Another Way to Look at Reagan

EDITOR’S NOTE:  We are joined today by a special guest blogger.  I have been eager to have this historian and dedicated advocate of individual liberty post for us.  Here is his first (and hopefully not his last) entry:         

In the vast corpus of material about Ronald Reagan certain common themes are repeated regarding the fortieth president’s emotional and personal disposition to friends and family.

Almost invariably Reagan is described as having been distant, removed, and even cool to one and all. His detachment has been remarked upon as a key element in understanding both his successes as well as his failures as a president. To some it forms a constant in his general approach to life, allowing him to maintain the steadiness of purpose necessary to face down the Soviet threat while retaining a generally optimistic perspective on the future prospects of America.

To others it marks the core of their frustration with a man who could at one and the same time preside over massive increases in public debt and government growth and yet so eloquently evoke the ideas of limited government, federalism, constitutionalism, and the values of individual liberty. It was that uncanny and unfailing ability to set those ideas in words that captured the essence of America’s self-image and allowed Reagan, as noted by Murray Rothbard, perhaps his most vituperative and unsparing critic, to deflect all aspersions. He told us what we wanted to believe of ourselves, even as we continued down the path of big government spending and subsidy. And the public loved him for it.

With Reagan we got it all. Big government both in domestic life and defense, and the imagery of solid independent, individual republican liberty. He made us feel positively noble about duplicity, and for it, Rothbard charged him with being an amiable dunce, a shallow man with a photographic memory who could deliver his lines on cue.

Rothbard’s words were meant to hurt. They were meant to reveal an emperor without clothes. They were intended to get on with the task of social criticism that he and others had begun in their struggle to limit government but which they felt had been disastrously derailed by the “great communicator.”

Yet, today the fortieth president’s popularity in the public memory still soars. Actually, it appears to have risen even higher than what it was in Rothbard’s time, and it is Rothbard’s criticisms that fall on deaf ears. Yet, the facts which Rothbard brought forth are still true. Government did not shrink. Tax burdens were shifted about, but the total taken from the private economy went up, not down. Power continued to be centralized, and the deficit skyrocketed.

The personality that rests at the heart of this bifurcation has been more charitably interpreted by biographers inclined to like the man, but the explanations still run to the psychological. Invariably they point to Reagan’s troubled childhood and his alcoholic father. For children in such circumstances, learning to contain one’s emotions and even inventing an alternate reality are often keys to survival. But while these interpretations might explain a general predisposition to life, they don’t fully comport with what we know about Reagan. He was not disengaged from the facts of the world.

Once Reagan made up his mind about something, his resolve was indeed set, but the processes by which he reached such decision were not automatic. His critics notwithstanding, Reagan did study. He read. He not only read, but he apparently read with care. A visit to the home he cherished more than any other place of residence supports that well enough. While his tastes were not broad, his reading ran deep and it is clear that he focused on the texts in front of him.

It is an interesting question whether the best learning is to be had from those who read widely or those who read deeply. Reagan seems to have been the latter sort. At school, he was not known to excel, but where his interests took him, their he succeeded brilliantly. Consider his experience with public life in general, not simply in acting, but the give and take of debate.

In forming his opinions Reagan in fact read political and economic texts, often underlining key passages. He also frequently overrode the concerns of speech writers to insist upon his own ideas and his own style. This is not what one would expect of a man who had no need to know the outside world. His general disposition, to my mind, was a product of decision and purpose. It was not the accidental by-product of childhood trauma. What might it then be?

Contemplating the stark contrasts of Reagan’s administration that his critics have rightly made so obvious, brings to my mind certain melancholy passages in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, more particularly the discussion of the virtuous emperors. Here is what Gibbon had to say: “The forms of the civil administration were carefully preserved by Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the Antonines, who delighted in the images of liberty, and were pleased with considering themselves as the accountable ministers of the laws. Such princes deserved the honour of restoring the republic, had the Romans of their days been capable of enjoying a rational freedom.”

These virtuous emperors knew that Rome was no longer a republic, but they wanted the Romans to remember the values that had once made republican government possible. The tragedy was not that they were emperor’s per se, but that the Roman people would no longer suffer themselves to be free.

