February 6, 2004 -- Today is the birthday of a great man who, tragically, doesn’t know it. Ronald Reagan is 93 years old, but Alzheimer’s disease robs him of the ability to remember his own achievements. But we can remember.
Reagan took office at a time when the United States was at a low ebb, with double-digit inflation and unemployment; lines at gas stations; American hostages in Iran and Soviet troops in Afghanistan; Jimmy Carter telling us we were suffering from malaise; and Henry Kissinger telling us we were on the losing side of history.
Reagan came into office with a basic belief that America was a country in which individuals could realize their dreams and make it on their own, and in which government had become the problem rather than the solution to problems. One of his first acts was to cut confiscatory tax rates. He even talked openly about closing down entire federal government departments.
Reagan evaluated communism in moral terms, accurately describing the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” In Berlin, he called on Soviet boss Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down” the wall that not only divided the city but also imprisoned those who desired freedom. Reagan saw America as a special place, a “shining city on a hill,” the exemplar for the rest of the world.
Yes, Reagan was not perfect. Yes, he did not accomplish many of his goals. Yes, he took some stands that did not enhance individual liberty. His opponents portrayed him as an affable idiot. But as editors Kiron Skinner and Martin and Annelise Anderson show in the recent collection of letters entitled Reagan, in His Own Hand, he was a thoughtful and literate man of ideas. This no doubt helped win him his epithet “The Great Communicator.”
But the debate spawned by Reagan’s presidency concerning the role of government is in sharp contrast to the sterile situation in Washington today. Administration policies mix some pro-freedom measures like lower taxes and partial social security privatization with huge increases in domestic government spending and a new half-trillion-dollar Medicare entitlement. Republicans in the House of Representatives are now openly challenging the administration on its spending spree, and the administration is promising to hold domestic discretionary increases to “only” four percent annually. But these well-intentioned Members of Congress will only have limited success—if any—because what is truly lacking in Washington is a coherent discussion of political principles. And where sound principles are lacking, there is little chance for freedom to survive.
President Reagan appealed to the best within people, and his rhetoric sowed in the soil of America the ideas of liberty and limited government from which effective policies would grow. Today, we need to revive such rhetoric if the free Republic that Reagan so loved is to be more than a memory.
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.