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The 1980s were not a decade of failure – quite the reverse

“As bad as things are at the moment, it seems a mite premature to write off policies in the 1980s as an abject failure. We have not lost 30 years of wealth, and living standards have increased for billions of people since the 1980s. Income inequality has increased, and that can be undesirable, but the welfare of many low-income people has dramatically improved.”

The Economist.

The 1980s were only an “abject failure” in the eyes of those whose political ideas never developed beyond a sort of bastardised Marxism. They were not a failure for those who enjoyed, say, the ability to get a phoneline installed in 24 hours rather than six months, or not be forced to join a trade union, or no longer pay cripplingly high taxes, or be banned from taking more than a paltry sum of money abroad on holiday. The 1980s were a good decade in my view across a number of fronts with two main, glaring exceptions here in Britain: the-then Thatcher government did not truly uproot the Welfare State and the “enemy class” that ran it, and she did preside over what was later to become a relentless assault on the checks and balances of the English Common Law. But generally speaking, that decade goes down in my book as a good one.

Talking of Mrs T, it is now 30 years since she came to power.

12 comments to The 1980s were not a decade of failure – quite the reverse

  • Ian B

    Other than being insufficiently radical, Thatcher’s biggest failure was the standard failure of “conservatism” which is why those who argue that conservatism is the alternative to leftism are IMV wrong. THat is, Thatcher may have been an economic liberal, but she was a general authoritarian, so ultimately much of what she did failed to attack the Left at source, or played into their hands.

    Economic liberalism can only take firm root as part of a generally liberal package. A state that uses militarised police to beat up hippies isn’t on the road to liberty. It’s on the road to a rather different kind of serfdom, which indeed is where we find ourselves. Ultimately, although there were some good reforms, Thatcherism just led us to a corporatist state.

    I think history is a story of individuals- great changes occur because particular individuals changed the world. I occasionally toy idly with the idea of an alternate history story in which a few different individuals existed, and led the postwar counterculture’s libertarian strands to predominate, instead of the ultimate triumph of its marxist ones. I think that may have led to a rather more pleasant world to live in.

  • James

    Liberty is the luxury of self-discipline. A socially liberal, permissive people will need to be governed by an authoritarian, well-funded government. Social liberalism is often a poor match with economic liberalism.

  • virgil xenophon

    Ian B/

    Well, yes, there is that school of thought in the study of the theory and practice of decision-making that holds that the proclivitives of individual key personnel IS basically the sum total of policy. The old “Great Men” versus “a tide in the affairs of man”/”cultural times” debate. I rather would suggest a tripartite level of analysis on this age-old question ala Graham Allison’s 3-level analysis of governmental decision-making. Level III in this case being centered within the bounded universe of bureaucracies wherein personnel IS indeed policy to a large degree. Next would be Level II “Normal Times” in which the zeitgeist of the times severely limits what any individual politician can do unless his personal beliefs and personality are “muy simpatico” or congruent with said times. Finally comes the Level III “extraordinary times–extraordinary men” environment in which a desperate public will be putty in the hands of any Pied Piper of any philosophical stripe that sounds remotely plausible, i.e., like we have now in the US with the election of Obama.

    To be included in level three thinking, however, is the proviso that in the days of 24/7/365 MSM coverage and Twitter, You Tube and Facebook, said “Fearless Leader” must be photogenic and have a tonal voice for what is admittedly/obviously a “cool” medium. Huey Long and Eugene V. Debs, perhaps the greatest “communicators” of their age, would have no chance today as compared to the low-key Ronald Regan or Barak Obama. Looks, personality and communications skills–as opposed to ideas–are, more than ever, fate–insofar as leadership ability goes in modern “wired” socio-political environments such as we see today. No more William Howard Tafts–ever.

  • Ian B

    A socially liberal, permissive people will need to be governed by an authoritarian, well-funded government.

    Well, no. That isn’t true at all.

  • kentuckyliz

    I had more fun in the 1980s than a person should be allowed to have in a lifetime. Let’s just say that I’m relieved cell phone cameras were not around then.

    Beyond that, I wasn’t attuned to politics much, but there was a sense of optimism in the 80s. Pessimism has grown so much more since then.

