Religion & Liberty Online

What Margaret Thatcher understood about income inequality

Margaret Thatcher once told an interviewer, “Of course, I am obstinate in defending our liberties and our law. That is why I carry a big handbag.” During her time as Prime Minister, Thatcher’s handbag became an iconic symbol of her ability to handle opponents. The term “handbagging” even entered the Oxford English Dictionary (the verb “to handbag” is defined as: (of a woman politician), treat (a person, idea etc) ruthlessly or insensitively) to describe her rhetorical style.

Thatcher’s handbagging usually occurred during Question Time, the hour every day when members of the parliament ask questions of government ministers—including the prime minister—which they are obliged to answer. A prime example is in her last appearance as Prime Minister in the House of Commons, on November 22, 1990. Liberal Democrat MP Simon Hughes taunts her on the subject of income inequality.

Mr. Hughes: There is no doubt that the Prime Minister, in many ways, has achieved substantial success. There is one statistic, however, that I understand is not challenged, and that is that, during her 11 years as Prime Minister, the gap between the richest 10 per cent. and the poorest 10 per cent. in this country has widened substantially. At the end of her chapter of British politics, how can she say that she can justify the fact that many people in a constituency such as mine are relatively much poorer, much less well housed and much less well provided for than they were in 1979? Surely she accepts that that is not a record that she or any Prime Minister can be proud of.

The Prime Minister: People on all levels of income are better off than they were in 1979. The hon. Gentleman is saying that he would rather that the poor were poorer, provided that the rich were less rich. That way one will never create the wealth for better social services, as we have. What a policy. Yes, he would rather have the poor poorer, provided that the rich were less rich. That is the Liberal policy.

Mr. Hughes: No.

The Prime Minister: Yes, it came out. The hon. Member did not intend it to, but it did.

As Thatcher might say, those concerned with income inequality many not intend for it to come out, but making the rich less rich is precisely what they want—indeed, it is the only thing that can solve the faux-problem of income inequality.

Consider the example given by Mr. Hughes that, “the gap between the richest 10 percent and the poorest 10 percent has widened substantially.” To simply the math, let’s say the bottom 10 percent in a country make between $0 and $10,000 a year while the richest 10 percent make an annual income of $100,000. That’s a minimum gap of $90,000 dollars.

Now imagine if the incomes doubled over a period of 10 years (and inflation stayed low). The poorest 10 percent would now make between $0 to $20,000 and the poorest would make $200,000. Everyone would appear to be better off yet income inequality also doubled. The gap is now $180,000—twice as much as it was a decade ago.

So is this a problem? It would only be a concern under three conditions: (a) if the income of the rich increased at the expense of the poor (through exploitation or injustice), (b) the increase was due to illegal activity, or (c) if you care about income inequality because you want to make the rich less rich, through confiscation or redistribution of income.

Preventing or correcting Condition B is a primary concern of the State while preventing or correcting Condition A is a primary economic concern of individual Christians. There are numerous Biblical injunctions and warnings against the injustice of allowing the rich to exploit the poor. But if that is not occurring, then Christians have no right to be concerned with how much income another person is generating. Jesus even told a parable about workers making different wages for the same work (Matthew 20:1-16). While the purpose of the parable was to teach us about the Kingdom of God rather than a managerial lesson on income parity, it does show that differences of income—even for the same work— is not inherently unfair.

Thatcher intuitively understood what her opponents were loathe to admit: They were less concerned about the plight of the poor than with the wealth of the rich. Even the liberal British expatriate Andrew Sullivan admits this was true of British liberals and socialists:

No culture I know of is more brutally unkind to its public figures, hateful toward anyone with a degree of success or money, or more willing to ascribe an individual’s achievements to something other than their own ability. The Britain I grew up with was, in this specific sense, profoundly leftist in the worst sense. It was cheap and greedy and yet hostile to anyone with initiative, self-esteem, and the ability to make money.

The clip below captures the left-liberal sentiment of the time perfectly. Yes: the British left would prefer to keep everyone poorer if it meant preventing a few getting richer.

Envy, even when is it disguised as egalitarianism, is a deadly sin. It is corrosive to the soul to envy the wealth of one’s neighbor and destructive to society when we desire the State use it’s power to redistribute the wealth of citizens simply to achieve the goal of more equalized incomes. Ms. Thatcher understood that concerns about income inequality were really about envy. She knew envy was consuming her opponents across the aisle, even though they couldn’t see what was hiding in their own hearts. We need to follow her example and expose income inequality for what it is, before it consumes our own nation as it did Great Britain.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).