Sunday, June 05, 2005

Ronald Reagan: 1911-2004

Today, June 5, is the first anniversary of the death of President Ronald Reagan.

His passing came on the eve of the sixtieth anniversary of the D-Day invasion and the twentieth anniversary of his own Pointe du Hoc speech commemorating that event.

Whenever I am asked for the best place to find a summary of Ronald Reagan's political philosophy, I point them to "A Time for Choosing," a speech he delivered on behalf of presidential candidate Barry Goldwater on October 27, 1964. So important was this speech to Reagan and the conservative movement that it became known simply as "The Speech."

"The Speech" can be found in many places on the web, including through the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and the Modern History Sourcebook. I prefer the version found at the American Rhetoric web site, because it includes the text as well as both audio and video versions of The Speech. The text is also available in several books, including Time for Choosing: The Speeches of Ronald Reagan 1961-1982 and an audio recording is included on Speaking My Mind: Selected Speeches With Personal Reflections.

It is remarkable how "The Speech" has remained timely for more than 40 years. There are, of course, references to contemporary events and personalities and issues in it, some that require annotation to understand. Still, aside from those few instances, The Speech could be delivered today with few changes.

Consider, for instance, this passage, in light of the current debate over Social Security reform:

Now -- we're for a provision that destitution should not follow unemployment by reason of old age, and to that end we've accepted Social Security as a step toward meeting the problem.

But we're against those entrusted with this program when they practice deception regarding its fiscal shortcomings, when they charge that any criticism of the program means that we want to end payments to those people who depend on them for a livelihood. They've called it "insurance" to us in a hundred million pieces of literature. But then they appeared before the Supreme Court and they testified it was a welfare program. They only use the term "insurance" to sell it to the people. And they said Social Security dues are a tax for the general use of the government, and the government has used that tax. There is no fund, because Robert Byers, the actuarial head, appeared before a congressional committee and admitted that Social Security as of this moment is 298 billion dollars in the hole. But he said there should be no cause for worry because as long as they have the power to tax, they could always take away from the people whatever they needed to bail them out of trouble. And they're doing just that.

A young man, 21 years of age, working at an average salary -- his Social Security contribution would, in the open market, buy him an insurance policy that would guarantee 220 dollars a month at age 65. The government promises 127. He could live it up until he's 31 and then take out a policy that would pay more than Social Security. Now are we so lacking in business sense that we can't put this program on a sound basis, so that people who do require those payments will find they can get them when they're due -- that the cupboard isn't bare?

Barry Goldwater thinks we can.

At the same time, can't we introduce voluntary features that would permit a citizen who can do better on his own to be excused upon presentation of evidence that he had made provision for the non-earning years? Should we not allow a widow with children to work, and not lose the benefits supposedly paid for by her deceased husband? Shouldn't you and I be allowed to declare who our beneficiaries will be under this program, which we cannot do? I think we're for telling our senior citizens that no one in this country should be denied medical care because of a lack of funds. But I think we're against forcing all citizens, regardless of need, into a compulsory government program, especially when we have such examples, as was announced last week, when France admitted that their Medicare program is now bankrupt. They've come to the end of the road.

In addition, was Barry Goldwater so irresponsible when he suggested that our government give up its program of deliberate, planned inflation, so that when you do get your Social Security pension, a dollar will buy a dollar's worth, and not 45 cents worth?
How prescient! Imagine how much better off we would be, as individuals, as families, as a society, if Social Security had been transformed in the 1960s rather than 50 years later. Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater knew then what had to be done. Reagan, of course, also knew what obstacles he and smart people like him faced. In "A Time for Choosing" he delivered these well-known lines:
No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size. So governments' programs, once launched, never disappear.

Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we'll ever see on this earth.
The Goldwater campaign mobilized and inspired a generation of political activists. Despite Goldwater's defeat at the polls in November 1964, his partisans went on to launch both the modern conservative and modern libertarian movements. (For in-depth chronicles of these branches of the Goldwater legacy, I recommend The Other Side of the Sixties by John Andrew and Bringing the Market Back in: The Political Revitalization of Market Liberalism by John L. Kelley.)

Reagan himself recognized the inexorable linkage between the libertarian and conservative philosophies (and their respective political manifestations). In an interview with Reason magazine in July 1975, Reagan said:
If you analyze it I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism. I think conservatism is really a misnomer just as liberalism is a misnomer for the liberals–if we were back in the days of the Revolution, so-called conservatives today would be the Liberals and the liberals would be the Tories. The basis of conservatism is a desire for less government interference or less centralized authority or more individual freedom and this is a pretty general description also of what libertarianism is.

Now, I can’t say that I will agree with all the things that the present group who call themselves Libertarians in the sense of a party say, because I think that like in any political movement there are shades, and there are libertarians who are almost over at the point of wanting no government at all or anarchy. I believe there are legitimate government functions. There is a legitimate need in an orderly society for some government to maintain freedom or we will have tyranny by individuals. The strongest man on the block will run the neighborhood. We have government to insure that we don’t each one of us have to carry a club to defend ourselves. But again, I stand on my statement that I think that libertarianism and conservatism are travelling the same path.

* * *

I don’t believe in a government that protects us from ourselves. I have illustrated this many times by saying that I would recognize the right of government to say that someone who rode a motorcycle had to protect the public from himself by making certain provisions about his equipment and the motorcycle–the same as we do with an automobile. I disagree completely when government says that because of the number of head injuries from accidents with motorcycles that he should be forced to wear a helmet. I happen to think he’s stupid if he rides a motorcycle without a helmet, but that’s one of our sacred rights–to be stupid.

But to show you how these grey areas can creep in, the other day I was saying this to a man who happens to be a neurosurgeon, and who has treated many cases of this particular kind of injury and accident, and he disagreed with me on this issue. He disagreed with me on the basis of the individuals who become public charges as a result of permanent damage–he has pointed to an area where it does go over into not just hurting the individuals directly involved but now imposes on others also. I only use this extreme example to show that when we come down to government and what it should or should not do for the good of the people and for protecting us from each other, you do come into some grey areas and I think here there will be disagreements between conservatives and libertarians.

So, I think the government has legitimate functions. But I also think our greatest threat today comes from government’s involvement in things that are not government’s proper province. And in those things government has a magnificent record of failure.

Reagan's greatest accomplishment as a statesman -- setting aside, for the moment, his role in the defeat of Communism and the end of the Cold War -- was the way in which he changed the terms of debate. He entered the presidency at a time in which liberal thinking (in the American sense of left-wing statist liberalism) was received wisdom and conservatives were known as "the stupid party." Twenty-five years later, the liberals are bereft of ideas. The best they can do is perform a holding action as they are besieged by dynamic, progressive ideas from the right (both libertarians and conservatives). They defend the status quo the way William Jennings Bryan defended fundamentalist ideas of Creation against Clarence Darrow's modern science in the Scopes trial. Troglodytes may have stirring rhetoric, but in the end, it proves to be intellectually hollow.

Ronald Reagan proved to us that the troglodytes need not be victorious.

The legacy of Ronald Reagan is one that will define 21st century politics. His vision lives on despite the fact that his current successor in the White House pays little more than lip service to that vision. The ideas of Ronald Reagan will survive the Bush administration and will flourish.

1 comment:

Barry said...

Great Tribute! I linked to your tribute from mine. Fine words about a fine man!