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Faith and the Limitations of the State

R&L: You played a role in the international political scene at what may be known as history’s most critical hour. Are you aware of a spiritual dimension to what you participated in?

Thatcher: Yes, very much so. Freedom is a moral quality. It comes from the Old Testament and the New. It’s definitely a part of Judaism and Christianity. The talents that we have are God-given talents, therefore we have a right to use them. But, of course, you can only exercise that right under the rule of law of the state. But in the last analysis, each of us is accountable for the way in which we live our lives.

R&L: And yet, powerful voices within the religious sphere, such as in the Church of England, opposed many of your policies. How do you understand the relation between Christianity and personal liberty in the economic and political sectors?

Thatcher: I don’t find any difficulty. The greatest manifestation in history was when the Puritans came across from England to what became America. They came with fundamental religious beliefs–that they worship God, the great Creator–they believed in the sanctity of human life, that each and every one of us matters. A life of effort and opportunity was what they sought. They emigrated with the faith of both the Old Testament and the New–that you love your neighbor as yourself. As you prospered yourself, so you helped to prosper others; you couldn’t accept freedom without accepting its responsibilities. Therefore you looked after your family, and you became a very active part of your community.

I don’t find any difficulty reconciling the Old and New Testaments with my political beliefs. What I do think is that people who expect to benefit from the fruits of those beliefs, without the underlying belief itself, will eventually be disappointed. You might just as well cut off a really rather beautiful flower from its roots and expect it to continue to flower. It won’t–it will die.

I don’t know of any society that has been able to continue in freedom and justice without acknowledging and renewing its moral roots.

R&L: How do you account for the opposition in religious circles to policies such as yours or President Reagan’s?

Thatcher: Undoubtedly we all see situations and circumstances that upset us a great deal. We all see poverty, we see children being maltreated, we see pollution and bad conditions in inner cities. It is in the answer to those problems where we differ. Those on the socialist side say they can be met only by increased state action. We say that the powers of government are limited, and that many needs can be met in considerable measure by private action and the acceptance of personal responsibility. We know that if the state does everything for you, it can only do so by taking everything away from you. The job of the state is to promote laws and incentives which will encourage people to do things for themselves. We recognize that the state has a role, but it’s not an ever-increasing role. It’s to have sound finance, to defend the realm, to stimulate opportunity, to uphold law, to provide educational opportunities regardless of means, and to provide help for those unable to help themselves and who have no one to turn to.

R&L: Part of the Christian belief, as you pointed out, is personal responsibility, especially with regard to one’s family. In what ways do you see the intervention of government eroding personal responsibilities, and what prompted you to work so effectively to repeal parts of the welfare state in England?

Thatcher: In a highly sophisticated society, it may be a good deal more difficult to look after your unfortunate neighbor than it would be in the village community. And so, we do have basic standards of social services. Winston Churchill got it right. He said, “Government must provide both a ladder and a safety net.” So there’s always a ladder of opportunity, and the safety net of social services. For example, we have a mutual insurance scheme that gives a basic state pension, then people build on that. Provided the state provision is only basic, then there is still an incentive to do more. The purpose of government is not to substitute for the parent but to enable him the better to carry out his own responsibilities. Hence the tax relief for purchasing a home and on tax contribution for pensions.

R&L: And yet, writers like Hayek and Mises and others would argue that there is a tendency of the state to usurp, rather than promote, private charity.

Thatcher: Yes, there is that tendency, I’m afraid. It comes out at election time. People say, “This and that is wrong, the state must come in and help.” They give the impression that the state has resources of its own, other than those it gets from taxing the people. The moment elections become a public auction of promises with the people’s money, that day democracy is dying. I think that most people understand that. Look at two different kinds of society–one which encourages individual effort, vitality, enterprise, and a sense of duty; the other which says, “We depend on the state for everything.” You’ll soon find that in the second the spirit of enterprise and obligation diminishes and languishes. That, of course, is fundamentally wrong. I believe with Abraham Lincoln that you cannot build character and initiative by doing for people what they could and should do for themselves.

