Yes, Maggie, There Is Such a Thing as “Society”

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

The Iron Lady, the late Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thacher, famously remarked:

And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.

In this short and simple post, I will show that we can prove Thatcher wrong, using what we have learned about airborne transmission in the current pandemic. First, I will present an experiment, and then I will show why it is disproves Thatcher (and, if one should wish to undertake the task, a lot of libertarian and libertarian-adjacent foofra about “methodological individualism” as well, although that is a task for another day).

First, the experiment. (I am using The Asahi Shimbun‘s coverage; here is the original study.) Here is a photo of the setup.

As you can see, there are two crash test dummies aerosol mannequins, facing each other in an enclosed space, and sharing air:

A special chamber was developed to simulate airborne transmission of the actual novel coronavirus and measure the amount of infectious droplets, which are produced by humans breathing and coughing, that pass through the mask a mannequin is wearing.

The experimenters played around with the masks, masking one, masking neither, masking both.

In the experiment, researchers placed two mannequin heads near one another facing each other. One was labeled as a COVID-19 patient and was set up to emit a mist through its mouth, mimicking a virus spreader exhaling.

The other, a “non-patient” and otherwise healthy mannequin, was connected to an artificial ventilator and equipment that let researchers detect how much of the virus it would inhale.

Note that in real world situations, since Covid transmits asymptomatically, either mannequin could be the “patient” (infected sender) and “non-patient” (healthy receiver) without knowing it. More:

A gelatin film was placed along the respiratory tract, and the amount of virus attached to it was measured.

The researchers tested a range of scenarios with three types of face masks placed on the mannequins: an N95 mask, a surgical mask and a cotton cloth mask.

When the infected mannequin wore a surgical or cotton mask, and the healthy mannequin did not wear a mask, it reduced the amount of the virus that the healthy mannequin inhaled to 20 to 40 percent of the amount that the healthy mannequin inhaled with no mask.

When the infected mannequin wore an N95 mask, a type of mask that is not expected to be worn by a COVID-19 patient, the amount of the virus that the healthy mannequin inhaled was nearly zero percent.

When the infected mannequin did not wear a mask and the healthy mannequin wore a surgical mask, it reduced the amount of the virus that the healthy mannequin inhaled to 50 percent of the amount of virus it inhaled with no mask….

When both mannequins wore a cotton mask, the amount of inhaled virus dropped to 30 percent of the amount inhaled when neither wore masks. When they both donned a surgical mask, the figure dropped further, to the range of 20 to 30 percent.

So masking is beneficial when one mannequin is masked, but maximally beneficial when both are[1]. Recall again that neither mannequin can know who gains the most benefit.

Now let’s take a short detour and ask ourselves what we mean by society. Infinite are the arguments of mages (The Economist, so-called, doesn’t even include “society” in its glossary of economic terms), so let me turn to my trusty Oxford English dictionary:

OED society



noun. m16.

[ORIGIN: French société from Latin societas, -tat-, from socius: see sociable, -ity.]…

2. The system of customs and organization adopted by a body of (esp. human) individuals for harmonious and interactive coexistence or for mutual benefit, defence, etc. m16.

3. ‣a The aggregate of people living together in a more or less ordered community. Also (with qualifying adjective), a part of this. m17.

Wikipedia (sorry) defines “A society is a group of individuals involved in persistent social interaction,” which, though a bit circular, seems to amount to the same thing:

Now, let’s reframe the experiment as a model, the sort of simple model that pseudo-Nobel prize-winning economists construct. Let’s model “interactive coexistence” of humans or “persistent social interaction” as two mannequins locked in a box together, sharing air. This is, in fact, not as far-fetched a model of humanity as it seems at first. We are an indoor species:

“We spend more time in our homes, than whales spend submerged beneath the surface of the ocean,” said Dr. Richard Corsi of Portland State University, who has studied indoor air quality for 30 years. “The average American lives to 79 and spends 70 of those 79 years inside buildings.”

And unless we are Ted Kaczynski, in solitary confinement, leaving on the street, or Simeon Stylites — all surely edge cases — we spend our time indoors with others, sharing air. In other words, breathing is a social relation[2]. We have the most material social relationship possible — sharing air — between two individuals, and they do not have to be family. Ergo, Maggie Thatcher is wrong.

