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June 08, 2004



It's a mistake to see post-war American conservatism (and Reagan as part of it) without its liberal pedigree. Samuel Huntington in his Conservatism as an Ideology made the point that the 'conservative' revival emerging at that time was primarily concerned with the defence of liberal society. He put Niebuhr within this camp (this is from memory, so I might have mixed up) as one who favoured liberal institutions if not liberal theory. Put another way: how many American conservatives know who Russell Kirk is, let alone would empathise with his ideas?

Consequently, I think you go too far in your view of Reagan. There's no doubt he grew up with the conservative movement (Democrats for Goldwater?), which at the time was way out of the mainstream. There's also no doubt where he stood on the defining themes of conservatism (try this one on economics or maybe this one or indeed this one). Let's not forget too that he was such a conservative that the idea of him was a joke in 1972, and then the cause of a stand-up fight at the 1976 convention.

Reagan was a pragmatic politician, yes. But I think his pragmatism was more means than ends. Take abortion: he was absolutely, positively, vocally pro-life and anti-Roe, but (aside from his Court appointments) he never made it an issue because he couldn't win the battle. But his commitment was constant.

That's not to say I especially disagree with your assessment on the domestic legacy - just as with Thatcher, much of the Right is incapable of a rational exploration of her record. But Reagan was a conservative - what guided his pragmatic, piecemeal policy changes was a wider vision of how America should be. As President, both by these small shifts in policy changes and big claims in rhetoric, he changed the political conversation in the US.

After Reagan, the domestic policy discussion changed forever. Deficits aside, the Reagan era meant a revived belief in sound money. It also meant a commitment to constraining public sector growth, keeping taxes and regulation under control. All of this led to the 1991-2001 boom, on the back of deregulation and a budget balancing under Bush Sr and Clinton, forced on them by the new monetary rigour. Social policy too - it's impossible but to see the Reagan era conversation on welfare (starting with Losing Ground and passing through New Consensus) as preparing the ground for the 1996 PRWORA.

Kit Taylor

Whilst some on the Guardian-ish left seem to regard him almost as an anarchist on domestic policy, it seems the prevailing view amongst libertarians is that Reagan was all mouth and no trousers. See "The Sad Legacy of Ronald Reagan" from the hardline libertarian Mises Institute.

Regards rhetoric and presentation, I'm intrigued by New Zealand, where the administration of a historically semi-socialist country shrunk the government quite considerably. How did political rhetoric square with political action in that case?


New Zealand was like Ireland or the UK - market reform became the only viable option. In New Zealand's case, the Right-wing party was avowedly protectionist (in hock to farm interests), so the Labour Party became the vehicle. Ended up dividing the Labour Party though - the reform-driving Finance Minister Roger Douglas (author of 'Rogernomics') being forced out of the party eventually. He's now a a stalwart of the international free-market scene.

As for the Mises Institute: well, I used to be a libertarian... but then I grew up.


"I regard it as a legitimate and important task of government – on grounds of economic liberalism, which would treat redistribution as a public good – to reduce income inequality, by means of the tax and benefits system, though without altering relative positions within that distribution."
And there was I, thinking that the "redistribution of wealth" was just a form of cheap populism. Yet the real inequality is between the "developed" world and the Third World. Would it be a public good to raise income tax rates by 20% and give the proceeds to Africa?

George Lee

"The claim that Reagan brought down Communism single-handed is exaggerated."

Talk about breaking down an open door! I have never heard anyone make this claim. Even Reagan's most starry-eyed devotees don't go that far....

" But what Reagan did was to discredit government itself, the only legitimate tool with which democratic societies can tackle their problems."

What a breathtakingly dumb thing to say. Since the time of Alexis de Tocquville analysts have noted the remarkable success of private, mediating institutions in America. There are thousands of examples, but an interesting one is Alcoholics Anonymous. If only most government problem-solving programs were as successful as AA.

Take the environment as another arena. When various game populations fell dramatically in the early 20th century, all sorts of private groups formed to remedy the situation. Ducks Unlimited was an early one, but then came Waterfowl USA, and then another, then another. I saw one wood duck per year when I was a kid. Now I see a dozen every time I walk down to the river. Everyone build wood duck boxes for protected nesting, and they are out there whizzing around right now.

