Ronald Reagan: An Autopsy

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First
published in Liberty,
Vol. 2, No. 4, March 1989.

Eight
years, eight dreary, miserable, mind-numbing years, the years
of the Age of Reagan, are at long last coming to an end. These
years have surely left an ominous legacy for the future: we shall
undoubtedly suffer from the after-shocks of Reaganism for years
to come. But at least Himself will not be there, and without the
man Reagan, without what has been called his “charisma,”
Reaganism cannot nearly be the same. Reagan’s heirs and assigns
are a pale shadow of the Master, as we can see from the performance
of George Bush. He might try to imitate the notes of Reagan, but
the music just ain’t there. Only this provides a glimmer of hope
for America: that Reaganism might not survive much beyond Reagan.

Reagan
the Man

Many
recent memoirs have filled out the details of what some of us
have long suspected: that Reagan is basically a cretin who, as
a long-time actor, is skilled in reading his assigned lines and
performing his assigned tasks. Donald Regan and others have commented
on Ronald Reagan’s strange passivity, his never asking questions
or offering any ideas of his own, his willingness to wait until
others place matters before him. Regan has also remarked that
Reagan is happiest when following the set schedule that others
have placed before him. The actor, having achieved at last the
stardom that had eluded him in Hollywood, reads the lines and
performs the action that others – his script-writers, his
directors – have told him to follow.

Sometimes,
Reagan’s retentive memory – important for an actor –
gave his handlers trouble. Evidently lacking the capacity for
reasoned thought, Reagan’s mind is filled with anecdotes, most
of them dead wrong, that he has soaked up over the years in the
course of reading Reader’s Digest or at idle conversation.
Once an anecdote enters Reagan’s noodle, it is set in concrete
and impossible to correct or dislodge. (Consider, for example,
the famous story about the “Chicago welfare queen”:
all wrong, but Reagan carried on regardless.)

In
the early years of Reagan rule, the press busily checked out Reagan’s
beloved anecdotes, and found that almost every one of them was
full of holes. But Reagan never veered from his course. Why? God
knows there are plenty of correct stories about welfare cheats
that he could have clasped to his bosom; why stick to false ones?
Evidently, the reason is that Reagan cares little about reality;
he lives in his own Hollywood fantasy world, a world of myth,
a world in which it is always Morning in America, a world where
The Flag is always flying, but where Welfare Cheats mar the contentment
of the Land of Oz. So who cares if the actual story is
wrong? Let it stand, like a Hollywood story, as a surrogate for
the welfare cheats whom everyone knows do exist.

The
degree to which Reagan is out of touch with reality was best demonstrated
in his concentration camp story. This was not simply a slip of
the tongue, a Bushian confusion of December with September. When
the Premier of Israel visited Reagan at the White House, the President
went on and on for three quarters of an hour explaining why he
was pro-Jewish: it was because, being in the Signal Corps in World
War II, he visited Buchenwald shortly after the Nazi defeat and
helped to take films of that camp. Reagan repeated this story
the following day to an Israeli ambassador. But the truth was
180-degrees different; Reagan was not in Europe; he never saw
a concentration camp; he spent the entire war in the safety of
Hollywood, making films for the armed forces.

Well,
what are we to make of this incident? This little saga stayed
in the back pages of the press. By that point the media had realized
that virtually nothing – no fact, no dark deed – could
ever stick to the Teflon President. (Iran-Contra shook
things up a bit, but in a few months even that was forgotten.)

There
are only two ways to interpret the concentration camp story. Perhaps
Reagan engaged in a bald-faced lie. But why? What would he have
to gain? Especially after the lie was found out, as it soon would
be. The only other way to explain this incident, and a
far more plausible one, is that Ronnie lacks the capacity to distinguish
fantasy from reality. He would, at least in retrospect, have liked
to be filming at Buchenwald. Certainly, it made a better story
than the facts. But what are we to call a man who cannot distinguish
fantasy from reality?

It
is surely frightening to think that the most powerful position
in the world has been held for eight years by a man who cannot
tell fact from fancy. Even more frightening is the defection of
the media, who early lost heart and played the role of a submissive
receptacle for photo opportunities and press-release handouts.
One reason for this defection was the discovery of Reagan’s Teflon
nature. Another likely reason was that journalists who were too
feisty and independent would be deprived of their precious access
to the Presidential plane or to inside scoops or leaks from the
White House. And a third reason was probably the desire not to
dwell on the vital and hair-raising fact that the President of
the United States, “the leader of the free world” and
all that jazz, is nothing more than a demented half-wit.

But
why the Teflon? Because of the incredible love affair that Ronald
Reagan has enjoyed with the American people. In all my years of
fascination with American politics (my early childhood memories
are couched in terms of who was President or who was Mayor of
New York City or who won what election), I have never seen anything
remotely like it. Anyone else universally beloved? Franklin D.
Roosevelt was worshipped, to be sure, by most of the American
electorate, but there was always a large and magnificent minority
who detested every inch of his guts. Truman? He was almost universally
reviled in his time; he has only been made an icon in retrospect
by the conservative movement. Jack Kennedy, too, is only a hero
now that he has been safely interred; before his assassination
he was cordially detested by all conservatives. Nobody ever loved
Nixon. The closest to universal lovability was Ike, and even he
did not inspire the intense devotion accorded to Ronnie Reagan;
with Ike it was more of a tranquilized sense of peace and contentment.

