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The Moderation of Margaret Thatcher

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

In honoring Margaret Thatcher, some of her greatest fans complain, "They don't make conservatives like that any more."    

But they do. Problem is, the Republican right wing now running the party primaries would chew a Thatcher-type politician into unelectable shards.     

It takes a brave conservative to engage in detail-oriented fights over what government should and shouldn't do. How much easier to draw simple-minded cartoons of bloated government and condemn any public program as "socialism." Ideological purists may shudder, but this hard process is called governing.

Thatcher would have laughed at when Obamacare foes' called the reforms "a government takeover of health care." Recall how, in the heat of battle, the right waved Britain's National Health Service as a warning of terrible things awaiting American health care under the Affordable Care Act.  

But here is what Thatcher wrote about the NHS in her memoir, "The Downing Street Years," after she had left the thick of politics: "I believed that the NHS was a service of which we could genuinely be proud. It delivered a high quality of care -- especially when in it came to acute illnesses -- and at a reasonably modest unit cost, at least compared with some insurance-based systems."    

In Britain, doctors work for the government, making the NHS truly socialistic. As for government control of health care, Obamacare doesn't come close. But had candidate Obama likewise praised NHS to the skies, his consultants would have passed around smelling salts.  

As prime minister, Thatcher raised the value added tax -- a kind of national sales tax -- to help pay for cuts in income tax rates. (She wasn't into borrowing money for tax cuts.) When Mitt Romney said he'd consider a similar tax during the Republican presidential primaries, Newt Gingrich called him a "European socialist."    

Note that the founder of free-market economics, Adam Smith, regarded such taxes as a swell idea. "Taxes on consumptions are best levied by way of excise," he wrote in his 1776 classic, "The Wealth of Nations." "They have the advantage of 'being paid imperceptibly.'"   

Another Thatcher hero was the late conservative economist, Milton Friedman, hailed as Smith's spiritual heir. Conservatives often cite Friedman's view that the bigger the share of government spending in a national economy, the less free the people are. But, hmmm, at what point would government's share set off an alarm that freedom was really in peril?    

Friedman offered a number: 60 percent of the gross domestic product. Right now our government spending -- federal, local and state put together -- accounts for about 35 percent of GDP, well below the panic point.   

Thatcher revered Friedrich Hayek's "Road to Serfdom," a book conservatives raise high as the great repudiation of socialism. One hopes but can't assume that their praise extends to the parts where Hayek defends a minimum wage, guaranteed health coverage and other government programs.    

Hayek wrote that "there can be no doubt that some minimum of food, shelter, and clothing, sufficient to preserve health and the capacity to work, can be assured to everybody ... Nor is there any reason why the state should not assist the individuals in providing for those common hazards of life against which few can make adequate provision." For insurable risks, he added, "The case for the state's helping to organize a comprehensive system of social insurance is very strong."    

However one feels about Thatcher's politics, there's no question that she chose crusades and framed arguments with great care. She didn't talk of drowning governments in bathtubs. For her pragmatism, much of today's Republican right would have panned Thatcher as "socialist," "statist" and, heaven forfend, "European" -- though they now hail her.  

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