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Saturday, February 6, 2010

All Rhetoric, No Substance

He promised change, but continued the same old policies.

He railed against deficits, but they grew under his tenure.

He bailed out the failed U.S. banking industry with taxpayer money.

He passed a much-touted tax-cut at the beginning of his administration, only to reverse it with major spending and tax increases during the rest of his administration.

He spent his years tightening government regulations and controls.

He poured American tax money into foreign regimes (often corrupt ones).

His amateur foreign policies often endangered American troops.

He offered soaring rhetoric, but no substantive reforms.

The public often opposed his policies, but just loved the man so much.

Who was he?

All of these things are true about President Barack Obama, but sadly they are also true about another President in US history- Ronald Reagan.

I hated having to write this, but it's true. Reagan was a childhood icon of mine, but a closer examination of his administration according to the principles of libertarianism as I now understand them shows exactly what Reagan was- a talented charmer who lulled Americans into a sense of security while growing government to unprecedented levels over his administration. The Tea Partiers would do well not to clamor for "the next Reagan."

I highly recommend you read this review of the Reagan Administration's policies by Murray N. Rothbard: "Ronald Reagan: An Autopsy." It's a long read, but absolutely necessary for recovering neo-conservatives and for Tea Partiers who want to restrain the growth of government. Make yourself a cup of tea, sit down, and give it a good read. The Tea Party movement can't let itself get "Reaganed" like the resurgent liberty movement of the late 1970s did when they thought they were getting a small government candidate in 1980.


  1. Thomas Jefferson told us that "The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground."
    Of course that was not advice to stand down in the resistance to expansion of government.

    But of all of the things I have learned since I have been fighting for our liberty, I have learned to be a realist without losing my idealism.

    Reagan's Presidency can be best measured relative to the alternatives of history, not the longing of our idealism.

    So while I agree we must be realistic about Reagan in regards to his shortfalls, we must not forget to include a realistic look at the alternatives available during that time in history.

    We will never get all of what we desire in regards to freedom, but the big task is to make certain the ship is on the correct course.

    Reagan, in more ways than not, turned the ship around at a time when it was sailing into hell.

    The study of Calvin Coolidge might be interesting for you if you haven't already done so.

    All the best, Grant

    PS I first thought you were talking about GWB in your essay.

  2. I agree that the right has built the Reagan legacy to mythic proportions. But as the above poster said, context is key. Can it even be questioned that Reagan was the closest to constitutional libertarian ideals since...well, the past 50 years? Nevertheless, I will examine this book.

  3. Definitely check out the article, because things look pretty bad when you go through policy by policy and see that even Carter's outrageous outlays for a second administration weren't as bad as the budgets passed by the Reagan Administration.

    I don't know that saying "it could have been worse" is much of a redeeming quality for anybody's work or leadership. We can say that after Obama gets through with us... that at least it could have been worse.

    If the only defense you have left for the iconic Reagan is that it could have been worse, then I suppose I've done my job. The best we can say of him is "it could have been worse." Very sad. And please note I don't relish any of this. It sucks for me and I feel a little betrayed.

    PS: Yeah, Grant, a lot of those could apply to Bush accept this one: "The public often opposed his policies, but just loved the man so much." Lol- no one ever liked Bush -and the media absolutely hated the man.

  4. Wes, I must have been clumsy in my explanation. I certainly did not mean to imply that "it could have been worse" is/was an ideal or even acceptable position. I didn't mean that at all.

    When I said "Reagan's Presidency can be best measured relative to the alternatives of history, not the longing of our idealism."

    I meant that literally, the alternatives of history I was referring to were not specific people, mush less candidates. They were meant to refer to direction of the country, actually the whole world. Freedom was not an issue on the radar screen of the vast majority of the population. Goldwater lost in a landslide.

    Reagan was one of the few people (with a public platform from which to espouse such ideas) to make an argument for smaller government.

    I would actually argue that many of the comparisons you made in your essay are flawed in regards to Reagan. Remember, I'm an old dude, I was there. I joined the fight in the mid 1970s.

    I don't want to use all your bandwidth, but I would be happy to address the ones I disagree with individually.

    In regards to GWB, I also think that you may be under-estimating his popularity in his first term. The blogosphere in those days was positively flowing with hero worship after 9-11. It made me ill sometimes. But if you want to make the case for him (GWB)that the best we can say about him is "that it could have been worse." I would agree. Just close your eyes and try to imagine the world under a President Gore. I shudder to think about it.

    So instead of concluding that the best I can say of him is, "it could have been worse", you might now conclude that it is not the BEST we can say about Reagan, it is the MINIMUM.

    You might contemplate this assessment; He PREVENTED it from getting worse. (much, much worse)

    Like all people, he sure wasn't perfect, particularly from a libertarian perspective.

    But since what we use to say back in the 70s; "utopia is not an option, not even a libertarian utopia" is still true, using historical perspective is indicated if we want to arrive at a more realistic assessment of Reagan.