But
with Reagan, it has been pure love: every nod of the head; every
wistful “We-e-ll,” every dumb and flawed anecdote, every
snappy salute, sends virtually every American into ecstasy. From
all corners of the land came the cry, “I don’t like his policies
very much, but I lo-o-ve the man.” Only a few malcontents,
popping up here and there, in a few obscure corners of the land,
emerged as dedicated and bitter opponents. As one of this tiny
minority I can testify that it was a lonely eight years, even
within the ranks of the libertarian movement. Sometimes I
felt like a lone and unheeded prophet, bringing the plain truth
to those who refused to understand. Very often I would be at free-market
gatherings, from living rooms to conferences, and I would go on
and on about the deficiencies of Reagan’s policies and person,
and would be met with responses like “Well of course, he’s
not a PhD.”

Me:
“No, no, that’s not the point. The man is a blithering idiot.
He makes Warren Harding tower like Aristotle.”

Responder:
“Ronald Reagan has made us feel good about America.”

Perhaps
that’s part of the explanation for the torrent of unconditional
love that the American public has poured onto Ronald Reagan. Lost
in Hollywood loony-land, Ronnie’s sincere optimism struck a responsive
chord in the American masses. The ominous fact that he “made
us” feel good about the American State and not just about
the country is lost even on many libertarians.

But,
in that case, why didn’t Hubert Humphrey’s egregious “politics
of joy” evoke the same all-inclusive love? I don’t know the
answer, but I’m convinced it’s not simply because Hubert was captive
to the dreaded “L-word’ whereas Ronnie is a conservative.
It’s lot deeper than that. One of the remarkably Teflon qualities
of Reagan is that, even after many years as President, he is still
able to act as if he were totally separate from the actions of
the government. He can still denounce the government in the same
ringing terms he used when he was out of power. And he gets
away with it, probably because inside his head, he is still
Ronnie Reagan, the mother of anti-government anecdotes as lecturer
for General Electric.

In
a deep sense, Reagan has not been a functioning part of
the government for eight years. Off in Cloud-Cuckoo-Land he is
the obedient actor who recites his lines and plays his appointed
part. Some commentators have been critical of Reagan for napping
in the afternoons, for falling asleep at crucial meetings, for
taking long vacations at his beloved ranch. Well, why not? What
else does he have to do? Reagan doesn’t actually have to do
anything; like Peter Sellers in his last film, all he has
to do is be there, the beloved icon, giving his vital sanction
to the governmental process.

Reagan’s
handlers perceived early on that one threat to Reagan’s Teflon
rule would be allowing him to mix it up with members of the press.
Away from his teleprompter, Ronnie was a real problem. So very
soon, any sort of real press conference, including uninhibited
questions and answers, was done away with. The only press “conferences”
became shouted questions as Reagan walked quickly to and from
the White House helicopter. One of his handlers has written that,
despite all efforts, they couldn’t stop Reagan from exercising
one peculiar personality trait: his compulsion to answer every
question that he hears. But fortunately, not much was risked,
since the noise of the helicopter engines would drown out most
of the repartee.

The
worst moment for the Reagan handlers came, of course during the
first debate with Mondale in 1984. For one glorious moment, during
the give and take of the debate, the real Reagan emerged:
confused, befuddled, out of it. It was a shaky moment, but all
the handlers needed to do was to reassure the shocked masses that
their beloved President was still sentient, was still there
to be a totem to his flock. The handlers blamed Reagan’s showing
on “over coaching” they made sure that he slept a lot
just before the second debate, and they fed him a snappy mock
self-deprecating one-liner about his age. The old boy could still
remember his jokes: he got off his lovable crack, and the American
masses, with a sigh of relief, clasped him to their bosoms once
again.

The
Reagan Years: Libertarian Rhetoric, Statist Policies

How
did Reagan manage to pursue egregiously statist policies in the
name of liberty and of “getting government off our backs?”
How was he able to follow this course of deception and mendacity?

Don’t
try to get Ronnie off the hook by blaming Congress. Like the general
public – and all too many libertarians – Congress was
merely a passive receptacle for Ronnie’s wishes. Congress passed
the Reagan budgets with a few marginal adjustments here and there
– and gave him virtually all the legislation, and ratified
all the personnel, he wanted. For one Bork there are thousands
who made it. The last eight years have been a Reagan Administration
for the Gipper to make or break.

There
was no “Reagan Revolution.” Any “revolution”
in the direction of liberty (in Ronnie’s words “to get government
off our backs”) would reduce the total level of government
spending. And that means reduce in absolute terms, not
as proportion of the gross national product, or corrected for
inflation, or anything else. There is no divine commandment that
the federal government must always be at least as great
a proportion of the national product as it was in 1980. If the
government was a monstrous swollen Leviathan in 1980, as libertarians
were surely convinced, as the inchoate American masses were apparently
convinced and as Reagan and his cadre claimed to believe, then
cutting government spending was in order. At the very least, federal
government spending should have been frozen, in absolute terms,
so that the rest of the economy would be allowed to grow in contrast.
Instead, Ronald Reagan cut nothing, even in the heady first year,
1981.

At
first, the only “cut” was in Carter’s last-minute loony-tunes
estimates for the future. But in a few short years, Reagan’s spending
surpassed even Carter’s irresponsible estimates. Instead, Reagan
not only increased government spending by an enormous amount –
so enormous that it would take a 40 percent cut to bring us back
to Carter’s wild spending totals of 1980 – he even substantially
increased the percentage of government spending to GNP. That’s
a “revolution”?

The
much-heralded 1981 tax cut was more than offset by two tax increases
that year. One was “bracket creep,” by which just inflation
wafted people into higher tax brackets, so that with the same
real income (in terms of purchasing power) people found themselves
paying a higher proportion of their income in taxes, even though
the official tax rate went down. The other was the usual whopping
increase in Social Security taxes which, however, don’t count,
in the perverse semantics of our time, as “taxes”; they
are only “insurance premiums.” In the ensuing years
the Reagan Administration has constantly raised taxes – to
punish us for the fake tax cut of 1981 – beginning in 1982
with the largest single tax increase in American history, costing
taxpayers $100 billion.

