political enemies. These included some labor union members, as shown by the musical "Billy Elliot," and some welfare recipients. Unfortunately, this antipathy has endured, such that some of those people displayed epic poor taste in vilifying Thatcher upon her death, and even celebrating it.

What those people fail to understand is that Thatcher was the elected prime minister, and if they did not like her approach, they had every right to attempt to vote her out of office. Furthermore, they also fail to note that the revolution of privatization, less government intrusion into the marketplace and the rewarding of risk-taking, as led by Thatcher, was so successful that it spread around the world to India, Latin America and, after the Soviet Union fell in 1991, to Russia. And it continues to spread in many other countries to this day.

Our country should also refocus upon this lesson. Take a man we'll call Bill Jones. He, and many people like him, gets up in the morning and leaves his guard-gated community (because the government's police have failed to keep people safe at home), drops his child off at a private school (because many government schools are failing their students), drives to work on the private toll road (because the government roads do not meet his needs), goes to an office building that has a private security staff (for the same reasons), and ships his goods by private companies like FedEx (because they outperform the government's mail and package delivery services).

In addition, the business of private judging is rapidly expanding because of some failures in our government's courts. This is particularly troubling because only government courts can enforce our rights under the Constitution. So the revitalization of our court system should be a high priority for us all.

Regretfully, the second lesson we can learn is quite different. As prime minister, Thatcher became increasingly successful and powerful and ever more autocratic and imperial in her style.

In fact, she even adopted the royal "we" in her public speaking. In the end, she was so out of touch that her government became known as the party of the wealthy and she resigned after losing the first round of a leadership challenge. Regretfully, all of this caused some of her policies to be abandoned.

Thus, the second lesson for us all is that even someone who believes in and implements libertarian values to reduce the size, intrusion and cost of government can fall prey to the trappings of power. So power can corrupt anyone, even our angels.

JAMES P. GRAY is a retired Orange County Superior Court judge. He lives in Newport Beach. He can be contacted at

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