Ronald Reagan’s recent passing has brought on a barrage of praise, both selective and exaggerated, from people across the political spectrum.
Most of the honest praise has focused on his rhetoric, much of which, I admit, was very appealing, and certainly more eloquent than what we’d expect to hear from the White House these days.
Reagan talked a good talk about shrinking the government, cutting taxes and spending. He gave sermons against Communism. He spoke well of liberty, individualism, and limited state power.
He condemned conscription. He brandished the Constitution. He espoused capitalism.
But what did he do?
As governor of California and president of the United States, he enacted policies that, in the main, greatly expanded the role and size of government.
As governor, he oversaw the largest tax increase in Californian history. Democratic Governor Jerry Brown cut back the tax rate when he came to office.
As president, Reagan expanded the federal government by about 90%.
Ah, but this was for defense, one might protest. And defense spending, according to the conventional wisdom, doesn’t count for some reason. In fact, defense spending is good for a "capitalist" economy, even though it was supposedly defense spending that brought down the Soviet economy. (I wonder if Reagan’s increases in California’s spending when he was governor can be attributed to a good-faith effort on his part to beat Oregon and Nevada in an arms race.)
All in all, Reagan allowed the welfare state to enlarge and the military budget to explode, causing monstrous budget deficits and government growth that dwarfs government growth under Clinton, even when Clinton had a Democratic Congress. Reagan’s tax cuts notwithstanding (some of which he reversed), the state grew fat and its growth will inevitably be financed through inflation or tax increases (unless the state defaults).
Reagan also bombed Libya, put the "war" in War on Drugs, allowed the continuation of Selective Service registration (despite his campaign promise to end it), helped the Khmer Rouge terrorize Thailand, imposed brutal trade sanctions on Nicaragua, funded the murderous brutal Contras, sold missiles to Iran, gave assistance to Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, and lied to the American people.
That he did all these things in the name of "freedom," "capitalism," "small government," and "liberty" renders his legacy, in my opinion, all the more insidious. If bad Reaganesque policies continue to have a pass because of their superficial rhetorical selling points, American liberty will have suffered, not strengthened, because of him.
Many Americans say Reagan was a man of principle, regardless of what else we might think of him. And yet I’ve heard few examples of how he acted on his principles. More often, I hear excuses that he had a principled ideology but failed to follow through.
Still, his rhetoric probably did bring a fair number of people around to adopting some good values. And even some of his policies — such as pulling out of Lebanon after terrorists bombed the Marine base in Beirut, lifting oil price controls, continuing Carter’s deregulation — were quite admirable, especially by today’s standards.
By and large, however, Reagan’s words are used to advance the power of the state. Many in today’s War Party, previously critical of Reagan’s relative restraint, claim that Reagan would have approved of their pet war in Iraq, when we do not know one way or the other if that is true.
They say Reagan made them revere liberty, and that their reverence towards liberty leads them to revere war.
They say that Clinton and even Bush the Second haven’t sufficiently followed Reagan’s policy of bloated military spending and foreign bellicosity.
They have in the past compared him to Thomas Jefferson, when all the two presidents had in common was that their words were better than their presidencies. (Even this is a weak comparison, seeing as how President Jefferson actually shrank the government.)
Today’s champions of neo-Reaganism invoke the legacy of a man who practiced libertarian rhetoric and carried out a predominately statist agenda, and they do it to advance an agenda even more statist than Reagan’s.
As much as I think certain misanthropes distort and twist Reaganism to their devious purposes, it is no surprise that the Gipper would have such a vile following. No symbol is more useful in the advocacy of empire than a respected leader who glorified freedom even as he trampled it.
I can’t speak of Reagan the man, whom I never knew. It seems clear, however, that freedom lovers who mourn his passing should likewise mourn his legacy, which, as it stands, is hardly a cause for celebration.
Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He earned his bachelor’s degree in history at UC Berkeley, where he was president of the Cal Libertarians. He is an intern at the Independent Institute and has written for Rational Review, Strike the Root, the Libertarian Enterprise, and Antiwar.com. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.