Note that this argument does not depend on mask quality, mask fit, or anything to do with the properties of the mask. Breathing is a social relation no matter what. Perhaps if we can be clear on this point, we could be more clear that the mask/anti-mask controversy is really a discussion of the kind of society we[3] want.

I don’t want to go all binary here, so let me underline I’m presenting passionately held ideological positions:

That is one vision of the social relation that is shared air. Here is another:

It’s interesting to rethink the arguments for “freedom” — a word, though not a concept, I am coming to loathe — in terms of seat belts or cigarette smoking. Ultimately, seat belts became mandatory, and cigarette smoking in shared air was forbidden. Auto accidents and cancer weren’t multiplying exponentially in the space of days, however….


[1] “Joseph Allen, an associate professor and director of the healthy-buildings program at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health… breaks down the math on how multiple mask wearers amplify their effectiveness. If one person wears a cloth mask, it might be 50% effective in blocking COVID-19 particles on its own. But when two people wear a cloth mask, the figure jumps to around 75%.”

[2] Even transmitting the virus is a social relation: The virus originates in the lungs of one person, and is transmitted to the lungs of a second person, via aerosols.

[3] By “we,” I do not, of course, mean “them” [joke]. As so often, conservatives are more serious about their politics than liberals. If their distrust of the professional-managerial class is total — and the PMC have performed brilliantly in achieving that level of mistrust — they don’t just whinge about it. Personally, I think the politics are wrong and the behavior can be ugly, but that’s not how they see it.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Camelotkidd

    The way in which the PMC approached the pandemic was in synch with your rules on neoliberalism.
    The focus on vaccines that were developed by big-pharma (with copious government financial support) then marketed and sold for a profit is 1) because markets
    The complete abandonment for essential workers, the elderly in nursing homes, the rest of the developing world, etc, as well as the misinformation on transmission and other methods to reduce exposure is 2) go die
    As you often say–everything is going as planned

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      The PMCs work for the Czar, just like the Cossacks do.

      So the PMCs performance in this affair is the performance the Czar wanted and wants. So why does the Czar want it? And who is the Czar class which has carefully nurtured and developed the PMC we have today?

  2. Synoia

    Ok, we have a diagnosis.

    1. What’s the goal? What do we want?
    2. What’s the outline to a plan?

    1. anon y'mouse

      short answer: treat covid as we did when we made TB in “developed” places a near non-issue, even though they are very different diseases.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        First we would have to get rid of all the people who are committed and devoted to preventing us from doing that. If we could get rid of them all, then we would have to replace them with people who are committed and devoted to achieving all that.

        After we got all that done, then we would have to convince tens of millions of bitter cynical citizens that we actually want to achieve a good goal and then plan to achieve it. And then we would have to convince all these tens of millions of citizens who have already been deeply pre-convinced to the contrary, that the goal is good and the plan can work.

        Will covid wait that long? That is the tragedy of decontaminating a contaminated PMC cadre and re-righting a thoroughly de-righted ship. And if that can’t happen in time to turn covid around, then the Jackpot Design Engineers will have succeeded with their Let Covid Rip plan.

        1. anon y'mouse

          yes, there is that.

          of course, that doesn’t mean that a few enlightened doctors with enough clout can’t start to advocate for some rational positions on treatments and such, wherever they can.

          the info certainly can’t come out from conspiracy theorists like myself.

  3. Susan the other

    It’s funny. No doubt von Hayek, her beloved mentor, led our dear Maggie to believe there was no such thing as society because every person acted in their own self interest. If that’s not the most incomplete analysis of “self interest” ever proposed then I don’t know what is. Because society IS self interest. It is the manifestation of self interest – but only in the real world where our feet actually touch the ground, where nations and societies both achieve their own communal self interest by maintaining the well being of the individual. Inseparable. Maggie just spewed off this little truncated, illogical and totally incomplete “wisdom” like it was irrefutable. We need a red button to push when pathetically moronic politicians can’t think straight. We really shouldn’t have to live with that. We need something like an emergency, red-button (“lock them out of all decision making”) national referendum. Effective immediately.