The National Wild Turkey Federation has similarly been spectacularly successful. We have wild turkeys now in 49 states, sizeable populations able to be hunted without jeopardizing the species. We export them to foreign countries in exchange for species we'd like to augment. Quail Unlimited has been doing yeoman's work of late.

In Virginia alone, Hunters for the Hungry donate 250,000 lbs. of venison each year to churches. That adds up to millions of meals. Similar programs exist in all 50 states, so you are talking about eleventy gazillion meals provided without a bureaucrat in sight.

Neighborhoods get together and clean up rivers and lakes, build their own ballparks, you name it.

Not only do private schools flourish, homeschooling--the ultimate jettisoning of government--does too. Every year homeschooled kids win regional, even, national spelling bees, geography bees, history bees.

Some 16 year old kid and his father borrowed $5,000 and created Bullfrog in their garage. It was the first sunscreen that won't wash off in water. Think of the skin cancer deterred, accomplished without the Intergalalactic Department of Libido Dominandi.

Even our criminals solve problems sans government. Moonshiners created NASCAR, making the roads safer! Our drag races are now watched in daylight by millions of paying customers instead of a dozen terrified cops at 3 a.m.

You can still get moonshine too, without paying taxes on it to the government!

I trust I have at least made the principle clear.

That government is best that governs least. Who the Hell else is going to imprison you or impose a fine on you?

You just gotta tinker with it until it is strong enough to protect you from that creature in the Sigourney Weaver "Alien" movies, and if it turns on you, shoot it in the back, if it won't listen to sweet reason.

John Thacker

It's impossible to fairly discuss the growth of inequality without discussing not just increasing returns to education, but also the growth of women working full time, especially at higher income jobs and when married to high income men, and as well the increase in divorce especially at the lower income levels. Both of these trends magnify the inequality statistics, which are typically done at a household level rather than per capita. (Household level since counting a housewife as in poverty is also inappropriate.)


Inequality stats also havesome other thorny issues attached. Robert Barro used to (probably still does) bang on about how household income is 'equivalised' so that an extra child reduces income, which he found a questionable judgement. In the US, it's also necessary to deal with wider employment compensation - especially medical insurance costs, which rocketed in the 1980s. All that, and problems of mobility between deciles (does someone stay in the poorest group or move up?) and of the fact that many people in the low deciles for income can be in the high decile for consumption (the wealthy, the temporarily unemployed, the criminal).

I'm with GrimReaper on Oliver's 'economic liberal' commitment to redistribution as a public good in and of itself. I'm ok with the proverbial safety net (although strictly applied). I'm also ok with the idea of supplementing the income of those who are unable to support themselves. And I'm ok too with redistribution to support family formation and child rearing. But beyond that, redistribution for its own sake deadens the link between responsibility and reward.


lbom wrote: "Take abortion: he was absolutely, positively, vocally pro-life and anti-Roe, but (aside from his Court appointments) he never made it an issue because he couldn't win the battle. But his commitment was constant."

I don't see Reagan's opposition to abortion as "constant," but rather as conflicted.

Reagan did, after all, decriminalize abortion in California, only to later regret that decision. He then turned around and nominated Sandra Day O'Connor to SCOTUS on the passionate recommendation of his pro-choice Republican mentor Barry Goldwater, and went on to seat Anthony Kennedy on the Court as well--nominations which have entrenched Roe v. Wade as the law of the land for the foreseeable future. There were many other, firmly anti-Roe, judicial candidates Reagan could have nominated instead. That he didn't--in those two cases, at least--is certainly...suggestive.

It's worth recalling too that Reagan rarely spoke publicly about abortion, and made a point to never speak in person to the conservative pro-life organizations he relied upon for support.

The religious right has never quite forgiven him for any of the above "vacillations."

Abortion, for both political and personal reasons, seemed to have been a particularly onerous social issue for Ronald Reagan--as for many of us. An issue which forced his sense of decency and humanity into conflict with itself.