Creative
semantics is the way in which Ronnie was able to keep his pledge
never to raise taxes while raising them all the time. Reagan’s
handlers, as we have seen, annoyed by the stubborn old coot’s
sticking to “no new taxes,” finessed the old boy by
simply calling the phenomenon by a different name. If the Gipper
was addled enough to fall for this trick, so did the American
masses – and a large chuck of libertarians and self-proclaimed
free-market economists as well! “Let’s close another loophole,
Mr. President.” “We-e-ell, OK, then, so long as we’re
not raising taxes.” (Definition of loophole: Any and all
money the other guy has earned and that hasn’t been taxed
away yet. Your money, of course, has been fairly earned, and shouldn’t
be taxed further.)

Income
tax rates in the upper brackets have come down. But the odious
bipartisan “loophole closing” of the Tax Reform Act
of 1986 – an act engineered by our Jacobin egalitarian “free
market” economists in the name of “fairness” –
raised instead of lowered the income tax paid by most upper-income
people. Again: what one hand of government giveth, the other taketh
away, and then some. Thus, President-elect Bush has just abandoned
his worthy plan to cut the capital gains tax in half, because
it would violate the beloved tax fairness instituted by the bipartisan
Reganite 1986 “reform.”

The
bottom line is that tax revenues have gone up an enormous amount
under the eight years of Reagan; the only positive thing we can
say for them is that revenues as percentage of the gross national
product are up only slightly since 1980. The result: the monstrous
deficit, now apparently permanently fixed somewhere around $200
billion, and the accompanying tripling of the total federal debt
in the eight blessed years of the Reagan Era. Is that what the
highly touted “Reagan Revolution” amounts to, then?
A tripling of the national debt?

We
should also say a word about another of Ronnie’s great “libertarian”
accomplishments. In the late 1970’s, it became obvious even to
the man in the street that the Social Security System was bankrupt,
kaput. For the first time in fifty years there was an excellent
chance to get rid of the biggest single racket that acts as a
gigantic Ponzi scheme to fleece the American taxpayer. Instead,
Reagan brought in the famed “Randian libertarian” Alan
Greenspan, who served as head of a bipartisan commission, performing
the miracle of “saving Social Security” and the masses
have rested content with the system ever since. How did he “save”
it? By raising taxes (oops “premiums”), of course; by
that route, the government can “save” any program. (Bipartisan:
both parties acting in concert to put both of their hands in your
pocket.)

The
way Reagan-Greenspan saved Social Security is a superb paradigm
of Reagan’s historical function in all areas of his realm; he
acted to bail out statism and to co-opt and defuse any libertarian
or quasi-libertarian opposition. The method worked brilliantly,
for Social Security and other programs.

How
about deregulation? Didn’t Ronnie at least deregulate the regulation-ridden
economy inherited from the evil Carter? Just the opposite. The
outstanding measures of deregulation were all passed by the Carter
Administration, and, as is typical of that luckless President,
the deregulation was phased in to take effect during the early
Reagan years, so that the Gipper could claim the credit. Such
was the story with oil and gas deregulation (which the Gipper
did advance from September to January of 1981); airline deregulation
and the actual abolition of the Civil Aeronautics Board, and deregulation
of trucking. That was it.

The
Gipper deregulated nothing, abolished nothing. Instead of keeping
his pledge to abolish the Departments of Energy and Education,
he strengthened them, and even wound up his years in office adding
a new Cabinet post, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs. Overall,
the quantity and degree of government regulation of the economy
was greatly increased and intensified during the Reagan years.
The hated OSHA, the scourge of small business and at the time
the second most-hated agency of federal government (surely you
need not ask which is the first most-hated), was not only not
abolished; it too was strengthened and reinforced. Environmentalist
restrictions were greatly accelerated, especially after the heady
early years when selling off some public lands was briefly mentioned,
and the proponents of actually using and developing locked-up
government resources (James Watt, Anne Burford, Rita Lavelle)
were disgraced and sent packing as a warning to any future “anti-environmentalists.”

The
Reagan Administration, supposedly the champion of free trade,
has been the most protectionist in American history, raising tariffs,
imposing import quotas, and – as another neat bit of creative
semantics – twisting the arms of the Japanese to impose “voluntary”
export quotas on automobiles and microchips. It has made the farm
program the most abysmal of this century: boosting price supports
and production quotas, and paying many more billions of taxpayer
money to farmers so that they can produce less and raise prices
to consumers.

And
we should never forget a disastrous and despotic program that
has received unanimous support from the media and from the envious
American public: the massive witch hunt and reign of terror against
the victimless non-crime of “insider trading.” In a
country where real criminals – muggers, rapists, and “inside”
thieves – are allowed to run rampant, massive resources
and publicity are directed toward outlawing the use of one’s superior
knowledge and insight in order to make profits on the market.

In
the course of this reign of terror, it is not surprising that
freedom of speech was the first thing to go by the boards. Government
spies and informers busily report conversations over martinis
(“Hey Joe, I heard that XYZ Corp. is going to merge with
ABC.”) All this is being done by the cartelizing
and fascistic Securities and Exchange Commission, the Department
of Justice and its much-hailed Savanarola in New York, Rudolf
Giuliani. All this is the work of the beloved Gipper, the “free-market,”
“libertarian” Reagan Administration. And where are the
“conservative libertarians”? Where are the “free
market economists” to point this out and condemn it?