The philosophy that informed the actions of these princes counseled modesty in objectives, resolve in their pursuit, evenness of temper and avoidance of emotional extremes, and a basic trust in the laws that govern nature, or what was then considered the benevolent designs of an over-arching providence.

In essence, these values describe the stoic’s understanding to know one’s limitations and to guard resolutely the seat of the rational self from the corrosive effects of passion. For Marcus Aurelius, the most deeply learned emperor in this school of thought, Epictetus’s Enchiridion, or teachings, formed the model of his own Meditations.

For years I too was inclined to accept the assertions often repeated that Reagan did not read, or even more damning, that he had no real grounding for his views other than the popular imagery of the parts he played in western films. You might then prepare yourself to imagine the startled sense of revelation I experienced when visiting the Reagan Ranch Center and the Ranch itself when my eyes fell upon a certain text situated among Reagan’s favorite books on horseback riding and the literature of the American west. It was none other than Epictetus.

Reagan was fond of the saying, “The best thing for the inside of a man is the outside of a horse.”  The balm of horsemanship was a deeply important part of Reagan’s psychological and emotional defenses. That he placed Epictetus’ teachings alongside these texts speaks volumes to me.

Among the primary teachings of this former Greek slave turned Roman instructor and philosopher was the counsel to know what you can change and what you cannot. Epictetus enjoined his followers to find a middle path of rational thought and shun those things that cloud reason. He encouraged trust and a mild optimism in the beneficent nature of the universe. Whatever may happen, happens for a purpose and ultimately for the good. More interesting still, he counseled an easy-going, forgiving disposition towards one’s critics and opponents. He warned his readers not to get caught up in the negativity of their enemies but rather, to resolve to maintain steadiness of purpose. 

The historian can view a subject from multiple vantage points. Certainly Reagan’s critics have chosen one way to look at the facts of his administration, but looking at Reagan from the vantage point of stoicism offers a great deal of insight.

Did Reagan really believe his rhetoric, and if so, was he self-deceived, or attempting something else entirely?

The most biting comments accept Reagan’s sincerity, but question his mental capacities. Like Rothbard, they denounce him for being the puppet of the state and lament that he did not challenge Leviathan at its core. Thus David Stockman decries the interests that glommed onto Reagan from the start and prevented the cuts necessary to slay the deficit dragon. If my newly acquired revelation is correct, however, faced with a decision that had to be made, Reagan took what he believed to be the course most consonant with America’s limitations at that time.

As John Samples has so rightly emphasized in his important new work, The Struggle to Limit Government, Reagan came to conclude that defense and the threat of the Soviet Union were the most important obstacles he had to face. He understood certain dimensions of that problem quite well, some of which obviously came from his appreciation of Friedrich Hayek’s focus on the contradictions of socialist economics.

He also understood that certain other things could not yet be tackled because we, the American people, were not ready for it. Thus he supported Stockman’s efforts, but was unwilling to break his administration in an all-out pursuit of those objectives. Thus he is reputed to have said in his illimitable style, “We won’t leave you out there alone, Dave. We’ll all come to the hanging.” It wasn’t that he didn’t believe in the objective that Stockman was pursuing, but he recognized the limits of the practical.

So what do we make of the eloquent and moving words about liberty and the limits of government? Like the virtuous emperors, I believe Reagan was trying to remind us of what we aspire to be, of our highest aspirations. The Soviet threat, whatever one may think about the rightness of the policy he pursued, was in Reagan’s mind, the chief obstacle to reform. If ever we were to restore fiscal and moral virtue, it had to be done in an environment that was safe and conducive to its attainment. So long as the communist threat remained, the goal of limited political and fiscal government was crippled.

A closer look at what Reagan’s administration attempted to do behind the scenes should accomplish two things: Firstly, it should convince us that he did try to place limits on spending and reduce the share of government’s command of private resources, but failed. His first term tax measures and fiscal policies did, for a time, shift the burden onto present consumption as opposed to investment in the future (if Laurence Kotlikoff’s assessment of the Accelerated Cost Recovery System is to be credited), and he did lower dramatically the top rate on incomes. But those same policies did not shrink government’s take. In exchange for certain tax increases in 1982, he obtained a worthless promise from Congress to revisit the subject of actual cuts in spending. It never came.