"Constancy," in any comparative sense (compared, say, to GWB's assiduous and apparently reflexive opposition to abortion) doesn't seem a very apt description of Ronald Reagan. In that context, as in so many others.

Ronald Reagan (as we'll all be reminded this week in the rush to define him by all sides) was a much more complicated and mercurial human being than the vast majority of either his critics or his detractors ever recognized.

Oliver has noted that complexity of character. Only, as usual, more eloquently than most of us.

Andrew Ian Dodge

I notice no one mentions that Reagan has a hostile House & Senate during most of his Presidency. They are mostly to blame for the large deficits incurred during this time. In order for Reagan to get through many of his reforms he had to deal the pork-barrel loving Democrats (and Republicans).

Reagan restored the US belief in itself. It is not too surprising that there were so many high-tech start-ups under Reagan. It was a truly entrepernuriel time.



Grant you the decriminalisation in California, which I wasn't aware of (although I was talking primarily in the context of his presidency). I'll differ with you slightly on the SCOTUS picks though. Certainly Anthony Kennedy was not a first choice and has been (to my knowledge) a bit of a surprise once on the Court. I think you're right that Reagan didn't pick primarily on Roe, but to me that is simply because he knew this was a battle he couldn't win.

That said, although for some who "rarely spoke publicly" about it, he was the President who wrote Abortion in the Conscience of a Nation on the 10th Anniversary of Roe. That is, 18 months before his second election. An article version appeared in the Human Life Review. Paul Kengor writing recently in National Review gave some further examples including his '86 State of the Union address:

"We are a nation of idealists, yet today there is a wound in our national conscience. America will never be whole as long as the right to life granted by our Creator is denied to the unborn. For the rest of my time, I shall do what I can to see that this wound is one day healed."

This is also the President who enacted the Mexico City policy ('84 I think - election year), banning use of US funds for abortion services. The Religious Right might dislike Reagan for not having pushed the issue harder, but Reagan was a grown-up politician, not an ideologue. But I don't think you can question the fact that, as President, he was quite seriously committed as a partisan on this issue.


Andrew: re the deficits, right there with you on Congress's culpability - Reagan did force the issue to the brink several times, but his powers were limited.

On the other hand, we can't deny Reagan himself was a high spender on defence. But at least that aspect is reasonable - as David Frum pointed to, it's fairly normal to run a deficit when you're trying to win a war.

George Lee

Reagan's defense spending was the best economic bargain this country ever got. During the Cold War we spent a good 7% of GDP on defense, year after year after year. Cold War victory meant we could cut that in half and that is where is has been for over a decade now. The benefits to the economy have been mighty significant.

But apart from that, think what America's domestic life would have been like if, in 1990, we hadn't had Reagan's Armed Forces to use against Saddam Hussein. Imagine a world in which America was too weak or un-selfconfident to remove Saddam from Kuwait or prevent him from taking part or all of the Saudi oil fields.

Reagan's defense spending saved us all a bundle and will continue to do so.

He was the anti-Philip Larkin. Bean counters may hem and haw about what can be measured and ways of measuring, but his greatest contributions were unquantifiable.

How do you quantify fun?


"But what Reagan did was to discredit government itself, the only legitimate tool with which democratic societies can tackle their problems."

Mr. Hodgson shows his complete lack of understanding of Reaganism in one short sentence.

And I have to disagree with you, Reagan was a pragmatist in practice, but his goals were very idealistic and very conservative. I think there exist a strong idealogical disconnect between what europeans see as "conservativism", and what Americans view it as, and likewise for "liberalism".


After some thought, searching, and re-reading, I think Robert Kagan's "Power and Weakness" publication for The Carnegie Endowment goes a long way toward describing that diconnect, if a bit indirectly. Be forewarned, it's a long one.



If you've got time for the full treatment, go for the book length version (it's only 100-ish pages I think): Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order. Well worth it.