    1. anon y'mouse

      look deeper (you are a deep thinker, i’ve seen examples many times over the years). Maggie didn’t just spew; she wasn’t Reagan reading his lines. this was a carefully planned out pattern of attack on the morality function of most people—individualization and “what’s good for me is good (greed is good)” made manifest into a social system that should have never permitted such ideas simply from a survival standpoint much less a cruelty one.

      she also once said something like “our project is the Soul”. i can’t think of a more telling indicator.

  4. Stephen V.

    Okay. Now do “Public Health.”
    I don’t recall one govt / media hack or other rep of our medico-pharma complex utter a single word in the Covid context about e.g, Vit D or C or Zinc or sunbathing or diet or exercise or…all things within the grasp of individuals. Before we even get to ivm. Thou shalt not compete with vaccines!

      1. Grebo

        There is ‘no proof’ that anything works against covid, since science can’t prove things only disprove them. Scientists usually say ‘no evidence’, sometimes even when there is some.

        Someone earlier today linked to this (controversial) meta-analysis which places vitamin D roughly in the middle of things that have been tried and seem to work. Which, if correct, would disprove the hypothesis that vitamin D doesn’t work.

        Since you forgot to supply a link to McGill we can only wonder what their study actually claims.

      2. drumlin woodchuckles

        Oftentimes, in the world of Corporate Profit Science, ” there is no proof” is French for ” no-one hustled up a grant”.

        After all, there is no scientific proof that tomatoes are edible. Millions of people eat them and say they feel fine? That’s just anecdotal observations. Show me the grant-funded research that scientifically proves that tomatoes are edible.

    1. DanB

      As someone who once worked in a school of public health, I concluded several years ago that neoliberalism, as outright expressed and enacted by Thatcher, does not countenance the functioning of public health, as in, “There’s no such thing as public health, only doctors and individual (paying) patients.”

      Public health -and I mean public health, not medicine- was in dire straights before this pandemic; now it is -I can’t find the correct words to capture how inutile and impotent it has become. Recall that many public health officials have resigned as a consequence of governmental actions and inaction during this pandemic. And now we have Biden saying the feds cannot end the pandemic and Bojo in the UK saying ‘Let’s just ride it out!”Only a few voices in public health and medicine are risking their careers to speak out about the carnage. Most of -not all- public health leadership is loyal to the 1%, not to the ideals of public health.

  5. Amfortas the hippie

    i hasten to point out, regarding “society=sharing air”:
    Conspiracy…rather the Latin root of it…literally means “Breathing Together”.

    i am in conspiracy with the members of my eocomene(household) to not murder each other, and to instead help each other along in this mean old world.
    i’m in a similar conspiracy with my neighbors, if more distant.
    even further out is the town and county, then(sigh, i suppose) the state of texas, the usa and the earth.

    i always hated thatcher and reaganisms, parroted by greedy, empty people with more money than soul.
    but dragging them from the Cave never works…they just rush right back in, and yell at you, too.
    since i became a lay anthropologist, in junior high(a survival strategy) i’ve been amazed at how hard it is for so many people to grasp the simplest of concepts…especially if it would eat into their bottom line, self image or offend their raging Id.

  6. David Jones

    V.interesting.What then do we call a revolution? Just a group of self interested individuals ? Maybe one day Thatcher’s definition will be put to the test in GB.

  7. David

    I don’t think Thatcher’s worst enemy would accuse her of having been an intellectual. Indeed, for someone trained in both science and the law, she was astonishingly incapable of rational thought, and could not be budged from an opinion she had settled on except by brute force. So her embrace of the silly “no such thing as society” meme seems to be because she picked it up somewhere, and liked the sound of it. Besides, “society” and “socialism” have distantly the same root, and she seems never to have been entirely clear about the difference.

    As a meme, it’s a good example of what CB McPherson called “possessive individualism”, the idea that the individual is utterly divorced from society, has no origins, no community, no culture, and therefore no responsibility to anyone or anything other than themselves. They are thus entirely autonomous. He situates the idea, quite convincingly, in the works of the early liberals like Locke and Harrington. McPherson was writing in 1964, as I recall, but his work has stood up remarkably well.

    1. politicaleconomist

      McPherson was a great critic of the dominant ideology. And, that’s why he studiously ignored.