Secondly, a closer look should convince us of something far more fundamental: the enemy was not Ronald Reagan. In this, his critics need to take a long hard look at themselves. They chastise him for not tackling the deficit even unto his own destruction. They lament that he did not tear down, even at the cost of his presidency, any of the various departments and agencies of command and control that grew up with the various programs of the New Deal and the Great Society. But Congress was not unified under Reagan, and the powers his critics called upon him to exercise were not the powers of a president, but of a king.

Even in his criticism, Rothbard unfortunately reveals more about the depths to which the public has sunk than about the liberties he praises. No president could have done what Rothbard wanted, because WE would not have let him do so. In fact one could interpret Rothbard as decrying the fact that Reagan was not a monarch! Even among the proponents of self-government then, as in the older sense of government of the self, that very virtue has subtly faded from view.

I think Reagan knew this. He understood his limitations and knew that he had to face the one challenge then needful of address which he could successfully tackle. The Soviets are no more.

Through his rhetoric, though, Reagan hoped to remind us of the work yet ahead: the size and expense of big government. It is my hope that somewhere we shall find the courage of the stoic to face down the source of this most dangerous enemy of all: ourselves.

Let it not be said of us: “Reagan deserved the honor of restoring the republic, had the Americans of his day been capable of enjoying a rational freedom.”

5 thoughts on “Another Way to Look at Reagan

  1. Welcome and thanks for the interesting post.

    “Even in his criticism, Rothbard unfortunately reveals more about the depths to which the public has sunk than about the liberties he praises. No president could have done what Rothbard wanted, because WE would not have let him do so.”

    Here is the core of the problem! We love liberty but we fear responsibility. We love social provision but we hate taxes.

  2. Mr.Agricola’s thesis is spot on. The problem with most Americans is that after 80 years of Socialist growth in the United States, most people have lost their self reliance, independence and liberty and instead have voted for security. I blame this situation on the efforts of the Left and the Elites to destroy the American Republic by a process of Cultural Marxism. 100 years ago it would have been impossible to install a socialist system in America because the average American would have rejected that venomous philosophy. However by a slow, but steady, incremental plan to introduce collectivism into the American society the Left and the Elites accomplished their goals. By the time Reagan came into office it was years too late. All 10 Planks to the Communist Manifesto had already been folded into the American society. A voting majority of Americans think that they are “entitled” to the many amenities of life,as a right, whether they earned it or not. It is a sad state of affairs. I don’t think Ronald Reagan could have made a difference.

  3. I appreciate the Stoic “counsel to know what you can change and what you cannot.” And I try to practice in my own life moderation and the “middle path of rational thought .” The problem is we do not know a priori what these limits are. And there will always be plenty of voices urging caution. Look at all the current counsels to the tea party Republicans not to try too much. Therefore, someone needs to push the frontiers to see what is possible. And the president and his people need to use their positions to make at least some practical demonstration of what changes should occur, otherwise the system will over run the admistration. The Reagan administrations missed too many of these opportunities. I served as a low level political appointee in the first Reagan administration. I agree with the general thrust of Agicola’s essay above. But more could have and should have been done.

    And I remember the open scenes of the film The Gladiator, when that stoic emperor and author of the famous meditations, Marcus Aurelius, unleashed Hell on the German forest–so much for moderation from an imperial perspective when necessity demanded action.

  4. Did Benjamin Franklin read Epicetus? If Agricola was watching the conclusion of the American Constitutional Convention, he may have been pleased to hear Franklin, in his final speech, summoning delegates to give their unanimous consent to the Constitution. “In these Sentiments, Sir, I agree,” Franklin stated, “to this Constitution, with all its Faults, if they are such; because I think a General Government necessary for us, and there is no Form of Government but what may be a Blessing to the People if well administered for a Course of Years, and can only end in Despotism as other Forms have done before it, when the People shall become so corrupted as to need Despotic Government, being incapable of any other.” Agricola may take some comfort in wondering about the conversations that Franklin and Reagan have been enjoying. He may take comfort as well for having shown with wisdom his readers that the heartland of liberty is a reality not easily achieved and one harder still to sustain. Kudos for Agricola.

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