Reagan - A Reflection
by Tom Donelson on February 6, 2011 at 10:01 AM
Sunday is not just the Super Bowl, but the 100th birthday of Ronald Reagan.
History admires the wise, but it elevates the brave.
This quote described Ronald Reagan. He was both wise and brave. The day he survived his assassination, the bravery of Ronald Reagan was shown. Joking while death stared him in the eye, Reagan reassured a nation as well as his own family.
In assessing the Reagan Presidency, one has to understand the America that existed three decades ago and the pessimism that existed. For Reagan, he stood against the tide of history that existed and changed it. That is what measures his greatness.
What was America and the world like in 1980? The following accurately describe the World as it was then:
- The Soviet Empire was at its apex with domination not only in Eastern Europe and busy establishing bases, but in Nicaragua, Ethiopia and Angola, and appeared to be finishing up a campaign in Afghanistan.
- The American Economy was struck by low growth and high inflation and there were many who were telling us that we had reached the era of limitation where resources were slowly running out. The American dream was dead and we had to manage the decline.
- Other experts were asking us to imitate the German or Japanese model of an export led economy and in the case of the Japanese, an Industrial policy of the government picking and subsidizing select industries.
Ronald Reagan suggested that the era of limitation was strictly man made and not a reality, he was considered old and out of touch with the economic reality. When Reagan suggested that the Soviet Empire was vulnerable and ready for the Ash heap of History- he was laughed at. Experts consider the Soviet Empire on the ascendancy and there was no way that the solid Soviet Empire would collapse economically, much less militarily. Reagan's ideas challenged the academic and foreign policy elites. They were wrong and he was right.
Within three years of Reagan leaving office, the Berlin Wall came tumbling down and the Soviet Empire imploded. Germany and Japan have been stuck in slow or stagnant growth for nearly a decade and are no longer models to be emulated. The United States has been involved in a nearly 25 year long economic expansion with two minor recession blips that has created millions of new jobs and new industries. The average American has more in his house than ever before and now we no longer fear the future.
Reagan set in place the American Century and saved what was considered the free world and expanded it. Today, more people have tasted freedom because of Reagan, and not just politically, but economically as well.
Contrast Reagan with Nixon and you have the difference between what being Republican means today vs. in the early 70’s. Nixon was one of the most intelligent men to enter the White House and the least principled. Nixon Foreign Policy was managing a nation in decline and his policy basis began with the idea that America's position in the world was diminishing. His policy was not about elevating America but slowing the eventual decline. His economic plan was surrendered to the Keynesian dogma of the time and he also surrendered to the environmental ideas that we were running our energy. Nixon was a pessimist and that is why his policies failed. They failed to take in account the American spirit.
Reagan rejected the pessimism of Nixon and added an optimism that was missing in conservatism. Look at his policy and you will understand why:
- His emphasis on tax cuts was more than just an economic tool to revive the economy but a moral idea that said how much a government took from its people was a leading indicator of the economic freedom a nation had. The more taxes removed from the economy, the less economic freedom the individual will have.
- Reagan looked to the future whether it was Strategic Defense or the computer age, he understood that there were ideas and products that were trapped inside the minds of individuals unknown to us and just waiting for the right time to explode. Who would have thought that today, we could own computers small enough to fit in our purses with more power than many of the main frames that populated the scene at the end of the 70’s?
- The average America worker is now a capitalist as nearly half of Americans now own stock and since the Reagan prosperity, nearly 30 trillion dollars have been added to the income of American workers!
- Reagan united social and economic conservatism and showed both that each belong together.
- His belief in a democratic institution and economic freedom extended to beyond America and to the world. Today, the world is a better and freer place because of Reagan- the war on terror not withstanding.
Reagan also changed the nature of conservatism. John Micklethwaith and Adrian Wooldridge of the British journal, The Economist, wrote that Reagan's “brand of conservatism is unique to America,” and he changed the nature of American conservatism. They noted that his creed “seemed a matter of emotion rather than philosophy… Mr. Reagan plainly had no conservative equivalent of Mao's Red Book, no uniform that fitted all his followers. Indeed, the movement that gathered around him (and still gathers around Mr. Bush) was similar to a medieval army, with people wearing the tunics of different causes, such as property rights or the right to life.” These gentlemen noted, “Traditional conservatism was based on six principles: a suspicion of the power of the state; a preference for liberty over equality; unashamed patriotism; a belief in established institutions and hierarchies; a pessimistic, backward-looking pragmatism; and elitism.”