Foreign
aid, a vast racket by which American taxpayers are mulcted in
order to subsidize American export firms and foreign governments
(mostly dictatorships), has been vastly expanded under Reagan.
The Administration also encouraged the nation’s banks to inflate
and pour money down Third World rat-holes; then bailed out the
banks and tin-pot socialist dictatorships at the expense of U.S.
taxpayers (via tax increases) and consumers (via inflation). Since
the discrediting of Friedmanite monetarism by the end of the first
Reagan term, the original monetarist policy of allowing the dollar
to fluctuate freely has been superseded by Keynesian Secretary
of Treasury James Baker, who has concerted with foreign central
banks to try to freeze the dollar within various zones. The interference
has been, as usual, futile and counterproductive, but that will
not stop the soon-to-be even more powerful Baker from trying to
fulfill, or at least move strongly toward, the old Keynesian dream
of one world fiat paper currency (or at least fixed exchange rates
of the various national currencies) issued by one world Central
Bank – in short, economic world government.

But
didn’t Ronnie “bring down inflation”? Sure, but he did
it, not by some miracle, but the old-fashioned way: by the steepest
recession (read: depression) since the 1930s. And now, as a result
of his inflationary monetary policies, inflation is back with
a roar – which the Teflon President will leave as one of
his great legacies to the Bush Administration.

And
then there is another charming legacy: the reckless inflationary
course, encouraged by the Reagan Administration, of the nation’s
savings-and-loan banks. Virtually the entire industry is now bankrupt,
and FDIC – the federal agency supposedly “insuring”
S&L depositors – is bankrupt. Instead of allowing the
banks and their deluded depositors to pay the price of their profligacy,
everyone of both parties, including our “free-market”
Reaganauts, is prepared to use taxpayer money or the printing
press to bail out the entire industry – to the tune of an
estimated 50 to 100 billion dollars. (These estimates, by the
way, come from government sources, which notoriously underestimate
future costs of their programs.)

I
have been cleaving to the strictly economic realm because even
the staunchest pro-Reagan libertarian will not dare to claim that
Ronnie has been a blessing for civil liberties. On the contrary.
In addition to his reign of terror on Wall Street (who cares about
the civil liberties of stock traders anyway?), Reagan worked to
escalate toward infinity the insane “war against drugs.”
Far from the 1970s movement toward repealing marijuana laws, an
ever greater flow of men and resources – countless billions
of dollars – are being hysterically poured into combating
a drug “problem” that clearly gets worse in direct proportion
to the intensity of the “war.”

The
outbreak of drug fascism, moreover, is a superb illustration of
the interconnectedness of civil liberty and economic freedom.
Under cover of combating drugs, the government has cracked down
on our economic and financial privacy, so that carrying cash has
become prima fade evidence of “laundering” drug
money. And so the government steps up its long-cherished campaign
to get people to abstain from cash and into using government-controlled
banks. The government is already insinuating foreign exchange
controls – now the legal obligation to “report”
large amounts of cash taken out of the country – into our
personal and economic life.

And
every day more evil drugs are being found that must be denounced
and outlawed: the latest is the dread menace of anabolic steroids.
As part of this futile war, we are being urged by the Reaganites
to endure compulsory urine testing (supervised, of course, since
otherwise the testee might be able to purchase and substitute
black market drug-free urine). In this grotesque proposal, government
is not only not off our backs, it is now also insisting
on joining us in the bathroom.

And
in the bedroom, too, if Ronnie has his way. Although abortion
is not yet illegal, it is not for lack of effort by the Reagan
Administration. The relentless Reaganite drive to conservatize
the judiciary will likely recriminalize abortion soon, making
criminals out of millions of American women each year. George
Bush, for less than twenty-four glorious hours, was moved to take
a consistent position: if abortion is murder, then all women who
engage in abortion are murderers. But it took only a day for his
handlers to pull George back from the abyss of logic, and to advocate
only criminalizing the doctors, the hired hands of the women who
get abortions.

Perhaps
the Gipper cannot be directly blamed – but certainly he has
set the moral climate – for the increasingly savage Puritanism
of the 1980s: the virtual outlawry of smoking, the escalating
prohibition of pornography, even the partial bringing back of
Prohibition (outlawing drunken driving, raising the legal drinking
age to 21, making bartenders – or friendly hosts – legally
responsible for someone else’s drunken driving, etc.).

Under
Reagan, the civil liberties balance has been retipped in favor
of the government and against the people: restricting our freedom
to obtain government documents under the Freedom of Information
Act and stepping up the penalties on privately printed and disseminated
news about activities of the government, on the one hand; more
“freedom” for our runaway secret police, the CIA, to
restrict the printing of news, and to wiretap private individuals,
on the other. And to cap its hypocrisy, as it escalated its war
on drugs, the Reagan Administration looked the other way on drug
running by its own CIA.

On
foreign policy, the best we can say about Ronnie is that he did
not launch World War III. Apart from that, his foreign policy
was a series of murdering blunders:

  • His
    idiotic know-nothing intervention into the cauldron of Lebanon,
    resulting in the murder of several hundred US Marines.
  • His
    failed attempt – lauded by Reaganites ever since –
    to murder Colonel Khadafy by an air strike – and succeeding
    instead in slaying his baby daughter, after which our media
    sneered at Khadafy for looking haggard, and commented that
    the baby was “only adopted.”
  • His
    stumblebum intervention into the Persian Gulf, safeguarding
    oil tankers of countries allied to Iraq in the Iraq–Iran
    war. (Ironically, the US. imports practically no oil from
    the Gulf, unlike Western Europe and Japan, where there was
    no hysteria and who certainly sent no warships to the Gulf.)
    In one of the most bizarre events in the history of warfare,
    the Iraqi sinking of the U.S.S. Stark was dismissed instantly
    – and without investigation, and in the teeth of considerable
    evidence to the contrary – as an “accident,”
    followed immediately by blaming Iran (and using the
    sinking as an excuse to step up our pro-Iraq intervention
    in the war). This was followed by a US warship’s sinking of
    a civilian Iranian airliner, murdering hundreds of civilians,
    and blaming – you guessed it! – the Iranian government
    for this catastrophe. More alarming than these actions of
    the Reagan Administration was the supine and pusillanimous
    behavior of the media, in allowing the Gipper to get away
    with all this.