  • Brad

    Speaking for the US, the 1980’s were a failure in that the Welfare State as it stood (from FDR forward) was not uprooted when the cash register began to ring to pay for unfuned entiltements. Instead of slashing spending on tranfers, unfunded entitlements were financed by borrowing. The Republicans could have their proverbial cake and eat it too. It was the prototype for what eventually became the Republican form of collectivism – don’t tax, just borrow. As long as it doesn’t exceed a predetermined acceptable % of GDP everything will be fine. Just make the average citizen be a guarantor instead of a taxpayer, and as long as the GDP zooms out of sight it’s all good.

    That is what got us poorly devised notions as endless new money issued by the Federal Reserve, slashing interest rates everytime the market got a bellyache, sending out “stimulus checks” when the interest rate cutting didn’t work. Basically the Federal Government became the prime mover in overheating the economy turning the whole thing into one big bubble which has now burst. GDP is falling and the bills are still coming due. The debt % to GDP will be overwhelming. And the boomers are lining up for their unfunded entitlements in numbers not experienced before.

    So the 80’s and the “prosperity” we’ve enjoyed has all been done not largely by improved efficiencies in production, which the only way to get incrementally wealthier, but by killing real savings over time. Stretching fiat money supply to the extreme and pushing the funds out to the most risky sectors to keep the economy growing and so too the “borrowing base” for the Federal Government.

    Again, the template was made in the 80’s.

    And the failure of such thinking, after much expansion since, has finally come home to roost.

  • Laird

    A good point, Brad. If I may add a personal peeve, it’s the word “entitlements”. The Constitution prohibits the federal government from spending a dime unless the money is appropriated each year, and the Supreme Court long ago held that there is no legal right to such things as Social Security benefits (which could be reduced or even eliminated by Congressional action), so absolutely no one has any legal “entitlement” to future transfer payments. Congress merely lacks the will to reduce them, so it hides behind the transparent fiction that those “promises” must be kept regardless of the financial consequences to the country. In reality, “entitlements” are every bit as discretionary as the rest of the federal budget.

  • Paul Marks

    Mrs Thatcher was/is a complicated person (in many ways a romantic – in the old sense, even as a child Miss Roberts used to walk for miles to look an ancient houses and used to avidly read books on the history and cultures of India) rather than a simple “authoritarian”.

    As for the failings after 1979, they are simple enough to state.

    A vast INCREASE in government spending (mostly on honouring spending plans of the outgoing government – although the actual spending increases were not quite as insane as the ones the Labour government had written in as plans, hence the media talk of “cuts”) and a failure to push through any real reform of the labour market for years.

    There you are – one paragragh, containing the basic information that one will not find in the standard “history” works of the education system.

    As for later on.

    There was some real labour market reform (once Norman T. became Employment Sec) and government spending did start to decline as a percentage to the economy after 1982 (in real or money terms government spending never did decline).

  • Paul Marks

    Ronald Reagan.

    There were some real cuts in some programs (David Stockman was not a total failure), but these cuts were more than made up for by government spending increases in other programs – and, no, I am not talking about just the military.

    A major difference between Reagan and Thatcher is that there was some mild tax reduction in the United States (overall) whereas here it was mostly moveing taxes from income to spending (the vast increases in sales tax – VAT).

    In both countries the cuts in the top rate of income tax brought in more revenue (not less), but in the United States there was (as stated above) a bit of tax reduction overall.

    On the other hand there was some denationalization in Britain and there was not in the United States (although there were less government owned companies in the United States to be sold anyway).

    My problem with the “Economist” is not this time over leftist bias – it is over their failure to do a real reporting job.

    They have just assumed that there were major policy changes in a free market direction – rather than actually checking to find out.

    Or rather than have done a “wikipedia” style of “check” – they have remembered articles and books (and television and radio). Rather than doing any actual research.

    “But is not looking at such things, even in one’s memory, research Paul?”

    No it is not.

    Go back to the primary sources (the books of numbers and so on) and check and check again.

    Or as Gradgrind would say.

    “Facts boy. Facts”.

    If it is too much like hard work then do not be a journalist.

  • Paul Marks

    The Economist does not understand monetary economics (not even basic stuff that lending should be 100% from real savings) and so can not really explain the boom-bust cycle.