    2. Philip

      Thanks David

      I will have to read Mcpherson. I have thought for a while that liberalism is a right wing ideology, not left. It explains a lot about the failure of the PMC “centre left” in recent decades. That is they gain power and then do nothing except continue neoliberal policies (Clinton, Obama, and now Biden, and expect to be praised for doing so!). I look at parties now and ask is the candidate from the PMC, and is the party dominated by the PMC (professional managerial class) if either, no vote from me. This is increasingly the view of the working class left, and the working class generally. The long term problem is how does the working class regain political representation? A political party that bans membership to anybody that passed college? In frustration.

      1. Susan the other

        I do think that confusing the issues between the right and left started after Vietnam, sometime in the late 60s, early 70s because I remember having had a basic grasp of socialist ideals and then one day I was reading The Nation and became so confused I had to re-read the article and I still couldn’t figure out what had just been said. Time Magazine made more sense in those days. And I have always thought that the conservatives, the Republicans until recently, were more prone to equality than the Democrats. So in my confusion I decided that I was neither R nor D, but instead a conservative progressive. Which made very little sense. But I couldn’t find a better spot.

  8. Stephen V.

    No apologist here but here’s the full quote:
    We’ve been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it’s the government’s job to cope with it. ‘I have a problem, I’ll get a grant.’ ‘I’m homeless, the government must house me.’ They’re casting their problem on society. And there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations.

    1. ChrisRUEcn

      I’ve seen this replayed many times, and it still does not absolve her or explain away her apathy. In fact it makes it worse.

      To wit:
      “And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first.”

      Sound familiar?! Much like Obama’s “bootstraps” … much like “vote like your life depends on it” … all of it little more than passing the family-blog buck! All of it purposely, by omission, attempting to excuse a most crucial subset of peoplethe people elected to government! What the family-blog is their purpose?! Are they not also supposed to look to themselves as fiduciaries of the immense resources and awesome powers of nation states?!! Why on earth should anyone elect people to that kind of power only for those elected to stand from their perches and proclaim pusillanimously, “Oh no, it is not we, the powerful who can change your lives for the better … nay, it is you! You, the powerless have the power!”

      Sorry. Hard sell.

      1. lance ringquist

        all one has to do is to read the preamble, article one section eight, and article six of the constitution to realize looneytarianism is just that, looney people who have a deep down lust for fascism.

        1. JBird4049

          Which is why both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, including the Bill of Rights are ignored, or worse, distorted into a function mirror version of themselves; see,
          they don’t really mean what they say; they really mean what we say it means!

  9. Tom

    There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.

  10. upstater

    This was one of the best pages we’ve come across about masking (apologize if previously posted). It has a table indicating individual protection levels without and with various masking. Obviously if everyone used N95s correctly and consistently, COVID might be eventually eliminated. It is utter madness that FREE effective masks are not mandated in public areas. We’re resigned to masking from now until forever…

  11. Jaduong

    On freedom…
    “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.“— Nelson Mandela 1990s, Long Walk to Freedom (1995)

  12. politicaleconomist

    We can make Thatcher’s statement sensible by turning it into its opposite: There is no such thing as an individual. There is only a society made up of individuals and families.

  13. Michael Hudson

    Perhaps Maggie was talking as a futurist:
    “I’ll make SURE that there is no such thing as society.” Hence, her turning the economy over to the City of London, privatizing Council housing, privatizing BT, etc.
    Many of my British friends think that indeed she succeeded in leaving no such thing as society in England.

    1. Lou Anton

      > “[infected mannequin wearing a mask] reduced the amount of the virus that the healthy mannequin inhaled to 20 to 40 percent of the amount that the healthy mannequin inhaled with no mask.”

      I find this incredibly heartening! I think a mask mandate is much easier to enforce (especially if we put them into peoples’ mailboxes once a week). No mask, no public indoor interaction. If it requires the national guard checking masks outside of Walmart, then so be it. Much faster and easier than checking vaccine proof.

      We should of course be swiss-cheesing this thing with vents, masks, and vaccines. But if masks cut transmission by minimum 60%, make everyone going into a store (or other non-private dwelling) mask up.

    2. Lou Anton

      Sorry, not a reply to you, Michael! Though I’d agree that the original quote had an implied conjoiner of “and I’ll make sure of it.”

