Not What Reagan Wanted

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We’ve remarked throughout this site about the extreme weirdness of today’s political situation.  It’s not what we grew up with, for sure, and in fact the word “conservative” is used in ways we wouldn’t have recognized growing up.  To us, “conservative” meant restrained, and in government it meant frugality, and balanced budgets.  It meant not spending beyond your means.   There was an intense patriotism too, shared by both liberals and conservatives, in the first decades after WW II.

Barry Goldwater, who ran for president against Lyndon Johnson in 1962, famously said: “Equality, rightly understood as our founding fathers understood it, leads to liberty and to the emancipation of creative differences; wrongly understood, as it has been so tragically in our time, it leads first to conformity and then to despotism.” [1]

The ideas of “liberty” and “freedom,” were indelibly etched in the American psyche.  And this quotation, with its inspirational reference to the “emancipation of creative differences,” for me underscores the importance of individuality, the freedom to be different, and the opportunity to make of life what one can.

This was the idea of “freedom” we all shared, back then.  America was a land of opportunity and individualism was to be respected and honored.  Oh, we struggled of course, as the human race seems to, against prejudicial limitations on the opportunities offered women and minorities, but neither liberal nor conservative, back then, favored the kind of cookie-cutter “equality” we thought was implied by Marxism, and which could only have been imposed by force.

I don’t remember what I read or how I reacted forty-five years ago, the last time I read Goldwater’s book “The Conscience of a Conservative,” but his repudiation of Stalinism was spot on.  We had all been mortified by Josef Stalin’s oppression of the Russian people, and I would learn first hand 30 years later how much the Russian people had truly reviled him.  Goldwater was a true conservative who understood, as the Russian people knew all too well, that individualism and freedom of opportunity go hand in hand with freedom from forced conformity and obedience.  But in his abhorrence of despotism, he also showed that true support of individualism requires conscience.

The Englishman John Maynard Keynes, the father of modern economics, as had the other economists of his time, struggled with the question of how to maintain the economic vitality required for economic freedom, i.e., Goldwater’s “emancipation of creative differences.” Writing in 1935 during the Great Depression, he perceived that the “outstanding faults of the society in which we live are its failure to provide for full employment and its arbitrary and inequitable distribution of wealth and incomes.” [2]

Like Goldwater would later, he rejected authoritarianism and championed freedom.  He believed that freedom could be curtailed if there was too much consolidation of wealth and power in the hands of a few people, and that a certain amount of “socialization of investment” was necessary to maintain an equitable economy with full employment. [3]  But he also rejected the cookie-cutter equality of communism in favor of Goldwater’s “equality,” equality of opportunity:

“For my part, I believe that there is social and psychological justification for significant inequalities of incomes and wealth, but not for such large disparities as exist today. There are valuable human activities which require the motive of money-making and the environment of private wealth-ownership for their full fruition. * * * But it is not necessary for the stimulation of these activities and the satisfaction of these proclivities that the game should be played for such high stakes as at present.” [4]

Seven years Keynes’ junior, America’s 34th President Dwight D. Eisenhower had also lived through the Great Depression, and as the Supreme Commander of the Allied forces in Europe in WW II he heroically helped overcome fascism.  He, more deeply than most we think, must have appreciated that the freedom Americans fought and died for in that war was freedom from despotism.

Eisenhower was a highly moral man who despised war.  He honored individualism and freedom, and understood the need to protect them.  Among his famous quotations is this:  “Here in America we are descended in blood and in spirit from revolutionists and rebels – men and women who dare to dissent from accepted doctrine. As their heirs, may we never confuse honest dissent with disloyal subversion.” [5]

He was worried about subversion: “How far can you go without destroying from within what you are trying to defend from without?” [6]  And, famously, in his farewell speech to the nation on January 17, 1959 he warned of an imminent possibility of such subversion:

“Th[e] conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence – economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

          “We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.” [7]

Thus Eisenhower and Goldwater, both traditional conservatives, championed peace and liberty and understood that in a democracy government’s fundamental purpose is to serve its citizens.  There was no illusion about that, and on all these points the so-called “liberal” John Meynard Keynes was in accord.  And Eisenhower and Keynes were also wary of undue corporate influence in government.  So too, it must be noted, was the guru of laissez-faire capitalism Milton Friedman, who acknowledged up front: “The combination of economic and political power in the same hands is a sure recipe for tyranny.” [8]

As we have seen, everything started to change drastically with the Reagan presidency.  By the time of the tragically destructive GW Bush presidency, government was serving corporations, not people.

