Reagan the Intellectual

This article appeared in Forbes on March 5, 2001.
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A true intellectual conveys to the public new ideas on a wide range of subjects, unearthing these notions long before most people do. That’s the essence of Nobel laureate Friedrich von Hayek’s definition of an intellectual. In his 1949University of Chicago Law Review essay “The Intellectuals and Socialism,” Hayek also underlined that for better orworse, intellectuals are more important than most people think. After all, they shape public opinion.

Economist Hayek was one of Ronald Reagan’s favorite thinkers. And Reagan, by Hayek’s definition, was anintellectual. Reagan the intellectual? In Democrat Clark Clifford’s memorable phrase, the former President was “anamiable dunce.” How wrongheaded. The recent publication of Reagan, In His Own Hand (Free Press, $30) has sentmost cognoscenti into their foxholes. This volume, with an illuminating preface by George Shultz, contains 259 essaysReagan wrote, mainly scripts for his five‐​minute, five‐​day‐​a‐​week syndicated radio broadcasts in the late 1970s. Theyare awe‐​inspiring in their breadth of subject matter. And they laid out the philosophical framework for his presidency.

Small wonder the Gipper always appeared to be relaxed and in control. He’d thought things through. As someonewho was a senior economist at the President’s Council of Economic Advisors during 1981- 82, I saw his intellectualacumen firsthand.

One of my early assignments was to analyze the federal government’s landholdings and make recommendationsabout what to do with them. This was a big job. These lands are vast, covering an area six times that of France.

These so‐​called public lands represent a huge socialist anomaly in America’s capitalist system. As is the case with allsocialist enterprises, they are mismanaged by politicians and bureaucrats dancing to the tunes of narrow interestgroups. Indeed, the U.S. nationalized lands represent assets that are worth trillions of dollars, yet they generatenegative net cash flows for the government. I presented my recommendations to the annual Public Lands Councilmeeting in Reno, Nev. in September 1981. The title of my speech: “Privatize Those Lands.”

My Reno speech caused a stir. James Watt, the Secretary of Interior, was furious because he wanted to hand overthe lands to the states‐​exchanging one form of socialism for another. Needless to say, I thought I was in deep trouble.Hoping to avoid political immolation, I rapidly sent my analysis to the President.

Much to my surprise, Reagan instantly responded, taking my side. Better, he swiftly made my proposals theAdministration’s policy.

He went public in his budget message for fiscal year 1983 when he endorsed privatizing public lands: “Some of thisproperty is not in use and would be of greater value to society if transferred to the private sector. In the next three years we would save $9 billion by shedding these unnecessary properties while fully protecting and preserving ournational parks, forests, wilderness and scenic areas.”

It turned out that Reagan had already thought about this issue. Reagan, In His Own Hand contains several essays onthe subject that clearly foreshadowed his policy statement. His 1970s musings on public lands echo the writings ofanother fine thinker, Adam Smith. While Reagan never cited Smith, their reasoning was similar.

Smith concluded in The Wealth of Nations (1776) that “no two characters seem more inconsistent than those of thetrader and the sovereign,” since people are more prodigal with the wealth of others than with their own. In that vein,he estimated that lands owned by the state were only about 25% as productive as comparable private holdings. Smithbelieved Europe’s great tracts of crown lands to be “a mere waste and loss of country in respect both of produce andpopulation.”

Democratic opposition stopped Reagan from privatizing. One of Bill Clinton’s baleful final acts was to declare largeswatches of national lands off‐​limits to commercial use. But Reagan the intellectual had it right long ago.