    Reagan never claimed to be a libertarian, but he reversed the course of the "ship of fools."

    In conclusion, your earlier assessment of him may have been too rosy, but IMO, your current assessment may be too dark. It's somewhere in the middle.

    Best regards as always,

  5. Thanks for your response Grant. You are of course welcome to list any specific disagreements you have with anything I say ;) including the list of Reagan's problems above.

    If you haven't though, I really would encourage you to read the article. That is asking a bit much of you as it is rather lengthy, but I have to say that Rothbard (whom I trust very much) gives a very detailed accounting of Reagan's administration, and by the end of it, I do think he made the country a lot worse.

    BTW, I didn't know it when I scheduled this article for publication today- but it's actually Reagan's birthday. Weird.

  6. I'll give the article a read ASAP. But I wonder if you have a candidate in mind for "President who didn't make the country a lot worse" by Rothbard's standards. (And maybe mine and yours.)

    Which harkens back to my opening quote of Thomas Jefferson's observation.

    I would be interested in any comments you may have on the points I made, while I get about commenting on what points were made about Reagan which I find misleading from a historical perspective.

    One final point on the whole subject, the ideal candidate you seek, does not exist. And never has. But I'm glad you set your sights high even though they are, in my view, unrealistic.

    At the great risk of sounding condescending, at your age I was precisely where you are on this matter. I pray you will pardon me for making that observation.

  7. You know, it's sad to say we haven't had many good presidents in this country, and sadder to say that the least bad ones are the ones you hear least about. The great "heroes" of American history have always been the most oppressive, most thick-skulled, warmongering, welfare-statist barbarians to sit in the White House.

    Coolidge, Tyler, Monroe, Cleveland. Democrats like Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson may have kept the `country from taking a turn for the worst, but they do have plenty of their own statist sins to atone for.

    As for potential future presidents, my money is on Rand Paul or Gary Johnson.

    My ultimate answer to the points you made in your comment is that after a thorough review of Reagan, I don't think it can be accurately said of him that he lead the country down a history much better than possible alternative histories, but instead that he positively lead it down the path to the socialist hell-hole in which it now festers.

    That in fact, he actively and dramatically grew the size, role, and influence of government and made Americans comfortable with that. That his eloquent speeches for liberty were simply so much Orwellian doublethink.

    And no pardon necessary, Grant. You and I are friends in the bond of a very noble cause and honesty between friends requires no pardon.

    You may think me a bit young and bright-eyed, and I may think you are a little too old and cynical, and that is simply the way of the world. We balance each other out for the better.

  8. Balance is a good thing.

    As to Paul and Johnson, barring new information, and understanding that both would also disappoint us in some ways, I could support either or both.

    Unfortunately, we probably will never get that choice. Even less likely would be their actual election.

    My observation is that most people do not actually want to be free. They are scared to death of freedom. It's human nature to want the liberty without the responsibility.

    The place we long for never was and never will be. But striving for it is a good thing.

    But you are going down the right path IMO because as Walter Williams has said; (paraphrased) "I wouldn't spend a moment trying to change the minds of the politicians, we must spend our time changing the hearts and minds of our fellow citizens."

    Both of us are doing the best we can at that task. To the extent that we succeed at that, the world will be a freer, and therefore better place than otherwise would be the case.

    A balanced approach is a good thing. Keep plugging.

    For freedoms sake.

  9. PS
    It can be correctly said that every President had some redeeming qualities and policies, but IMO,

    Andrew Jackson was the centerpiece in a bouquet of thugs.

  10. Yes sir- heart and mind change is the key.

    Re: Jackson- in many ways you are very right. It is so hard to weigh negative policies against positive ones. Was the country really better or worse off for his presidency? His runaway expansion of executive power was hardly good for the country, that's for sure. But his single-minded (and ultimately successful) devotion to dismantling the central banking system is such a huuge positive. I guess it wouldn't be too hard though for you to convince me likewise, that Mr. Jackson was a thug.

  11. We don't get to make trades of historical events, but I would trade any positives back in for the events surrounding the "Trail of tears" genocide of the Cherokee people.

    Jackson arguably "won" in his struggle for power with some big, arguably private, bankers. The motivation for Jackson was in large part a personal vendetta against a man named Biddle over the death of Jackson's wife. In the end, the federal government is the central bank anyway and educated people on both sides can debate whether or not that was a good thing.

    Meanwhile, Jackson was the leading force (opposed by David Crockett) in breaking the treaty (read contract) with the civilized (beside the point) Cherokee people, stealing their land and giving it to his friends, and then murdering men, women and children to cap it off. One of the most despicable acts in US history. At least 4000 people were "Stalined".

    I'm guessing you will agree with my opinion of him even more if you study the whole affair. The king of thugs.

  12. You're right. Never mind. Strike him from the list.