As
we all know only too well, the height of Reagan’s Teflon qualities
came with Iran-Contra. At the time, I navely thought that the
scandal would finish the bastard off. But no one saw anything
wrong with the Administration’s jailing private arms salesmen
to Iran, while at the very same time engaging in arms sales to
Iran itself. In Reagan’s America, apparently anything,
any crookery, any aggression or mass murder, is OK if allegedly
performed for noble, patriotic motives. Only personal greed is
considered a no-no.

I
have not yet mentioned the great foreign-policy triumph of the
Reagan Administration: the invasion and conquest of tiny Grenada,
a pitiful little island-country with no army, air force, or navy.
A “rescue” operation was launched to save US medical
students who never sought our deliverance. Even though the enemy
consisted of a handful of Cuban construction workers, it still
took us a week to finish the Grenadans off, during the course
of which the three wings of our armed forces tripped over each
other and our military distinguished itself by bombing a Grenadan
hospital. The operation was as much a botch as the Carter attempt
to rescue the American hostages. The only difference was that
this time the enemy was helpless.

But
we won didn’t we? Didn’t we redeem the US loss in Vietnam
and allow America to “stand tall”? Yes, we did win.
We beat up on a teeny country; and even botched that! If
that is supposed to make Americans stand tall, then far
better we sit short. Anyway, it’s about time we learned that
Short is Beautiful.

The
US war against the Sandinistas on the other hand, which
has been conducted at enormous expense and waged hand-in-hand
with Guatemalan, Honduran, and Salvadoran dictators, is going
down the drain, despite illegal CIA mining of harbors and injury
to neutral shipping. Even the nearly comatose American public
is giving up on the idea of supporting bandit guerrillas, so long
as they are anti-Communist, despite the best efforts of Ollie
and Secord and Singlaub and Abrams and all the rest of the war
crowd.

The
Reagan Administration’s continued aid and support to Pol Pot in
Cambodia, the most genocidal butcher of our time, is more reprehensible
but less visible to most Americans. As a result, Pol Pot’s thugs
are mobilizing at this very moment on the Thai border to return
and take over Cambodia as soon as the Vietnamese pull out, presumably
to renew their bizarre mass murders. But you see, that’s okay
with the Reaganites because the Cambodian Commies are guerrilla
fighters against the Vietnamese (pro-Soviet) Commies, who
by definition are evil. Pol Pot’s butchers as “freedom fighters”
show us that, in the arsenal of the Reaganite Right, “freedom,”
like “taxes” and many other crucial words, means, as
in the case of Humpty Dumpty, whatever they choose it
to.

Grenada
was the perfect war as far as many conservatives (and apparently
much of the American public) were concerned: it was quick and
easy to win, with virtually no risk of loss, and allowed ample
opportunities to promote the military (and their Commander-in-Chief)
as heroes while bragging up the victory on television – in
short, allowing the U.S. to glory in its status as a bully. (It
helped eradicate the awful memory of Vietnam, which was the perfect
war for American centrist liberals: virtually impossible to win,
horribly expensive in terms of men and property – and best
of all, it could go on forever without resolution, like the War
on Poverty, fueling their sense of guilt while providing safe
but exciting jobs for members of their techno-bureaucratic class.)

While
the American masses do not want war with Russia or even aid to
the bandit Contras, they do want an ever-expanding military
and other aggravated symbols of a “strong,” “tough”
America, an America that will, John Wayne-like, stomp on teeny
pests like Commie Grenada, or, perhaps, any very small island
that might possess the tone and the ideology of the Ayatollah.

Setting
the Stage: The Anti-Government Rebellion of the 1970s

I
am convinced that the historic function of Ronald Reagan was to
co-opt, eviscerate and ultimately destroy the substantial wave
of anti-governmental, and quasi-libertarian, sentiment that erupted
in the U.S. during the 1970s. Did he perform this task consciously?
Surely too difficult a feat for a man barely compos. No,
Reagan was wheeled into performing this task by his Establishment
handlers.

The
task of co-optation needed to be done because the 1970s, particularly
1973–75, were marked by an unusual and striking conjunction
of crisis – crises that fed on each other to lead to a sudden
and cumulative disillusionment with the federal government. It
was this symbiosis of anti-government reaction that led me to
develop my “case for libertarian optimism” during the
mid-1970’s, in the expectation of a rapid escalation of libertarian
influence in America.

1973–74
saw the abject failure of the Nixon wage-price control program,
and the development of something Keynesians assumed could never
happen: the combination of double-digit inflation and a
severe recession. High unemployment and high inflation happened
again, even more intensely, during the greater recession of 1979–82.
Since Keynesianism rests on the idea that government should pump
in spending during recessions and take out spending during inflationary
booms, what happens when both occur at the same time? As
Rand would say: Blankout! There is no answer. And so, there was
disillusionment in the government’s handling of the macro-economy,
deepening during the accelerating inflation of the 1970s and the
beginnings of recession in 1979.

At
the same time, people began to be fed up, increasingly and vocally,
with high taxes: income taxes, property taxes, sales taxes, you
name it. Especially in the West, an organized tax rebel movement
developed, with its own periodicals and organizations However
misguided strategically, the spread of the tax rebellion signaled
a growing disillusion with big government. I was privileged to
be living in California during the election year of 1978, when
Proposition 13 was passed. It was a genuinely inspiring sight.
In the face of hysterical opposition and smears from the entire
California Establishment Democratic and Republican, Big Business
and labor, academia, economists, and all of the press the
groundswell for Prop 13 burgeoned. Everyone was against it but
the people. If the eventual triumph of Ronald Reagan is the best
case against “libertarian populism,” Prop. 13 was the
best case in its favor.

