Freedom Watch

Fragile Freedom

What would Mr. Reagan think now?

By From the December 2009 - January 2010 issue

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In creating "freedom watch," the editors planned to keep examining a theme that deeply concerned Ronald Reagan throughout his life. He expressed it often -- in the 1967 speech that inspired the column, in a 1981 address as he assumed the presidency -- and I even heard him repeat the same words in 1985, to just a few top officials in the cabinet room.

What would Mr. Reagan think now? Even at that long-ago cabinet meeting, he warned that no nation had been able to come back to freedom that had gone as far toward statism as had the U.S.

Today, it is trillions of dollars of government programs, bailouts, and regulations covering every area of social life, and new Democratic proposals to extend ever further into health care, education, and welfare -- to the very air we breathe, to how we may speak correctly, and to how many calories we may consume. Recession, bloated entitlements, and loose money literally threaten America's survival. And most of this started its upward trajectory under Republican presidents and congresses.

Ronald Reagan was clear as to what freedom required: "The balance of power intended in the Constitution is the guarantor of the greatest measure of individual freedom any people have ever known. Our task today, this year, this decade, must be to reaffirm those ideas. Our Founding Fathers designed a system of government that was unique in all the world -- a federation of sovereign states with as much law and decision-making authority as possible kept at the local level. They knew that man's very need for government meant no government should function unchecked."

Easy words about freedom were insufficient. Referring to his favorite philosopher of individual freedom, he noted: "It was Frank Meyer who reminded us that the robust individualism of the American experience was part of the deeper current of Western learning and culture. He pointed out that a respect for law, an appreciation for tradition, and regard for the social consensus that gives stability to our public and private institutions, these civilized ideas must still motivate us even as we seek a new economic prosperity based on reducing government interference in the marketplace."

Freedom was not just low taxes, free markets, and light regulation; it was also the Constitution, law, and tradition, which, he said, Meyer "in his writing fashioned [into] a vigorous new synthesis of traditional and libertarian thought -- a synthesis that is today recognized by many as modern conservatism."

Following these fusionist principles, President Reagan kept the beast at bay for a little while. From 20 percent interest and double-digit unemployment and inflation, he cut discretionary domestic national government by 9.7 percent over his terms and even reduced all non-defense spending, including entitlements from 17.9 to 16.4 percent of gross domestic product. He capped this by reducing the top marginal tax rate from 70 to 33 percent, unleashing the private sector in a surge of growth that lasted decades, while also increasing the relative role of state and local governments, especially in advancing new approaches -- and society revived.

Is it hopeless today? After telling the cabinet that no nation had gone as far as the U.S. had towards statism and returned, the president smiled and declared, "But I want us to be the first!" He overcame similar challenges -- following him, why can't we complete the job?

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About the Author

Donald Devine was Ronald Reagan's director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management from 1981 to 1985. He is senior scholar at Bellevue University's Center for American Vision and Values, and editor of the American Conservative Union Foundation's Conservative Battleline Online.