What is transpiring today has the look and feel of parody: Reduce taxes for wealthy people and their corporations and call it “creating jobs,” and “deficit reduction.”  Then cut federal, state and local programs and call it “sharing the pain.” Suddenly, adding and subtracting have become the same thing.

And it’s all called “conservative,” somehow.  Traditional conservatism went by the boards, it must be noted, when Republicans started borrowing trillions of dollars to finance the tax cuts for the rich.  It didn’t help that Reagan had once quipped: “I am not worried about the deficit. It is big enough to take care of itself.”  Well, it’s a lot bigger now.

And there’s no remorse, no “conscience” in today’s “conservative.”  If people lose their jobs, “so be it.” (John Boehner).  Ideology is like religion, not to be questioned.  The answer to every question today is “cut taxes,” and it’s carved in stone in the Reaganomics playbook.  “[T]he cornerstone of my economic policies, when I first got elected,” GW Bush said, “was cutting taxes on everybody who paid taxes.” [9]  Oh, but let’s not cut spending: And if we fight a war, let’s just keep it off the books.

Today, merely cutting taxes is not enough.  If there’s any extra money lying around (like Ohio liquor tax revenues) send it to Wall Street.  And let’s get government entirely out of the business of being government: Let’s keep trying to privatize Social Security and Medicare and kill Medicaid, the new “conservatives” say.  And finally, let’s privatize government itself.  If a city in Michigan finds itself in a financial crisis, privatize it.  Hell, why don’t we just get rid of government alto….

If you feel like you’re falling down a rabbit hole, don’t think you are alone.  It’s starting to look a little bit like “the disastrous rise of misplaced power,” don’t you think?

So, what happened?  To paraphrase a Jack Johnson song, “Where’d all the good conservatives go?”   Well, in fairness to Ronald Reagan, he was an actor, not an economist, so how was he supposed to know that the folks who sold him trickle-down Reaganomics weren’t really economists either? [10]

The truth is that Reagan had a strong ideological preference for private enterprise: He once quipped that there were no good people in government, for if there were they’d be hired out by private companies. [11]  Even so, he thought he could get enough good people to come work for him in government to let him implement his management style, which he said was to just sit back and let them go to work.  And of course, they did: They slashed their taxes in half, stopped enforcing the anti-monopoly laws and, well, the rest is history.

Reagan himself got his start opposing communism.  In a campaign speech for Barry Goldwater on October 27, 1964, he said this: “If all of this seems like a great deal of trouble, think what’s at stake. We are faced with the most evil enemy mankind has known in his long climb from the swamp to the stars. There can be no security anywhere in the free world if there is no fiscal and economic stability within the United States. Those who ask us to trade our freedom for the soup kitchen of the welfare state are architects of a policy of accommodation.” [12]

Yes: “…fiscal and economic stability within the United States.”   And we won’t “…trade our freedom for the soup kitchen of the welfare state…”  Sounds like Goldwater, all right, and the “emancipation of creative differences.” And he seemed to be thinking about everyone, not just the top 1%.

But apparently Reagan had forgotten, so soon after Eisenhower’s farewell address, that communism was only the second-most evil enemy mankind has known.  The first prize went to fascism, from which the world had only recently been saved. In any event, it appears Reagan was thinking of government as an instrument of “mankind,” not merely a subsidiary of Morgan Stanley.

Once he was president, on September 15, 1982, Reagan had this to say:

“At the root of everything that we’re trying to accomplish is the belief that America has a mission. We are a nation of freedom, living under God, believing all citizens must have the opportunity to grow, create wealth, and build a better life for those who follow. If we live up to those moral values, we can keep the American dream alive for our children and our grandchildren, and America will remain mankind’s best hope.” [13]

We are a nation,” he said, and “all citizens must have the opportunity to grow, create wealth, and build a better life…”  And he wanted to “keep the American dream alive for our children and our grandchildren.”

It certainly seems like Ronald Reagan himself could have been standing beside me at the recent rally supporting Wisconsin workers who were having their unions busted by plutocrat Scott Walker.  Heck,  I could have shared my “Save the American Dream” poster with him!

Now we’re headed toward a depression, and the wealthy top .1% — the Koch brothers and their allies – seem determined to make sure we get there.  Is that what Ronald Reagan had in mind?  On March 31, 1976, in one of many references to his experiences during the Great Depression, he said this:

“No one who lived through the Great Depression can ever look upon an unemployed person with anything but compassion. To me, there is no greater tragedy than a breadwinner willing to work, with a job skill but unable to find a market for that job skill. Back in those dark depression days I saw my father on a Christmas eve open what he thought was a Christmas greeting from his boss. Instead, it was the blue slip telling him he no longer had a job. The memory of him sitting there holding that slip of paper and then saying in a half whisper, ‘That’s quite a Christmas present,’ it will stay with me as long as I live.” [14]

Compassion for an unemployed person?  Someone please tell John Boehner.

And then again in 1981:

“I have a special reason for wanting to solve this [economic] problem in a lasting way. I was 21 and looking for work in 1932, one of the worst years of the Great Depression. And I can remember one bleak night in the thirties when my father learned on Christmas Eve that he’d lost his job. To be young in my generation was to feel that your future had been mortgaged out from under you, and that’s a tragic mistake we must never allow our leaders to make again.” [15]

To feel that your future had been mortgaged out from under you… That sounds awfully familiar.

Recently, Rachel Maddow remarked on her show that the far right has shifted  way to right.  Now we’re occupying the space they left behind, staring “into the vacuum of their eyes,” as Bob Dylan might have put it. [17]  We really don’t think it’s fair to call them “conservatives” any more.  That’s what we are, for crying out loud:  We don’t think governments ought to spend beyond their means, unless they’re using fiscal policy to stimulate the economy.  They, however, ran up more than $12 trillion of federal debt as they enriched themselves with tax cuts.  That does not bring the word “conservative” to our minds.

So what can we call them now?  What would General Eisenhower, the commander of thousands of American troops who put their lives on the line protecting freedom against the threat of tyranny in WWII, have called them?

This is not what Reagan wanted.  No, it’s not at all what he and Goldwater had in mind for America.  Now we’re learning again what America learned 80 years ago — that it isn’t just the forced equality they feared, but also runaway inequality, that leads to despotism.

So all of you plutocrats out there that are invoking the memory of Ronald Reagan: Stop it!  If you’re going to insist that he would have supported what you’re doing, well – you’re calling him a liar.

JMH – 4/15/11 (rev. 4/20/11)



[2] John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, first printing 1935, Harvest/Harcourt, Inc., 1953, 1964 ed., 1991 printing, p. 372.

[3] Id. at 378.

[4] Id. at  374.


[8] Milton Friedman and Rose Friedman, Free to Choose, Harcourt,Brace, Jovanovich, 1979, p. 3 (Original emphasis).


[10] I’ve searched in vain for any assertion by Milton Friedman that tax cuts for the rich stimulate investment.  Friedman does assert that a saving grace of the extremely wealthy can be an altruistic tendency; if that’s “trickle down,” that’s all it is.

[11] Actually, what we’ve seen is “good” people hired by private companies to go run government on their behalf.  Dick Cheney reportedly got a going-away present, as I recall, of several million dollars from Halliburton when he became VP.


[17] “Like a Rolling Stone,” verse 2.

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One Response to Not What Reagan Wanted

  1. NeoLotus says:

    The emphasis on individualism needs to be tempered with the knowledge that a society is a collective, the base unit being the family. If you look back in history, only those societies and cultures that emphasized the family and a shared identity with the collective are the ones that have endured the test of time. Those that emphasized the individual uber alles are the ones that didn’t make it to the modern era.

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