    Instead it supports bailouts (as did, on a vastly smaller scale, its second editor – the waste of space with a wonderful reputation, Walter B.).

    Thus it undermines any moral case for the free market – for if it is moral to bail out big business (banks, insurance companies like AIG, and so on) then why not bailout the poor?

    Accept that it also supports the Welfare State – inspite of a century of empirical evidence that shows that once Welfare State schemes are established they grow like cancer, undermining Civil Society.

    The Economist is just not a free market magazine and its claims to support the free market (“Classical Liberalism”) are lies – period.

    Nor is it any good at straight reporting.

    For example it will cover the election in Turkish part of Cyprus without saying the defeated party was social democrat and the winning party was conservative.

    Or it will publish an article on the President of Paraguay (as an excuse to sneer at the Roman Catholic Church – as the man was once a priest) without pointing out that the President is a Liberation Theology far leftist.

    Even on British politics it is no good at reporting.

    For example it will run a major article claiming that there is a vast and important difference between Mr Balls of the Labour party and Mr Gove of the Conservative party, on education policy.

    Without pointing out that not only are both men in favour of taxpayer financing of schools, but both men are opposed to new government schools that select on ability (the Grammar School principle).

    In short both men are against any meaningful school reform – whether in fiance or in structure (instead waffleing on about academies).

    Bottom line about the Economist:

    It is a crap magazine and the sooner it goes bankrupt the better.

  • Paul Marks

    As for the University of Chicago.

    Leave aside the fact that employed the far left Barack Obama as a teacher of Constitutional Law (at least that was amusing – considering how much he hates the basic pro private property limited government principles of the Constitution of the United States).

    Let us just take the Economics department.

    It would not astonish me if the Economist is actually correct about the rotten situation (which, of course, it regards as a good situation) the article describes in that department.

    Even Milton Friedman did not involve himself much in undergraduate teaching or in setting examinations.

    Perhaps because then he would have had to choose between his “we can not spend our way out of a recession” and “we will throw money from helecopters if we have to” positions.

    Either Keynes (and the other monetary cranks before him) are right or they are wrong – not “in an sense we are all Keynesians, and in a sense none of us are” (that is just bullshit made to sound clever).

    Some undergraduate (as opposed to postgraduates who have got lost in the details of mathematical models and other such) might have demanded a clear choice – a logical set of principles.

    For example, Milton Friedman quite rightly always opposed the creation of the Federal Reserve system (I wonder if the Fed lovers at the Economist know that).

    But why do so – if it is the job of the powers that be to bailout banks (and other such) when a credit money bubble blows up?

    Surely one needs a Federal Reserve (or some such thing) for the government to ride to the rescue by “keeping up demand”, “preventing a decline in broad money [bank credit]” and so on to prevent the horror of “deflation”?

    Again it would not astonish me if some (although not all) of the modern Chicago school are falling away into Welfare State support and credit bubbleism

    After all as followers of the methodolgical approach of Positvism (as in Milton Friedman’s essays of the early 1950s), there rejected the idea of needing rational principles in the study of economics.

    “If it predicts it is valid – nothing else matters” was their doctrine.

    Even though their models did not predict anything (and have never tended to).

    Science does not just mean physics – a “science” in the old sense was a body of knowledge.

    And it is this sense (not the sense of physics) that economics is a science.

    So economic science is NOT “prediction” (or “measurement” either).

    Even if the Positivists did predict correctly – which they do not.

  • The 80s were in many ways a great decade; in both the UK and the US, the people looked at the ruin that “social democracy” had wrought, and said no more. It was the decade of my youth, the decade of The Young Ones and most importantly for me, as it set up my future career, the decade of the Spectrum!. It was the decade that led to the first explosion of libertarianism, the decade the Federation of Conservative Students came out foresquare for liberty; and were disbanded as a result.

    We had victories, but also defeats; Maggie’s establishment of the National Curriculum and Ronnie’s 600 Ship Navy which led to such absurdities as the recommissioning of the Iowas. Neither made as much progress in the reduction of government as we would have liked.

    Still, I’d take another decade like the 80s in a heartbeat, warts, New Romantics and all.