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: