Hardcore anti-Communist Ayn Rand was, to the surprise of many who did not live through those days, not a fan of hardcore anti-Communist Ronald Reagan. But Rand died in 1982, only a year into Reagan’s presidency. So on the occasion of his birthday, let’s ask why Rand didn’t like Reagan and whether, if she had lived, she would have reevaluated her opinion of the Gipper.
Fear of the Religious Right
Rand found strong fault principally with Reagan’s alliance with the emerging Religious Right. She said that “the appalling disgrace of his administration was his connection with the so-called ‘Moral Majority’ and sundry other TV religionists, who are struggling, apparently with his approval, to take us back to the Middle Ages via the unconstitutional union of religion and politics.” Most notably, Rand rejected Reagan’s opposition to legal abortion.
But what really happened to all those campaign promises? In retrospect, Reagan mostly offered rhetoric and did little to make the Religious Right agenda his political priority. His energies went into two goals. First, he wanted to roll back the Soviet bloc, and thus the threat of nuclear war, rather than resigning himself, as his predecessors had, to containing its expansion. And second, he wanted to roll back the power and scope of the federal government.
The Evil Empire
Rand would certainly have approved of his labeling the Soviet Union as an “Evil Empire.” He saw the Cold War not simply in geopolitical terms but, rather, in moral terms. In 1987, Reagan famously stood before the barrier in Berlin meant to keep the people from Communist East Germany from escaping to West Germany, and demanded of the Soviet leader, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” But remember, this was five years after Rand died. She didn’t have this context when she made her evaluations of Reagan.
His pronouncements and those of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher defined the conflict in moral terms. The words of those leaders gave courage to those in Russia and other countries under the boot of Communism from the knowledge that they had allies who understood the essence of the conflict, who would not acquiesce in evil, and who supported their aspirations for liberty.
Preventing nuclear war
Reagan also saw as his highest goal the protection of the United States from a nuclear attack by the Soviets. To this end, he rejected as dangerous and immoral the “mutual assured destruction” strategy. This approach held that the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. each had enough nukes to destroy one another many times over, and that each country essentially held the other hostage. But one accident or wrong move could reduce the cities of both
countries to ruins.
Reagan wanted to develop a defense system to knock out incoming missiles to ensure that none ever landed on the United States. His critics call this “destabilizing” and warned it would start another arms race. Reagan didn’t care about these complains. He wanted to “destabilize” the Soviet Union and to protect Americans. Further, he was rightly convinced that the failing Communist economy could not compete with America’s more dynamic free market system. It would go bankrupt first. Of interest, Rand herself questions how many of the Soviet missiles and nukes would work, given the clunky state of Red technology.
Reagan was tough. He had no illusions about the Soviets and they knew it. He wanted to negotiate peace, but through strength. His catchphrase was “Trust, but verify.” In the 1986 summit in Reykjavík, Iceland, Reagan brought up human rights issues with Soviet boss Gorbachev and demanded onsite inspections to ensure that disarmament goals would be met. The world and Reagan longed for success, but when Reagan didn’t get the assurances he wanted, he walked away from a defective agreement. But this led to better arms reduction agreements in the future. And in the end, Reagan’s policies and moral force led to the collapse of the Communist bloc.
Would Ayn Rand have celebrated this incredible achievement by Reagan, one she, a refugee from Communist Russia, had longed for, and have appreciated that he offered both morally powerful rhetoric and a concrete strategy that brought down that Evil Empire? I have to think, “Yes!”
Did Reagan roll back the state?
Reagan, sadly, did not roll back the scope of government and eliminate entire departments as he wished. He did cut taxes significantly. He slashed the top marginal tax rate from 70% to 50% and lowered other rates as well. The results: From the trough of the recession in 1983, the economy added some 17 million net jobs by the time he left office in 1989, and the economy grew at an annual average of 4.3%.
By contrast, President Richard Nixon, whom Rand supported with some reluctance, expanded the scope of government as much as did President Lyndon Johnson. And President Gerald Ford, whom she also backed, was the establishment, “good government” alternative to the more libertarian Reagan. So Rand might have been disappointed that Reagan was not able to carry through on his “roll back the state” goal. But at least he had it as a goal, as opposed to Nixon and Ford, and his tax
cuts and other reforms did free up productive individuals to produce.
Rand rethinking Reagan
Rand rightly argued that we must make judgments based on facts. She died before all the facts about Ronald Reagan were in. Martin Anderson was part of Reagan’s inner circle from his 1976 presidential campaign and was Reagan’s top domestic policy adviser in the White House in 1981. Anderson was also part of Ayn Rand’s circle. Anderson has explained that while Rand might not have liked Reagan, Reagan had an appreciation for Rand.
If Rand had lived longer, Anderson might have explained to her Reagan’s strategy to defeat Communism. But Rand, brilliant woman that she was, probably would have seen it herself.
I would like to think that even with her reservations, Rand would have honored Reagan’s achievements. And I think she might well have joined all who value freedom in wishing Ronald Reagan a Happy Birthday!
Edward Hudgins, Happy Birthday, Ronald Reagan, February 6, 2004.
Edward Hudgins, Eastern Europe 20 Years Later, December 24, 2009.
Edward Hudgins, Martin Anderson Remembered , January 6, 2015.
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.