Commentary

Remembering Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan was the most eloquent spokesman for limited government of our time. Through 25 years of tirelessly “raising a banner of no pale pastels, but bold colors” of political principle, he succeeded in changing the climate of opinion in the United States and around the world.

From his first appearance on the national political scene in 1964, he spoke for the values he set forth in his nationally televised speech just before that election:

This idea that government was beholden to the people, that it had no other source of power is still the newest, most unique idea in all the long history of man’s relation to man. This is the issue of this election: Whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.

You and I are told we must choose between a left or right, but I suggest there is no such thing as a left or right. There is only an up or down. Up to man’s age-old dream — the maximum of individual freedom consistent with order — or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism. Regardless of their sincerity, their humanitarian motives, those who would sacrifice freedom for security have embarked on this downward path. Plutarch warned, “The real destroyer of the liberties of the people is he who spreads among them bounties, donations and benefits.”

The Founding Fathers knew a government can’t control the economy without controlling people. And they knew when a government sets out to do that, it must use force and coercion to achieve its purpose.

As a liberal who moved to the right, he might have been called the first neoconservative. Except that he had been a liberal anticommunist, not a communist like the original neoconservatives. And his conservatism involved making government smaller, not using big government for conservative goals. We miss that kind of conservatism in Washington today.

In his first inaugural address, he proclaimed,

In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.

It is my intention to curb the size and influence of the Federal establishment and to demand recognition of the distinction between the powers granted to the Federal Government and those reserved to the States or to the people. All of us need to be reminded that the Federal Government did not create the States; the States created the Federal Government.

His actions in office did not always fulfill those promises. Government spending continued to grow, there was little devolution of power to the states, and the cost of federal regulation continued to increase. Instead of abolishing two Cabinet departments, as he had promised (Education and Energy), he created one (Veterans Affairs). We owe to him the presidencies of George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush, neither of whom shared his commitment to liberty and limited government.

Nevertheless, after he succeeded a president who gave us good reason to believe that our nation was in a malaise, he revived our spirits and our faith in free enterprise. He slashed marginal tax rates and revived the sagging economy. Along with Margaret Thatcher, he both symbolized and galvanized a renewed enthusiasm for entrepreneurship and free markets. In his second inaugural, he echoed his words from 20 years earlier:

By 1980, we knew it was time to renew our faith, to strive with all our strength toward the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with an orderly society. We believed then and now there are no limits to growth and human progress when men and women are free to follow their dreams.

Reagan was regarded as a social conservative, and he often spoke of “our values of faith, family, work, and neighborhood.” But he rarely sought to use government to impose those values. In 1978 he spoke out against an antigay initiative in California. Robert Kaiser of the Washington Post, noting that the Reagans were the first White House occupants to have hosted a gay couple overnight, dubbed him in 1984 a “closet tolerant.”

Much of Reagan’s presidency, of course, was dominated by the Cold War and the long struggle with communism. In a 1983 speech he shocked the chattering classes by telling the truth about the Soviet Union:

Let us pray for the salvation of all of those who live in that totalitarian darkness — pray they will discover the joy of knowing God. But until they do, let us be aware that while they preach the supremacy of the state, declare its omnipotence over individual man, and predict its eventual domination of all peoples on the Earth, they are the focus of evil in the modern world….

I believe that communism is another sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages even now are being written….

I urge you to beware the temptation of pride — the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire.

One could debate the advisability of particular foreign policy initiatives, but it was surely a good thing to be honest about the nature of totalitarian communism. His words declared an end to “moral equivalence” and a determination to seize the moral high ground in the struggle with communism, and they inspired people behind the Iron Curtain to believe that they might indeed be able to put an end to the “sad, bizarre chapter of human history” they were forced to live through.

As the last pages of that chapter did indeed begin to unfold, Reagan went to Berlin and in perhaps his most famous words ever, issued a challenge to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev:

General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

A year later, in 1988, Reagan visited Gorbachev in Moscow. Allowed to speak to students at Moscow State University, he gave them a brilliant discussion of the nature of a free society:

The explorers of the modern era are the entrepreneurs, men with vision, with the courage to take risks and faith enough to brave the unknown. These entrepreneurs and their small enterprises are responsible for almost all the economic growth in the United States. They are the prime movers of the technological revolution. In fact, one of the largest personal computer firms in the United States was started by two college students, no older than you, in the garage behind their home….

We are seeing the power of economic freedom spreading around the world — places such as the Republic of Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan have vaulted into the technological era, barely pausing in the industrial age along the way. Low-tax agricultural policies in the sub-continent mean that in some years India is now a net exporter of food. Perhaps most exciting are the winds of change that are blowing over the People’s Republic of China, where one-quarter of the world’s population is now getting its first taste of economic freedom….

Go into any schoolroom, and there you will see children being taught the Declaration of Independence, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights — among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — that no government can justly deny — the guarantees in their Constitution for freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of religion….

But freedom is more even than this: Freedom is the right to question, and change the established way of doing things. It is the continuing revolution of the marketplace. It is the understanding that allows us to recognize shortcomings and seek solutions. It is the right to put forth an idea, scoffed at by the experts, and watch it catch fire among the people. It is the right to stick — to dream — to follow your dream, or stick to your conscience, even if you’re the only one in a sea of doubters.

Freedom is the recognition that no single person, no single authority of government has a monopoly on the truth, but that every individual life is infinitely precious.

Ronald Reagan often said that “the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism.” I heard him say that at Vanderbilt University in 1975, when I had the honor to dine with him before his speech and get his signature on my “Reagan for President” newsletter. These days I put it somewhat differently: the best aspect of American conservatism is its commitment to protecting the individual liberties proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence and guaranteed in the Constitution. Ronald Reagan spoke for that brand of conservatism. That’s the conservatism we sorely miss in today’s Washington and today’s Republican party.

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute and author of Libertarianism: A Primer. He campaigned for Reagan in 1976.