Alex Massie hails Margaret Thatcher as “an accidental libertarian heroine.” In Massie’s telling, Thatcher was an economic liberal and a social conservative (in fact she was one of the few Conservative MPs to vote for decriminalizing homosexuality and also voted in favor of liberalizing abortion—but let us allow Massie his characterization). Despite Thatcher’s social conservatism, Massie says, “her triumph on the economic front contributed to her defeat in the social arena.”
Massie sees this as a good thing. He goes on to say, “There has always been a tension between economic liberalism and social conservatism. At some point and as we have, I think, seen, the two become incompatible.” It is rather economic liberalism and social liberalism, he says, that “are dance partners, taking turns to lead.” That’s lovely. But wrong.
Massie holds that “if the individual should be freed in the economic realm then individuals should be granted greater liberties in their own lives as well. But the economics come first.” But his thinking is upside down.
As John Courtney Murray in We Hold These Truths states:
Part of the inner architecture of the American ideal of freedom has been the profound conviction that only a virtuous people can be free. It is not an American belief that free government is inevitable, only that it is possible, and that its possibility can be realized only when the people as a whole are inwardly governed by the recognized imperatives of the universal moral law.
Moreover, Murray writes, we would be wise to remember Lord Acton’s phrase that freedom is “not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.” One lesson taught by the legacy of Thatcher is that economic liberalism should let social conservatism take the lead if it doesn’t want to trip over its own feet.