The Quintessential Politician

by Harry Browne

June 22, 2004       

Now that the orgy of media coverage for St. Ronald of Reagan is over, we can take a dispassionate look at the "legacy" of Ronald Reagan without raining on anyone's eulogy.

It's telling that so much of the TV commentary focused on Reagan's sense of humor or his personal acts of kindness his compassion and sensitivity to the needs of others. That's a tip-off that the man didn't change America in any important way. If he had done something revolutionary, that would have been the focus of discussion.

And, of course, there are millions of Americans who have a sense of humor or who perform personal acts of kindness. Neither characteristic should be at the top of the list in selecting a President. Such attributes seem important only because presidential candidates of the two major parties are so much alike in their politics. So voters who aren't joined at the hip to a particular political party usually wind up voting on the basis of personality and apparent "character."

As for the limited coverage of his policies, conservatives in print and on the Internet talked about Reagan's dedication to individual liberty and smaller government, and about his single-handed whipping of the Soviet Union. TV journalists, having no interest in smaller government, focused more on his fighting of the Cold War.

In truth, however, most of the discussion of Ronald Reagan was as bogus as Reagan's political career. He was neither the man he claimed to be nor the man who was celebrated these past few weeks.

My Sympathies

Even though I had no intention of voting for anyone, I couldn't help being sympathetic toward Reagan when he ran for President in 1976 and 1980. After all, here was a man preaching that "government is the problem, not the solution" and being trashed by the liberal media for saying so.

I considered him to be a refreshing change when he became President in 1981, and I wrote about him sympathetically in my investment newsletter during his first few years in office. Political pundits blamed him for every conceivable ill that befell society from the 1981 recession to the sudden nationwide interest in the people formerly known as "hobos" to the stock-market crash in 1987. Whatever happened was a "wake-up call" to get rid of Reaganomics, while nothing was ever blamed on the Democratic Congress.

In such an environment, it was difficult for any non-liberal not to sympathize with Ronald Reagan.

Words & Deeds

Eventually, however, it became obvious that Reagan was all talk and no action.

If government was the "problem," why did he keep signing bills that made government bigger and bigger?

Fiscal Policy

Few people may remember that when Ronald Reagan took office, the federal budget was only $678 billion. During his 8-year tenure, the budget grew by 69% on its way to today's $2.3 trillion budget.

The annual average increase in government during Reagan's administration was 6.8%, compared with "big government" Bill Clinton's average annual increase of 3.6%.

Reagan promised to balance the budget within his first term. Instead, the annual deficit rose from $79 billion to $212 billion in that first term and the Reagan years added $1.9 trillion to the federal debt.

Reagan is known as a tax-cutter, and the term "Reaganomics" implies dramatic cuts in tax rates. But after pushing through a tax cut to be implemented over three years, he cooperated during the second year in the largest tax increase in American history up to that time. The nation's annual tax load increased by 65% during his time in office.

No Will

Conservatives like to blame the increase in government on the Democratic Congress. But Presidents have the power of veto.

Pens are cheap. A President can sign thousands of vetoes. Unless his opposition can muster a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress, nothing can be forced on him.

The determining factor is whether the President has the will to reduce government. If he does, no one can stop him.

And while Reagan did veto some bills (unlike George W. Bush), in eight years Congress passed only nine bills over Reagan's veto. And only one of those was a budget bill.

Thus Congress didn't enlarge government in spite of Reagan's determined opposition. He actively participated in the growth of government.

The only positive result of Reagan's tenure was the change in the terms of political argument. Both liberals and conservatives had a vested interest in maintaining the fiction that Reagan was gutting the federal government. Conservatives wanted to point to this with pride, while liberals wanted to scream that the sky was falling. So both sides went along with the gag. This changed the terms of debate from the question of how much government should grow to how much government could be cut.

In reality, of course, there were no overall cuts, but the idea of cuts was no longer laughed out of serious conversations.