R&L: What contemporary thinkers and writers do you see as forging a synthesis between moral concerns and economic concerns?

Thatcher: Michael Novak in The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism writes about the morality of capitalism. It is a marvellous book expressing in Mr. Novak’s lucid way that capitalism not only results in a more prosperous society but it is morally superior to any other economic alternative.

Graham Leonard (who has just retired as Bishop of London) in his book called God Alive deals with some of the problems we meet today in a very convincing way. He has many telling points–“It is ironical that while personal responsibility is in decline moral indignation is on the increase.” He quotes one of my favorite passages from T. S. Eliot:

More recently the new Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has expanded a series of lectures he broadcast into a book called The Persistence of Faith, following the tradition his predecessor Lord Jackobovits set in his longer book, If Only My People. Both are excellent.

Constantly useful to me are the Handbook to the Bible, telling us about all the books of the Bible, their history, meaning, and geography; and Christianity and Conservatism, edited by Michael Alison, MP. That has a wonderful chapter by Lord Blanch–a former Archbishop of York–entitled, “Is There any Word from the Lord?”, and another by Ruth Etchells on “Responsible and Accountable.”

But I always return to the writings of C. S. Lewis–they are always fresh and relevant.

R&L: Would you comment on the temptation to identify virtue with collectivism?

Thatcher: Liberty is an individual quality and a moral quality. It does not exist in the abstract, but only in a civilized state with a rule of law. Without that, the strong would oppress the weak. The collective law is what makes individual freedom work. I remember a famous quotation of George Bernard Shaw, “Freedom incurs responsibility; that’s why men fear it.” Too many people try to cast their personal responsibility on to the state. It is so much easier to parade with banners demanding that government do something to remedy a wrong than it is to take action oneself. But it will build neither character nor independence.

The ultimate collectivist was, of course, the communist state. It operated the most total tyranny the world has ever known. It had all of the brutal, evil characteristics of other tyrannies, with its secret police, absence of remedy, and no opposition. In addition to that, it confiscated everyone’s private property and took away everyone’s job, so they became totally dependent upon the state.

The danger is that the more you turn to the state, the more you are diminishing the sense of freedom and the responsibility of the individual, and the more difficult it is to re-establish when the Communist system has gone.

R&L: That was Lord Acton’s agenda, wasn’t it? To distinguish power from authority.

Thatcher: Yes, ‘All power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,’ he said. Don’t think that the state is not powerful — it is.

There are things which only a state can do, for example, maintaining the value of its currency. Being prudent with finance, having a strong defense, making certain that there is opportunity regardless of background. You simply must have an education system and access to books and experience, which is paid for by the taxpayers, so that a child, of whatever background, has a chance to improve his own lot in life and enrich his own understanding.

R&L: I wonder if you have read the pope’s encyclical, Centesimus Annus?

Thatcher: Yes, I have.

R&L: Do you have any reflections on it?

Thatcher: I am very happy that His Holiness the Pope has set out his approval of capitalism and profits and that he has explained therefore the moral basis for enterprise. Of course, he emphasizes, as I in my own humble way also stress, that there must be a fair rule of law and that those who cannot cope must be looked after.

 R&L: Please share something about your own personal faith commitment.

Thatcher: Well, I think I’ve indicated it. Let me put it this way: There are many, many people who believe in a better society, who believe in a better way of life, and who believe in a sense of loyalty to country, to family, to company. I think one of the differences between that and our view is that we believe we are personally accountable for the talents and abilities that we have been given, and for the way in which we behave. Other societies have different ethics, but they do not necessarily feel this sense of personal responsibility, inspired by both the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament and the two commandments of the New. Surely it was [Cardinal John Henry] Newman who laid such stress on the importance of conscience and its significance for our beliefs.