Commentary

Ronald Reagan Was No Libertarian

Everybody loves former President Reagan. That’s clear from the celebration surrounding our 40th president’s 100th birthday, complete with a JumboTron Superbowl tribute and a USA Today op-ed from President Obama praising Reagan’s “unique ability to inspire others to greatness.” Last week in this space, I took aim at one faction’s attempt to claim the Reagan legacy, in a column entitled “Reagan was no neocon,” I argued that, despite their retrospective affection for Reagan, neoconservatives in the 1980s were bitterly disappointed by his foreign policy.

But turnabout is fair play, so I should acknowledge that you could pull the same trick on libertarians like myself. By the end of Reagan’s tenure, many of my ideological brethren considered “Reaganite” an epithet.

“Eight dreary, miserable years” of “egregiously statist policies,” Murray Rothbard snarled in Liberty magazine in 1989. My colleague David Boaz was less dyspeptic, but nearly as disappointed, in his introduction to the 1988 Cato Institute volume “Assessing the Reagan Years”: “The Reagan Revolution turned out to be a paper tiger,” he wrote.

[W]e shouldn’t make any president into a plaster saint.”

True enough: Reagan was no libertarian. Instead of wrapping ourselves in his mantle, those of us who support deep reductions in government’s size and power should take a clear-eyed look at the Reagan record.

The Cato Institute did just that in “Assessing the Reagan Years,” which showed that under Reagan, federal spending actually increased from 23 percent to 24 percent of gross national product, while payroll tax increases resulted in a net tax increase for most Americans.

Not only did Reagan renege on his promise to abolish President Carter’s new Cabinet departments, Education and Energy, he appointed secretaries dedicated to their preservation.

Carter did more than Reagan to deregulate the economy, the authors explained, and while farm subsidies tripled under Reagan’s watch, Reagan eliminated only one (one!) major federal program, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (which was almost immediately reborn under another name).

“On so many issues,” Boaz lamented, the Reagan administration “never even showed up for battle.”

Worse, on one key issue where the president actually showed up, his efforts left the country demonstrably less free.

President Nixon popularized the phrase “the war on drugs,” but Reagan was the first chief executive who really took that metaphor seriously. Via executive order, he declared drug trafficking a “national security threat,” and in a 1986 televised address he invoked World War II, calling drug abuse “a form of tyranny” and imploring Americans to “join us in this great, new national crusade.”

As a result of that failed crusade, the United States now has the highest incarceration rate in the developed world.

Why, then, do most libertarians today remember our 40th president fondly? Edmund Morris captured Reagan’s appeal nicely in a passage from his much-maligned biography, Dutch:

“Across America and Europe, in huge areas of the world where commerce was once state-controlled, Reagan’s philosophy of hard work and earned reward has made Marxism a memory. If [upon signing the ‘81 tax cuts] he had laid down his last pen … and said to the press, ‘Ten years from now, you fellows, there are going to be stock markets in Moscow and Shanghai,’ guffaws would have filled the valley. But who can doubt that somewhere deep down (as he leaned back in his chair, put one high-heeled boot on the table, and mugged for the cameras), Dutch believed?”

Few at the time showed that kind of vision, and Reagan deserves enormous credit for it. Still, we shouldn’t make any president into a plaster saint. There’s an unhealthy touch of idolatry in the question, “What would Reagan do?”

Moreover, WWRD? is the wrong question to ask if you’re looking to cut government back to its proper constitutional size. The hero who can accomplish that task has yet to emerge.

Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and the author of The Cult of the Presidency.