Ronald Reagan and Us

When I graduated from college in 1975, my first job was as the first employee of Young America’s Foundation, the tax-exempt arm of Young Americans for Freedom. Forty years later, I had the honor of being invited back to speak at the foundation’s Reagan Ranch Center in Santa Barbara, California.

I told them, “I feel like I’m back home in a place I’ve never been,” because my earliest political involvements involved YAF and Ronald Reagan. I met Reagan when he came to Vanderbilt just after leaving the governorship, and I worked for his nomination at the 1976 Republican convention in Kansas City. Later, when he spoke at YAF’s national convention, and I was editor of YAF’s magazine, New Guard, he shook my hand and told me, “I always read your magazine.”

But not long after that I decided that I was a libertarian, not a conservative, and I went off to make a career in the nascent libertarian movement. In the years since I’ve thought a lot about libertarianism, conservatism, modern liberalism, and some much worse ideas.

Liberalism arose in the 17th and 18th centuries. In those days it was associated with John Locke, Adam Smith, the American Founders, and John Stuart Mill, among others. Encyclopedia Britannica defines liberalism as a political doctrine focused on “protecting and enhancing the freedom of the individual.” But in the late 19th century, and especially in the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, “liberalism” came to mean activist government with high taxes, transfer programs, and economic regulations, along with a slowly growing commitment to civil rights and civil liberties.

The conservative movement began to take shape in the 1950s in response to that new form of liberalism. Conservatism, as defined by William F. Buckley, Jr., Barry Goldwater, and Ronald Reagan, offered a program of free markets, traditional values, and a strong national defense.

And where did libertarians fit in? Libertarianism is the philosophy of freedom, both personal and economic. Libertarianism is the idea that you should be free to live your life as you choose so long as you respect the equal rights of others.

Obviously, there’s some overlap there with liberals on free speech and personal freedom issues, and with conservatives on free markets and limited government. And those were the opposing factions from the 1960s until about 2015.

And then along came Donald Trump.

Trump didn’t really campaign on “free markets, traditional values, and a strong national defense.” Instead, he focused his campaign on opposition to our relatively open trade and immigration policies, with heavy reference to Mexicans, Muslims, and Chinese. He also made some typical Republican promises about tax cuts, deregulation, and judges, but the theme and tone of his campaign were very different from Reagan’s.

I’m a libertarian, but I have always believed that the best aspect of American conservatism is its commitment to the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Ronald Reagan spoke for that brand of conservatism. And that’s the conservatism that seems hard to find in today’s Washington and in today’s Republican Party.

Both philosophically and politically, we need to develop a defense of liberty, equality under the law, and constitutionalism.

Libertarians are well positioned to do that. We stand where we always have: for individual rights, free markets, limited government, and peace.

Maybe there’s room for a new political grouping, what we might call the libertarian center: people who are fiscally conservative and socially tolerant, who appreciate the benefits of capitalism as well as the benefits of openness and diversity.

Reagan is often remembered as a hardline conservative. But in many ways he was closer to this libertarian center than you might think. He opposed the anti-gay Briggs Initiative; welcomed immigrants; campaigned against draft registration (though he later flipped on that); and withdrew troops from the Middle East when intervention came at too high a cost in American lives. And indeed Reagan used to say “the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism.”

These are challenging times. But as long as enough Americans retain their commitment to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, then Ronald Reagan’s last words to America will remain true:

I will leave with the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future.
I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.
David Boaz is the executive vice president of the Cato Institute.