Also
exhilarating was the smashing defeat of US imperialism in Vietnam
in 1975 – exhilarating because this first loss of a war by
the United States, many of us believed, was bound to get Americans
to rethink the disastrous warmongering bipartisan foreign policy
that had plagued us since the unlamented days of Woodrow Wilson.

On
the civil liberties front, the de facto legalization of
marijuana was a sign that the nonsense of drug prohibition would
soon be swept away. (Ye gods! Was that only a decade ago?)
Inflationary recession; high taxes; prohibition laws; defeat in
foreign war; across the board, the conditions seemed admirable
for a growing and triumphant libertarianism.

And
to top it off, the Watergate crisis (my particular favorite) destroyed
the trust of the American masses in the Presidency. For the first
time in over a hundred years, the concept of impeachment of
the President became, first thinkable, and then a living and glorious
process. For a while, I feared that Jimmy Carter, with his lovable
cardigan sweater, would restore Americans’ faith in their president,
but soon that fear proved groundless.

Surely,
it is no accident that it was precisely in this glorious and sudden
anti-government surge that libertarian ideas and libertarian scholarship
began to spread rapidly in the United States. And it was in 1971
that the tiny Libertarian Party emerged, in 1972 that its first,
embryonic presidential candidacy was launched, and 1973 when its
first important race was run, for mayor of New York City. The
Libertarian Party continued to grow rapidly, almost exponentially,
during the 1970s, reaching a climax with the Clark campaign for
governor of California during the Prop 13 year of 1978, and with
the Clark campaign for the Presidency in 1980. The morning my
first article on libertarianism appeared in the New York
Times in 1971, a very bright editor at Macmillan, Tom Mandel,
called me and asked me to write a book on the subject (it was
to become For
a New Liberty
). Not a libertarian himself, Mandel
told me that he believed that libertarianism would become a very
important ideology in a few years – and he turned out to
be right.

So
libertarianism was on a roll in the 1970s. And then Something
Happened.

Enter
the Neocons

What
happened was Ronald Wilson Blithering Reagan. Obviously Reagan
did not suddenly descend out of the clouds in 1980. He had been
the cherished candidate of the conservative movement, its chosen
route to power, ever since Goldwater’s defeat. Goldwater was too
blunt and candid, too much an unhandleable Real Person. What was
needed was a lovable, manipulable icon. Moreover, Goldwater’s
principles were too hard-edged: he was way too much a domestic
libertarian, and he was too much an eager warmonger. Both his
libertarianism and his passion for nuclear confrontation with
the Soviet Union scared the bejesus out of the American masses,
as well as the more astute leadership of the conservative movement.

A
reconstituted conservative movement would have to drop any libertarian
ideology or concrete policies, except to provide a woolly
and comfortable mood for suitably gaseous anti-government
rhetoric and an improved foreign policy that would make sure that
many more billions would go into the military-industrial complex,
to step up global pressure against Communism, but avoiding
an actual nuclear war. This last point was important: As much
as they enjoy the role of the bully, neither the Establishment
nor the American people want to risk nuclear war, which might,
after all, blow them up as well. Once again, Ronnie Reagan looked
like the Answer.

Two
important new ingredients entered into, and helped reshape, the
conservative movement during the mid 1970’s. One was the emergence
of a small but vocal and politically powerful group of neo-conservatives
(neocons), who were able, in a remarkably short time, to seize
control of the think tanks, the opinion-molding institutions,
and finally the politics, of the conservative movement. As ex-liberals,
the neocons were greeted as important new converts from the enemy.
More importantly, as ex-Trotskyites, the neocons were veteran
politicos and organizers, schooled in Marxian cadre organizing
and in manipulating the levers of power. They were shrewdly eager
to place their own people in crucial opinion molding and money-raising
positions, and in ousting those not willing to submit to the neocon
program. Understanding the importance of financial support, the
neocons knew how to sucker Old Right businessmen into giving them
the monetary levers at their numerous foundations and think tanks.
In contrast to free-market economists, for example, the neocons
were eager to manipulate patriotic symbols and ethical doctrines,
doing the microequivalent of Reagan and Bush’s wrapping themselves
in the American Flag. Wrapping themselves, also, in such patriotic
symbols as The Framers and the Constitution, as well as Family
Values, the neocons were easily able to outflank free-market types
and keep them narrowly confined to technical economic issues.
In short the neocons were easily able to seize the moral and patriotic
“high ground.”

The
only group willing and able to challenge the neocons on their
own moralizing on philosophic turf was, of course, the tiny handful
of libertarians; and outright moral libertarianism, with its opposition
to statism, theocracy, and foreign war, could never hope to get
to first base with conservative businessmen, who, even at the
best of times during the Old Right era, had never been happy about
individual personal liberty, (e.g. allowing prostitution, pornography,
homosexuality, or drugs) or with the libertarians’ individualism
and conspicuous lack of piety toward the Pentagon, or toward the
precious symbol of the Nation-State, the US flag.

The
neocons were (and remain today) New Dealers, as they frankly describe
themselves, remarkably without raising any conservative eyebrows.
They are what used to be called, in more precise ideological days,
“extreme right-wing Social Democrats.” In other words,
they are still Roosevelt-Truman-Kennedy-Humphrey Democrats. Their
objective, as they moved (partially) into the Republican Party
and the conservative movement, was to reshape it to become,
with minor changes, a Roosevelt-Truman-etc. movement; that
is, a liberal movement shorn of the dread “L” word and
of post-McGovern liberalism. To verify this point all we have
to do is note how many times Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, et
al., properly reviled by conservatives while they were alive,
are now lauded, even canonized, by the current neocon-run movement,
from Ronnie Reagan on down. And no one calls them on this Orwellian
revision of conservative movement history.