Reagan according to these authors issued a conservatism that less dependent upon what was written in dogma but what appealed emotionally- conservatives are what conservatives do. Reagan, like all conservatives, mistrusted the power of government and had an uncomfortable alliance with it. Government was the protector of rights when limited to its proper role but it could be the monster that devoured liberty if left unchecked. There is that fine line from which extensive government can pass over before it becomes a threat.
Reagan, like many of us today, was ever inattentive on establishing boundaries. Reagan was an unabashed believer in American exceptionalism and that too is a feature of modern day conservatism. His talk of a “City on a Hill” was his description of an America that was unique to the world and a needed asset. He considered the American model the superior model, even with all of its imperfection. Finally, Reagan, like modern day conservatives, view liberty as the top priority over equality. Equality, as defined by Reagan, is not just about rights but opportunities and skills. Liberty assumes that some Americans will make more money than others since they are more skilled in the ways of business or talent; Liberty assumes that some Americans may prefer a more simple life style and Equality assumes that results were more important than opportunities. As these gentlemen noted, “he also took a Western approach to individual freedom, whether it was allowing people to carry guns or tolerating a high level of inequality.”
However, Reagan was not an elitist and let's be blunt, most elitist did not find Reagan appealing. Reagan never viewed America as a hierarchy where everyone knew their place. On the contrary, Reagan's closest associations were self made men and women and they broke into the established order as Reagan had done. Reagan was from Middle America and through his skills, made himself a millionaire. To be a capitalist is to oppose the established order since capitalism is about change. What is on top today may be out of business tomorrow, for Capitalism is as much about creative destruction of the existing order as it is about creating a new order to fit the needs of the customers.
Finally Reagan was a pragmatist who understood temporary alliance to advance his cause. He would ally himself with elitists like Buckley or fundamentalist Christians, but it was on his terms not theirs. Buckley, who began his career yelling for history to stop, became an optimist who found that history in many ways was on his side and it was the left who was trying to yell Stop!
Reagan conservatism, like American conservatism, is different from the European conservatism, for it believes in evolutionary change in the social arenas and radical change in the world of economics. It is driven by individual liberties and achievements and is amenable to the American experience. Hell, it is the American experience. As Micklethwait and Wooldridge wrote, “As for brawn, there are no European equivalents of America's antitax crusaders, gun-rights activists or religious right. America has 200 Christian TV channels and 1,500 Christian radio stations; nothing similar exists in Europe. ..These foot soldiers have changed American conservatism since Mr. Reagan left office. In particular, social conservatives have given Mr. Bush's presidency a much harder line on moral issues than Mr. Reagan, an easy-going divorcee, would have appreciated. But it is still plainly the same movement, particularly in its Southern and Western heartland.”
It is a movement that can be somewhat contradictory for it is based on human emotion as well as human ideals. Look at Reagan's view on marriage and homosexuality. In 1984, he stated, “man and a woman. It is the means by which families are created and society itself is extended into the future. In the Judeo-Christian tradition it is the means by which husband and wife participate with God in the creation of a new human life. It is for these reasons, among others, that our society has always sought to protect this unique relationship. In part the erosion of these values has given way to a celebration of forms of expression most reject. We will resist the efforts of some to obtain government endorsement of homosexuality." But yet, in 1978, he wrote, "Whatever else it is, homosexuality is not a contagious disease like the measles. Prevailing scientific opinion is that an individual's sexuality is determined at a very early age and that a child's teachers do not really influence this."
Even today, there is confusion within the ranks of conservatism on this issue. Some like the Vice-President is willing to allow localities to decide the status of marriage, others are prepare to take a harder line on this issue and others yet are willing to say, let individuals do what is best for them. The only agreement that all agree on is that this is a decision best left to the people and allow for institution to “evolve over time to fit the need of the greater society.” Since Marriage has both an economic utility as well as moral utility, there is wisdom in such a stance and certainly had the abortion issue been left to the individuals to decide, the issue would have been decided. Abortion would be legal to a certain extent to reflect the concern of the woman but protection provided to recognize the unborn. In other words compromise- something that is so American and so conservative.
Reagan's accomplishments are many and great. He led a nation out of economic malaise and ended World War III (known in history as the cold war) without a major conflict. There are lessons for the present day as well, but his principles still can guide us.
- American moral strength and freedom are as important in the war against Islamic fascism as it was against Communism.
- Economic liberties are still important and need to be advanced further.
- Institutions matter and changes to them need to be evolutionary.
- Finally, the strength of America lies in its people and their can-do spirit that is still the strength of America.