Commentary

Ronald Reagan’s Cross-Border Legacy

By Patrick Basham
June 11, 2004

“If Reagan governed this country, we wouldn’t have to leave it!” exclaimed my father after a British TV report on the Republican presidential nomination contest between Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. This was my introduction to the Great Communicator. As a young boy, I hadn’t the faintest idea how some American could make a difference in our lives an ocean away, but my father’s robust comment made an indelible impression.

In the 1970s, stifling tax rates and a suffocating political culture ensured that the “brain drain,” the outward flow of British professionals and entrepreneurs to North America, continued unabated. My parents mistook Ontario for Illinois and emigrated to Ottawa, Canada. During this period, Reagan’s consistent message that government was too big and too intrusive increasingly struck a chord with American voters hungry for new leadership. It also reverberated beyond the American border.

President Reagan’s first international trip was to Ottawa. At that time, outside observers (including most would-be immigrants) mistakenly viewed Canada as simply a colder, less populated version of the United States. In truth, under the damaging stewardship of socialist Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, the Canadian dream had morphed into a bilingual version of European social democracy. Canada’s failed welfare statism was a glaring reminder that the country hadn’t realized its potential relative to the U.S.

Neither most Canadian politicians nor journalists liked what Reagan had to say. However, Reagan’s success as a political communicator stemmed from his ability, at home and abroad, to speak over the heads of the establishment. He consciously employed simple language and good humor to convey fundamental truths to ordinary people in an accessible manner.

For example, Reagan’s new economic program explicitly waged war on the growth of government spending, taxes, regulation, and the entitlement culture. It sounded pretty reasonable and attractive to those Canadians watching American newscasts on cable TV or reading American news magazines. At my high school, students were actively discouraged from doing either.

During Reagan’s inaugural visit to our city, our teachers didn’t allow us to attend his daytime public appearances, or even watch the accompanying television coverage, on the grounds that, as one put educator put it, “Reagan is so right wing, so out of it, it’s embarrassing to have him in our country.” When my history teacher discovered that some students were Reagan admirers, he theatrically opened the classroom windows “to get the Reaganite stink out of here.”

Yet, despite the propaganda, to me the contrast between the two leaders was striking. Trudeau, irrelevant outside of Canada, was shamelessly arrogant and self-important. Reagan, the most important political figure on earth, was statesmanlike, humorous, and humble. These differences bled into their respective policy prescriptions.

Trudeau, a long-time Castro admirer, remained confident that government could remold society for the better; the far wiser Reagan knew that it couldn’t and, therefore, shouldn’t even try. For all Trudeau’s trendy, laid-back leftism, in the early 1980s Reagan was the true radical, which explains much of his disproportionate appeal at the time to younger people.

Trudeau’s contemporaries weren’t much more inspiring. During Brian Mulroney’s successful 1983 campaign for the leadership of Canada’s then-ideologically vacuous Conservative Party, he explicitly repudiated Reaganomics and Canada-U.S. free trade. Yet thanks in part to events south of the border, the political tide soon turned.

Reagan’s success in changing the terms of the American policy debate affected Canadian public policy. Conservatives belatedly stimulated a debate over the appropriate size and role of government. Largely due to Reagan’s approach to everything from tax cuts to air traffic controllers, no longer was it verboten to question government spending, taxation levels, welfare spending, or union demands.

Within months of winning the 1984 Canadian election, Prime Minister Mulroney became Reagan’s firm ally. Reagan’s success enabled Canadian conservatives to demonstrate that the sky doesn’t necessarily fall when government is constrained.

Reagan encouraged the Mulroney government to experiment with income tax cuts, privatization, and deregulation, and to defy the powerful nationalist (i.e., anti-American) cultural establishment by engaging in free trade. Mulroney’s successful reelection campaign focused on the 1988 Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement and served as a powerful rejection of statist economic policy.

Canadian Liberals also learned Reagan’s lesson that good policy makes for good politics. After Mulroney’s retirement in 1993, the ensuing Liberal government repudiated its longstanding opposition to free trade and balanced budgets. Today, Reagan’s economic philosophy permeates a newly ideological Conservative Party, committed to limited government and economic freedom, which may regain power in Canada’s late June election.

Over the past 20 years Canadians became much more American in their economic values. According to opinion polls, the level of commitment to the culture of capitalism in the two countries is essentially the same, i.e., Canadians and Americans show similar support for the virtues of competition, individual self-reliance, hard work, and the profit system. Canadians are no more likely to favor government intervention in the economy than are Americans, and attitudes toward work and meritocracy are quite similar.

Canadians today are far more Reaganesque than they used to be. The Canadian Embassy in Washington is closed on the day of Reagan’s funeral. This diplomatic courtesy reflects a larger political reality. Over time, many Canadians came to respect, even admire, Ronald Reagan and appreciate his positive influence on both countries. They, too, have reason to mourn his passing.

Patrick Basham is senior fellow in the Center for Representative Democracy at the Cato Institute.