As
statists-to-the-core the neocons had no problem taking the lead
in crusades to restrict individual liberties, whether it be
in the name of rooting out “subversives,” or of inculcating
broadly religious (“Judeo-Christian”) or moral values.
They were happy to form a cozy alliance with the Moral Majority,
the mass of fundamentalists who entered the arena of conservative
politics in the mid-1970s. The fundamentalists were goaded out
of their quietist millenarian dreams (e.g., the imminent approach
of Armageddon) and into conservative political action by the accumulation
of moral permissivism in American life. The legalization of abortion
in Roe v. Wade was undoubtedly the trigger, but this decision
came on top of a cumulative effect of the sexual revolution, the
militant homosexual movement “out of the closet” and
into the streets, the spread of pornography, and the visible decay
of the public school system. The entry of the Moral Majority transformed
American politics, not the least by furnishing the elite cadre
of neocons with a mass base to guide and manipulate.

In
economic matter, the neocons showed no more love of liberty, though
this is obscured by the fact that the neocons wish to trim the
welfare state of its post-Sixties excrescences, particularly since
these were largely designed to aid black people. What the neocons
want is a smaller, more “efficient” welfare state, within
which bounds they would graciously allow the market to operate.
The market is acceptable as a narrow instrumental device; their
view of private property and the free market is essentially identical
to Gorbachev’s in the Soviet Union.

Why
did the Right permit itself to be bamboozled by the neocons? Largely
because the conservatives had been inexorably drifting Stateward
in the same manner. In response to the crushing defeat of Goldwater,
the Right had become ever less libertarian and less principled,
and ever more attuned to the “responsibilities” and
moderations of Power. It is a far cry from three decades ago when
Bill Buckley used to say that he too is an “anarchist”
but that we have to put off all thoughts of liberty until the
“international Communist conspiracy” is crushed. Those
old Chodorovian libertarian days are long gone, and so is National
Review as any haven for libertarian ideas. War mongering,
militarism, theocracy, and limited “free” markets –
this is really what Buckleyism amounted to by the late 1970s.

The
burgeoning neocons were able to confuse and addle the Democratic
Party by breaking with the Carter Administration, at the same
time militantly and successfully pressuring it from within. The
neocons formed two noisy front groups, the Coalition for a Democratic
Majority and the Committee on the Present Danger. By means of
these two interlocking groups and their unusual access to influential
media, the neocons were able to pressure the Carter Administration
into breaking the détente with Russia over the Afghanistan
imbroglio and influencing Carter to get rid of the dove Cyrus
Vance as Secretary of State and to put foreign policy power into
the hands of the Polish émigré hawk and Rockefeller
Trilateralist, Zbigniew Brzezinski. In the meantime, the neocons
pushed the hysterically hawkish CIA “B” Team report,
wailing about alleged Soviet nuclear superiority, which in turn
paved the way for the vast gift of spending handed to the military-industrial
complex by the incoming Regan Administration. The Afghanistan
and “B” Team hysterias, added to the humiliation by
the Ayatollah, managed not only to kill off the bedeviled Carter
Administration, but also to put the boots to non-intervention
and to prepare the nation for a scrapping of the “post-Vietnam
syndrome” and a return to the warmongering of the pre-Vietnam
Era.

The
Reagan candidacy of 1980 was brilliantly designed to weld a coalition
providing the public’s instinctive anti-government mood with sweeping,
but wholly nonspecific, libertarian rhetoric, as a convenient
cover for the diametrically opposite policies designed to satisfy
the savvy and politically effective members of that coalition:
the neocons, the Buckleyite cons, the Moral Majority, the Rockefellers,
the military-industrial complex, and the various Establishment
special interests always clustering at the political trough.

Intellectual
Corruption

In
the face of the stark record, how were the Reaganites able to
get away with it? Where did Ronnie get his thick coat of Teflon?
Why was he able to follow statist policies and yet convince everyone,
including many alleged libertarians, that he was successfully
pursuing a “revolution” to get government off our backs?

The
essential answer was provided a century ago by Lysander Spooner.
Why does the public obey the State, and go further to endorse
statist policies that benefit the Power Elite at the public’s
own expense? The answer, wrote Spooner, is that the State is supported
by three powerful groups: knaves, who know what is going on and
benefit from State rule; dupes, who are fooled into thinking that
State rule is in their and everyone else’s interest; and cowards,
who know the truth but are afraid to proclaim that the emperor
has no clothes. I think we can refine Spooner’s analysis and merge
the Knave and Coward categories; after all, the renegade sellout
confronts the carrot and the stick: the carrot of wealth,
cushy jobs, and prestige if he goes along with the Emperor; and
the stick of scorn, exclusion from wealth, prestige, and jobs
– and perhaps worse – if he fails to go along. The reason
that Reagan got away with it – in addition to his aw-shucks
“lovability” – is that various powerful groups
were either duped or knave-cowardly corrupted into hailing his
alleged triumphs and deep-sixing his evident failures.

First,
the powerful opinion-molding media. It is conventional wisdom
that media people are biased in favor of liberalism, No doubt.
But that is not important, because the media, especially elite
media who have the most to lose, are also particularly subject
to the knave/coward syndrome. If they pander to Reaganism, they
get the approval of the deluded masses, their customers, and they
get the much-sought-after access to the President and to other
big-wigs in government. And access means scoops, carefully planted
exclusive leaks, etc. Any sort of effective opposition to the
President means, on the other hand, loss of access; the angering
of Reagan-deluded masses; and also the angering of their
bosses, the owners of the press and television, who are far more
conservative than their journalist employees.