This is in keeping with the long-standing tradition that politics is all about talk, with no concern for actual results.

Social Policies

Reagan's fiscal promises may have been a sham, but his social promises were all too sincere. He delivered exactly as he promised or threatened he would.

He resurrected the War on Drugs, which had declined in activity during the Carter administration. Some of today's worst law-enforcement policies were initiated by Reagan's prodding.

In the 1980s asset forfeiture escalated from a little-used quirk in the law into a major weapon and source of funding for law-enforcement agencies. Thanks to "compassionate" Ronald Reagan, tens of thousands of American citizens convicted of no crimes have had homes, cars, and bank accounts confiscated by government.

Mandatory minimum sentences were initiated in 1986. Thanks to "sensitive" Ronald Reagan, tens of thousands of American citizens have received long, long prison sentences sometimes life without hope of parole for non-violent drug offenses.

But wherever he promised more liberty, he failed to deliver. When he ran for President, he vowed to end draft registration (which had been revived by Jimmy Carter), but Reagan never even asked Congress to consider such a bill.

Cold-War Policy

Reagan's military and Cold-War policies seem to be the least controversial. It's simply taken for granted that Ronald Reagan ended the Cold War bringing down the Soviet Union by pushing the Soviets over the edge with increased military spending.

The idea is that the Soviets couldn't keep up with Reagan's new arms race.

Okay, suppose that's true. So what?

Switzerland couldn't keep up either. And neither could China nor New Zealand nor Tanzania. But those nations didn't collapse simply because their military budgets weren't as large as that of the United States.

The "outspending" idea makes absolutely no sense. It's designed to make us think of the arms race as though it were a drinking contest in which one contestant, while trying to keep up, drinks himself into oblivion.

But when the Soviets couldn't increase their military budget any further, all they had to do was stop increasing it which in fact is what they did.

Another approach to the "Reagan won the Cold War" claim says that Reagan's tax-cutting program revitalized capitalism in America. In the early 1980s both America and the Soviet Union were in the economic doldrums, but the U.S. tax cuts shot America way ahead of the Soviets. The Soviet leaders realized they couldn't catch up because they knew that communism was an unworkable system.

Again, so what? Did the Soviet leaders resign, commit suicide, or renounce communism simply because the U.S. was in a bull market? Of course not. They just continued on their merry way, as leaders in other countries did.

Part of the problem with the "capitalist revival" idea is that median family income in America (adjusted for inflation) grew by only 1.4% per year during the much-vaunted Reagan years whereas the annual average, through good years and bad, was 2.8% from 1947 to 1970. Granted, real median family income didn't grow at all during the 1970s, so the rebound in the 1980s was welcome but, still, the "Reagan recovery" wasn't earth-shaking, and it certainly didn't cause the Soviet leaders to fall on their swords.

What Ended the Cold War?

It may be a long time before there's a definitive theory covering the cause of the Soviet Union's collapse.

Certainly, communism is an unworkable system, and it was bound to collapse eventually. It may be simply that 1991 was the time for it to happen with no push from any outside source. But since Republicans happened to be in the Presidency when the Soviet Union fell, they get to take credit for it, along with taking credit for the Los Angeles Lakers winning five NBA titles in the 1980s.

If there was a proximate cause, it probably was Mikhail Gorbachev. It pains me to say as much, because I never expected him to do anything good for the world. Whenever a new Soviet leader came to power, the liberal journalists went to great lengths to tell us how different he was from his brutal predecessors when in fact all the Soviet dictators were cut from the same cloth. With Gorbachev the liberal pundits turned out to be correct, but they'd cried "Sheep!" too often to be believed.

It isn't that Gorbachev set about to bring down the Soviet empire, but he recognized that it was on life support. He hoped to save it by restructuring the government and by fostering a more open society that would encourage innovation in the service of the state.

He also realized that the Soviet Union no longer had the resources to hold the satellite countries in line by force. So he set the leaders in those countries free to chart their own destinies.

