This weekend marked Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday. I’m not going to go all gushy and talk about how wonderful he was or what an inspiring figure he was. Plenty of people are already doing that. I wanted to focus on one aspect of his leadership which has personal relevance to those of us who are libertarians within the Republican Party. We remember and we cannot let others forget that although he was a conservative, Ronald Reagan was also self-admittedly a libertarian and saw those two perspectives as intimately linked.
One of the best ways to understand how Reagan thought is to read the 1975 interview with Reason Magazine in which he lays out his political philosophy and explains how true liberalism, contemporary conservatism and libertarianism are basically aspects of the same basic ideals. He said:
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.
In the general push to iconize Reagan as an abstract figure we often forget how truly smart and insightful he was. He had real principles yet he understood that those principles had to operate within the limitations of a flawed political system and that ideals had to be implemented incrementally, seizing opportunities where they presented themselves. This remains the strategy for libertarian Republicans to this day — to pursue a moderate course within the political process towards a libertarian ideal. As Reagan demonstrated, this strategy is one which works and which can produce substantial change in government, though looking backwards we could wish he had done more to pursue his ideals and that his efforts had been continued by his successors.
Reagan himself met with both success and failure in moving the government in a more positive direction. He was able to deal with one of the worst financial crises in our history using mostly free market solutions and without generating the same kind of massive debt. Yes, he had budget deficits and grew the national debt alarmingly, but he did not grow the government bureaucracy at anything like the level of his predecessors or successors and he produced concrete results from his spending in bringing an end to the cold war and putting the economy back on track. He lowered inflation from 12.5% to 5.5% and unemployment from 9.7% to 4.4%. He lowered interest rates, restored the failing housing market and grew GDP by 31% in 8 years.
These are all hallmarks of a successful presidency, but for my more left-leaning libertarian friends who take particular exception to the empire building efforts of recent administrations, one of the things about Reagan which stands out as unusual is that while he did build up the military and did oppose Russian imperialism, he did not engage in imperialism himself. He scrupulously avoided it. If your complaint about the Republican Party of George W. Bush is the expansionism of the neocons, a return to Reagan’s foreign policy of peace through strength ought to be appealing. Reagan engaged in no long term troop deployments. His primary use of the military was to directly defend US citizens and interests in very short applications of force for specific purposes. Some may complain about the covert operations which took place during his time in office, but in cost and commitment they were minor and sometimes produced very positive results.
Reagan’s only major deployments of troops were the 1200 Marines sent to Lebanon for about a year in 1983 and the very brief invasion of Grenada with 7000 troops and a duration of less than 2 months. No long-term occupations aside from those he inherited and no efforts at expensive nation-building or endless peacekeeping operations. Yes, there were small and inexpensive covert operations and efforts to influence political developments in key nations, but Reagan clearly didn’t like the idea of an American empire any more than he liked the idea of a Soviet empire.
For a president who took America to the pinnacle of its military and economic power, this restraint and lack of ambition to exceed the proper limits of the Constitution and good government was in many ways Reagan’s most important — and perhaps most quickly forgotten – legacy. Reagan knew where to set the limits and was not seduced by the temptations of power. This is why libertarians flocked to join his administration and why so many of us look back to him as an example of the kind of leadership this nation needs but has not had for far too long. He lay the groundwork for further libertarian reform of government and built up political capital for that purpose which was then squandered by George H. W. Bush and Newt Gingrich and other lesser leaders.
I’m not going to start whining about “where is our new Reagan.” There may never be another Reagan. But we can keep his success in mind and remember that the values and ideals of libertarianism are most likely to be implemented quickly and effectively if we take the moderate and pragmatic approach which he practiced and use his example to win over less libertarian Republicans who may not fully understand or embrace our ideals, but still revere Reagan as an icon. With his strategy we can erase the errors of the last 25 years and pick up where he left off.