One
of Reagan’s most notable achievements was his emasculation of
the liberal media because of his personal popularity with the
masses. Note, for example, the wimpy media treatment of Iran-Contra
as compared to their glorious attack on Watergate. If this
is liberal media bias, then the liberals need to be saved
from their friends.

If
the media were willing to go along with Reaganite duplicity and
hokum, then so were our quasi-libertarian intellectual leaders.
It is true of the libertarian-inclined masses as it has been always
true of the conservative masses: they tend to be not too swift
in the upper story. During the late 1970s, libertarian intellectuals
and free-market economists were growing in number, but they were
very few, and they had not yet established institutions with firm
ties to journalistic and mass opinion. Hence, the libertarian
mood, but not the informed thought, of the masses,
was ready for co-optation, especially if led by a charismatic,
beloved President.

But
we must not under weigh the importance of the traitorous role
performed by quasi-libertarian intellectuals and free-market economists
during the Reagan years. While their institutions were small and
relatively weak, the power and consistency of libertarian thought
had managed to bring them considerable prestige and political
influence by 1980 – especially since they offered an attractive
and consistent alternative to a statist system that was breaking
down on all fronts.

But
talk about your Knaves! In the history of ideological movements,
there have always been people willing to sell their souls and
their principles. But never in history have so many sold out for
so pitifully little. Hordes of libertarian and free-market intellectuals
and activists rushed to Washington to whore after lousy
little jobs, crummy little grants, and sporadic little conferences.
It is bad enough to sell out; it is far worse to be a two-bit
whore. And worst of all in this sickening spectacle were those
who went into the tank without so much as a clear offer: betraying
the values and principles of a lifetime in order to position
themselves in hopes of being propositioned. And so they wriggled
around the seats of power in Washington. The intellectual corruption
spread rapidly, in proportion to the height and length of jobs
in the Reagan Administration. Lifelong opponents of budget deficits
remarkably began to weave sophisticated and absurd apologias,
now that the great Reagan was piling them up, claiming, very much
like the hated left-wing Keynesians of yore, that “deficits
don’t matter.”

Shorn
of intellectual support, the half-formed libertarian instincts
of the American masses remained content with Reaganite rhetoric,
and the actual diametrically opposite policies got lost in the
shuffle.

Reagan’s
Legacy

Has
the Reagan Administration done nothing good in its eight ghastly
years on earth, you might ask? Yes, it has done one good thing;
it has repealed the despotic 55-mile-per-hour highway speed limit.
And that is it.

As
the Gipper, at bloody long last, goes riding off into the sunset,
he leaves us with a hideous legacy. He has succeeded in destroying
the libertarian public mood of the late 1970’s, and replaced it
with fatuous and menacing patriotic symbols of the Nation-State,
especially The Flag, which he first whooped up in his vacuous
reelection campaign in 1984, aided by the unfortunate coincidence
of the Olympics being held at Los Angeles. (Who will soon forget
the raucous baying of the chauvinist mobs: “USA! USA!”
every time some American came in third in some petty event?) He
has succeeded in corrupting libertarian and free-market intellectuals
and institutions, although in Ronnie’s defense it must be noted
that the fault lies with the corrupted and not with the corrupter.

It
is generally agreed by political analysts that the ideological
mood of the public, after eight years of Reaganism, is in support
of economic liberalism (that is, an expanded welfare state),
and social conservatism (that is, the suppression of civil
liberties and the theocratic outlawing of immoral behavior). And,
on foreign policy, of course, they stand for militaristic chauvinism.
After eight years of Ronnie, the mood of the American masses is
to expand the goodies of the welfare-warfare state (though not
to increase taxes to pay for these goodies), to swagger abroad
and be very tough with nations that can’t fight back, and to crack
down on the liberties of groups they don’t like or whose values
or culture they disagree with.

It
is a decidedly unlovely and unlibertarian wasteland, this picture
of America 1989, and who do we have to thank for it? Several groups:
the neocons who organized it; the vested interests and the Power
Elite who run it; the libertarians and free marketeers who sold
out for it; and above all, the universally beloved Ronald Wilson
Reagan, Who Made It Possible.

As
he rides off into retirement, glowing with the love of the American
public, leaving his odious legacy behind, one wonders what this
hallowed dimwit might possibly do in retirement that could be
at all worthy of the rest of his political career. What very last
triumph are we supposed to “win for the Gipper”?

He
has tipped his hand: I have just read that as soon as he retires,
the Gipper will go on a banquet tour on behalf of the repeal of
the 22nd (“Anti-Third Term”) Amendment – the one
decent thing the Republicans have accomplished. In the last four
decades. The 22nd Amendment was a well-deserved retrospective
slap at FDR. It is typical of the depths to which the GOP has
fallen in the last few years that Republicans have been actually
muttering about joining the effort to repeal this amendment. If
they are successful, then Ronald Reagan might be elected again,
and reelected well into the 21st century.

In
our age of High Tech, I’m sure that his mere physical death could
easily have been overcome by his handlers and media mavens. Ronald
Reagan will be suitably mummified, trotted out in front of a giant
American flag, and some puppet master would have gotten him to
give his winsome headshake and some ventriloquist would have imitated
the golden tones: “We-e-ell…” (Why not? After all,
the living reality of the last four years has not been a helluva
lot different.)

Perhaps,
after all, Ronald Reagan and almost all the rest of us will finally
get our fondest wish: the election forever and ever of the mummified
con King Ronnie.

Now
there is a legacy for our descendants!

Reprinted
from Mises.org.

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