You unpaid servants of the new world order might like to read the following useful corrective to the abject and useless Reagan encomia currently flooding the press:


With regard to the political system, the Reagan era represents a significant advance in capitalist democracy. For eight years, the U.S. government functioned virtually without a chief executive. That is an important fact. It is quite unfair to assign to Ronald Reagan, the person, much responsibility for the policies enacted in his name. Despite the efforts of the educated classes to invest the proceedings with the required dignity, it was hardly a secret that Reagan had only the vaguest conception of the policies of his administration, and if not properly programmed by his staff, regularly produced statements that would have been an embarrassment, were anyone to have taken them seriously. The question that dominated the Iran-contra hearings -- did Reagan know, or remember, what the policy of his administration had been? -- was hardly a serious one. The pretense to the contrary was simply part of the cover-up operation; and the lack of public interest over revelations that Reagan was engaged in illegal aid to the contras during a period when, he later informed Congress, he knew nothing about it, betrays a certain realism.

Reagan's duty was to smile, to read from the teleprompter in a pleasant voice, tell a few jokes, and keep the audience properly bemused. His only qualification for the presidency was that he knew how to read the lines written for him by the rich folk, who pay well for the service. Reagan had been doing that for years.

He seemed to perform to the satisfaction of the paymasters, and to enjoy the experience. By all accounts, he spent many pleasant days enjoying the pomp and trappings of power and should have a fine time in the retirement quarters that his grateful benefactors have prepared for him. It is not really his business if the bosses left mounds of mutilated corpses in death squad dumping grounds in El Salvador or hundreds of thousands of homeless in the streets. One does not blame an actor for the content of the words that come from his mouth. When we speak of the policies of the Reagan administration, then, we are not referring to the figure set up to front for them by an administration whose major strength was in public relations. The construction of a symbolic figure by the PR industry is a contribution to solving one of the critical problems that must be faced in any society that combines concentrated power with formal mechanisms that in theory allow the general public to take part in running their own affairs, thus posing a threat to privilege.

Not only in the subject domains but at home as well, there are unimportant people who must be taught to submit with due humility, and the crafting of a figure larger than life is a classic device to achieve this end. As far back as Herodotus we can read how people who had struggled to gain their freedom "became once more subject to autocratic government" through the acts of able and ambitious leaders who "introduced for the first time the ceremonial of royalty," distancing the leader from the public while creating a legend that "he was a being of a different order from mere men" who must be shrouded in mystery, and leaving the secrets of government, which are not the affair of the vulgar, to those entitled to manage them. In the early years of the Republic, an absurd George Washington cult was contrived as part of the effort "to cultivate the ideological loyalties of the citizenry" and thus create a sense of "viable nationhood," historian Lawrence Friedman comments. Washington was a "perfect man" of "unparalleled perfection," who was raised "above the level of mankind," and so on. To this day, the Founding Fathers remain "those pure geniuses of detached contemplation," far surpassing ordinary mortals (see p. 00). Such reverence persists, notably in elite intellectual circles, the comedy of Camelot being an example. Sometimes a foreign leader ascends to the same semi-divinity among loyal worshippers, and may be described as "a Promethean figure" with "colossal external strength" and "colossal powers," as in the more ludicrous moments of the Stalin era, or in the accolade to Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir by New Republic owner-editor Martin Peretz, from which these quotes are taken.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt attained similar heights among large sectors of the population, including many of the poor and working class, who placed their trust in him. The aura of sanctity remains among intellectuals who worship at the shrine. Reviewing a laudatory book on FDR by Joseph Alsop in the New York Review of Books, left-liberal social critic Murray Kempton describes the "majesty" of Roosevelt's smile as "he beamed from those great heights that lie beyond the taking of offense... Those of us who were born to circumstances less assured tend to think of, indeed revere, this demeanor as the aristocratic style... [We are] as homesick as Alsop for a time when America was ruled by gentlemen and ladies." Roosevelt and Lucy Mercer "were persons even grander on the domestic stage than they would end up being on the cosmic one," and met the great crisis in their lives, a secret love affair, "in the grandest style." "That Roosevelt was the democrat that great gentlemen always are in no way abated his grandeur... [His blend of elegance with compassion] adds up to true majesty." He left us with "nostalgia" that is "aching." His "enormous bulk" stands between us "and all prior history...endearingly exalted...splendidly eternal for romance," etc., etc. Roosevelt took such complete command that he "left social inquiry...a wasteland," so much so that "ten years went by before a Commerce Department economist grew curious about the distribution of income and was surprised to discover that its inequality had persisted almost unchanged from Hoover, through Roosevelt and Truman..." But that is only the carping of trivial minds. The important fact is that Roosevelt brought us "comfort...owing to his engraving upon the public consciousness the sense that men were indeed equal," whatever the record of economic reform and civil rights may show. There was one published reaction, by Noel Annan, who praised "the encomium that Murray Kempton justly bestowed on Roosevelt." Try as they might, the spinners of fantasy could not even approach such heights in the Reagan era.