Events ran away from the Soviets in August 1989 when Hungarian Prime Minister Miklos Nemeth decided to open the border with Austria allowing East German tourists to escape into Austria. As soon as the news got back to Germany, thousands of East Germans poured into Hungary and on into Austria. The Iron Curtain was torn open, and by November 1989 even the Berlin Wall came tumbling down.

The rest is history. And although Ronald Reagan's name may appear in that history, I find it hard to accept that he created it.

Other Foreign Policy

Conservatives praise Reagan for his aggressive foreign policy. But I've seen no evidence that his policies did anything other than stimulate terrorism throughout the world.

One example was his all-out support for the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan. He called them "freedom-fighters." Today, many of the same people are called "terrorists."

Reagan ordered the Air Force to bomb Libya in April 1986, hoping to kill Muammar Khadaffi and to demonstrate to the world that Khadaffi couldn't get away with terrorist acts. But two years later a Pan American airliner exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, and the U.S. government swears that Khadaffi was responsible. So much for the idea that bombing people deters terrorists.

In 1983 Reagan sent U.S. Marines to Lebanon to keep the peace there. But over 200 of them died from a truck-bomb explosion on October 23. The event was a severe blow to the popularity of Reagan's foreign policy. Fortunately, Reagan reacted wisely by bringing the rest of the Marines home rather than retaliating with a military attack on someone.

Perhaps to deflect attention from the Lebanon disaster, two days later U.S. troops invaded the sovereign nation of Grenada. The invasion never made sense. One excuse given was that the Marines were protecting a thousand Americans living there as though the U.S. government and taxpayers are obligated to protect American citizens no matter where they decide to live. Another excuse was that the Soviet Union intended to build an airbase on Grenada, from which planes could attack the U.S. even though the Soviets already had 24 years in which to build an airbase in Cuba, much closer to the U.S.

As with other U.S. Presidents of the past 70 years, Reagan was willing to give your money and your implied support to any brutal dictator or terrorist group who claimed to be on his side. So it isn't surprising that so many hundreds of millions of people around the world now consider America their enemy.

Reagan's last years in the Presidency were dominated by investigations into his administration's support for rebels in Nicaragua support that was funded by sales of critical missiles to the Iranian government, which was considered to be a sponsor of terrorism. But, then, American foreign policy never has made much sense.

The Politician

Ronald Reagan was neither a hero nor a malevolent villain. He was simply a politician but the quintessential politician.

A politician is someone who tells you one thing and does another usually the opposite.

And on that basis, Reagan ranks right up there with Franklin Roosevelt as one of the most successful politicians ever.

But in terms of his effect on America, he was one of the worst.

It isn't just that he continued the great American presidential tradition of making government bigger and bigger. He also was the first President since Dwight Eisenhower to stir any hope in liberty-loving Americans that things might change for the better. But by the end of the 1980s, his failure to reduce government in any significant way caused many small-government advocates to believe that if Ronald Reagan, who talked the best game possible, couldn't seem to change anything for the better, it was obvious that no one could. In the process, he did a great deal to demoralize libertarians.

His electoral victories gave doctrinaire conservatives something to cheer about, because they're far more concerned with winning elections than in bringing liberty back to America. It's not surprising that they revere both Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, since both were cut from the same cloth.

Does It Matter?

Does it matter that the Reagan legacy is a fraud?

Yes, it matters a great deal.

It matters because we need to understand that since the 1920s no American President has made a determined effort to reduce government significantly. It isn't that it can't be done. It's been proven only that no Republican or Democrat is going to do it.

It matters because it reminds us that politicians are not to be believed not about their records, not about the foreign dangers that supposedly require us to go to war, not in their promises to obey the Constitution and fight for smaller government.

It matters because it demonstrates that we shouldn't put our faith in apparent heroes. Instead, our salvation lies with ourselves. It is we who must carry the message of the benefits of liberty, and spread that message far and wide until the public demands and no politician can resist the restoration of the American way.