June 13, 2004

A critical look at Ronald Reagan

By: AFF Editors

Of the premier U.S. politicians in recent history, Ronald Reagan is the best example of symbolism over substance.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t hate Reagan. The man did a few good things from a libertarian perspective during his presidency.

And he wasn’t nicknamed “The Great Communicator” for nothing. His warm, avuncular demeanor clearly annoyed liberals seeking to portray conservatives as cold and heartless.

What’s more, as a former president, Reagan’s death demands a degree of reverence. Most of his harshest critics are properly biting their tongues until well after his passing.

But the amount of adulation heaped on Reagan since his death has been truly astounding. On television, radio, and the Internet, parades of praiseful people are falling all over themselves to glorify the Gipper.

Of course, many of the Republican faithful have idolized Reagan for a while. Now that he has passed, his adulators seem to be so intent on canonizing him that they largely ignore his actual presidential record.

Here are most of the good things that Reagan did in office:

Reagan lowered income tax rates. He fired striking air traffic controllers. He fought for a missile defense system (although we still don’t have one). He lifted price controls on oil. He oversaw banking and shipping deregulation. He ended the “fairness” doctrine for the media.

Moreover, Reagan gave clearly pro-freedom speeches. He said, “The very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism,” and also remarked, “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

Some might ask: Didn’t he also cause the collapse of the Soviet Union?

I don’t believe that Ronald Reagan was a decisive factor in the demise of the USSR. Such a claim reminds me of liberals who somehow credit Bill Clinton with the rapid high-tech growth of the ’90s.

Yes, Reagan was often critical of the Communist behemoth, famously dubbing it “the evil empire.” And he did engage in an arms race with Soviet leaders.

But, as nearly all economists agree, a full-blown socialist economy is internally unstable. So it was only a matter of time before the Soviet Union collapsed–with or without Ronald Reagan in the White House.

Now for most of the bad parts of Reagan’s presidency:

He signed a major tax increase in 1982 and raised taxes again in 1983. He also signed a massive increase in the Social Security payroll tax and supported a new tax on gasoline.

He greatly ramped up the Drug War. Under Reagan’s instruction, U.S. attorneys imprisoned many thousands of nonviolent Americans on drug-related charges.

Reagan helped to boost foreign aid. He also pushed through an $8 billion increase in America’s contribution to the International Monetary Fund, a global welfare agency.

He appointed Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court. Justice O’Connor often sides with the left-leaning judges on the court (three of whom–Kennedy, Stevens, and Souter–were also appointed by Republicans).

Reagan was hardly a friend of free trade, an issue many libertarians hold dear. The imports under trade restriction doubled during the Reagan Administration.

President Reagan attacked other countries. His excursion into Lebanon ended shortly after a bombing in Beirut killed hundreds of U.S. Marines, and his attack on Libya was avenged by a plane bombing that killed nearly 200 U.S. civilians.

He presided over large budget deficits throughout his tenure. Don’t try to blame those all on congressional Democrats; Reagan had a Republican Senate in six of his eight years.

And don’t forget the things Reagan had promised to do but didn’t: He didn’t terminate Selective Service registration. He didn’t do anything about proliferating health and environmental regulations. And he didn’t fight relentlessly to eliminate a single agency.

Compared to George W. Bush, who seems bent on expanding government more than any president since Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan might seem like a libertarian hero.

But the truth is that Reagan’s record is mediocre–at best.

A prominent libertarian has said, “No one is ever as bad as the media portray him to be, and no one is ever as good as the media portray him to be, either.”

In the case of Ronald Reagan, that’s a point worth remembering.

Jonathan Trager is a staffer at the Cato Institute.