    3. Christopher Horne

      Michael, I’m still a little confused over the use of the word ‘Society’.
      I am an old person, and in my time, “Society” was a term used to indicate
      the life of a specific segment of the population, as in “High Society”.
      Newspapers (remember them?) had ‘society columns’, which we would call
      blogs today, detailing the mores and movements of the elites, and magazines such as ‘Town and Country’ glamorized their many public
      activities. Sure, Lyndon Johnson had his ‘Great Society’, which we took
      to mean the national culture as a whole. But that was when there was
      more or less a national culture which was coherent, instead of the
      hodgepodge of disunified subgroups which we see today. Maggie
      had something specific in mind. Never having read Ian Rand (or ever having a desire to) I believe her usage constituted a sort of ‘dog whistle’
      to a specific niche of Society. That was then, this is now.
      Could you explain what she meant by the term, and how that is changed
      into how we use the term now?

  14. Joe Well

    “standing away from terrified people”

    Taking pride in terrifying people.

    Libertarianism = sociopathy

  15. eg

    We are pack animals by our biology. Any ideology that contradicts this basic fact is axiomatically wrong.

    1. Starry Gordon

      It’s obvious that human individuals are created biologically, mentally, and culturally by communities. To say otherwise isn’t merely wrong, it’s idiocy flying in the face of what is obvious. How does it come about that someone in Thatcher’s position was an idiot?

    2. Christopher Horne

      Untrue on its face. Yes, going back to Cro Magnon man, people lived in
      groups. But the unique aspect of Man which differentiated us was that
      the human animal was at the same time individualistic. The buffalo hunters
      who destroyed the limitless herds of buffalo within a couple of years back
      in the 1800’s had only to shoot the lead animal, and the whole migration
      immediately stopped, so that they could shoot the rest until their ammunition
      ran out. That is a ‘pack animal’. A human tribe would never behave in that way.

  16. MonkeyBusiness

    Brad Pitt disagrees.

    “This guy (Obama) wants to tell me we are living in a community? Don’t make me laugh. I am living in America, and in America you are on your own. America is not a country, it’s just a business”.

    Of course afterwards, the guy role played as Fauci in SNL.

  17. vlade

    Honestly, it’s been easy to disprove Mrs T even on day one. Culture and civilisation are societal products.

    If she wanted to go back to family based living, I assume she would have split the UK into powerful family based-clans. Oh, wait..

  18. Sound of the Suburbs

    What could possibly go wrong?

    What is the best kind of money?
    Easy money.
    In the past those at the top have kept it for themselves.

    The classical economists identified the constructive “earned” income and the parasitic “unearned” income.
    Most of the people at the top lived off the parasitic “unearned” income and they now had a big problem.
    This problem was solved with neoclassical economics, which hides this distinction.

    Economic liberalism does look like a good idea when using neoclassical economics.
    What happens in reality?

    Everyone had expected economic liberalism to unleash capitalist dynamism.
    Instead there was a stampede towards the easy money of “unearned” income.
    In 1984, for the first time in American history, “unearned” income exceeded “earned” income.
    The rentiers have never had it so good.

    With a BTL portfolio, I can get the capital gains on a number of properties and extract the hard earned income of generation rent at the same time.
    That sounds good.
    What is there not to like?

    We love easy money.

    You’ve just got to sniff out the easy money.
    All that hard work involved in setting up a company yourself, and building it up.
    Why bother?
    Asset strip firms other people have built up, that’s easy money.

    They love easy money.

    People do love easy money and that’s the problem.
    How on earth do you get them to do anything useful and create some real wealth?

  19. LAS

    There’s an interesting book called “Fighting for Life” by public health crusader S. Josephine Baker about how the NYC Dept. of Health operated between 1900 and 1930 or so. Very material progress was made during this period with respect to child health and survival (for instance, first year mortality of infants essentially halved in under 3 years in a pre-vaccine, pre-antibiotics period). The progress was mostly based on actions or programs that systemically distributed information, screening, and support into poor communities and city schools. The first step was candid appreciation of political corruption in the administering NYC agencies/bureaus and rooting that way down, giving dedicated souls with community experience a chance to work, and adopting good metrics of community circumstances. Ms. Baker (among the earliest female doctors) was no bleeding heart liberal type, often not even particularly politically correct as we understand it today, just simply capable of community assessment and committed to action (as opposed to entitlement).

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