The political and social history of Western democracies records all sorts of efforts to ensure that the formal mechanisms are little more than wheels spinning idly. The goal is to eliminate public meddling in formation of policy. That has been largely achieved in the United States, where there is little in the way of political organizations, functioning unions, media independent of the corporate oligopoly, or other popular structures that might offer people means to gain information, clarify and develop their ideas, put them forth in the political arena, and work to realize them. As long as each individual is facing the TV tube alone, formal freedom poses no threat to privilege.

One major step towards barring the annoying public from serious affairs is to reduce elections to the choice of symbolic figures, like the flag, or the Queen of England -- who, after all, opens Parliament by reading the government's political program, though no one asks whether she believes it, or even understands it. If elections become a matter of selecting the Queen for the next four years, then we will have come a long way towards resolving the tension inherent in a free society in which power over investment and other crucial decisions -- hence the political and ideological systems as well -- is highly concentrated in private hands.

For such measures of deterring democracy to succeed, the indoctrination system must perform its tasks properly, investing the leader with majesty and authority and manufacturing the illusions necessary to keep the public in thrall -- or at least, otherwise occupied. In the modern era, one way to approach the task is to rhapsodize (or wail) over the astonishing popularity of the august figure selected to preside from afar. From the early days of the Reagan period it was repeatedly demonstrated that the tales of Reagan's unprecedented popularity, endlessly retailed by the media, were fraudulent. His popularity scarcely deviated from the norm, ranging from about 1/3 to 2/3, never reaching the levels of Kennedy or Eisenhower and largely predictable, as is standard, from perceptions of the direction of the economy. George Bush was one of the most unpopular candidates ever to assume the presidency, to judge by polls during the campaign; after three weeks in office his personal approval rating was 76 percent, well above the highest rating that Reagan ever achieved. Eighteen months after taking office, Bush's personal popularity remained above the highest point that Reagan achieved. Reagan's quick disappearance once his job was done should surprise no one who attended to the role he was assigned.

It is, nonetheless, important to bear in mind that while the substance of democracy was successfully reduced during the Reagan era, still the public remained substantially out of control, raising serious problems for the exercise of power."

Betty Noir



How do you know we're unpaid?


Thanks lbom, I might do just that.

And thanks to you too Betty, I needed the laugh. Funerals can be so depressing. I grew up in the eighties, and Reagan was like a third grandfather. I feel sorry for you.



"Reagan was like a third grandfather." What, so your other two grandfathers were bumbling stooges as well?


"How do you know we're unpaid?"

What made you think i was talking to you??


Well, er, 2 reasons really:

1. You posted what looks a similar piece to my blog.

2. My post was previous to yours, so when you opened by saying "You unpaid servants of the new world order" it seems reasonable to assume that I was first amongst the intended targets.

Anyway, I'm sure the likes of me and Timbeaux can raise a glass to you when we meet at the next Bilderberg get-together. And hey, you needn't be worried about those black helicopters coming to get you. For now, anyway.


"He used the language of conservatism in order to pursue quite pragmatic ends, and did so with a good measure of success in both domestic and foreign policy."

I don't mean to be pedantic, but I don't see how you can pursue 'pragmatic ends'. You can obviously pursue ends pragmatically, but a pragmatic end wouldn't be an 'end' at all would it? Unless 'pragmatic' is just synonymous with 'realistic'?


Occam: I think even you hit on something bigger here. Remember the other thread were you rightly chastised me for using the 'real world' ploy? The same would apply to 'pragmatic ends' if it means 'realistic'... The ends themselves are either idealistic (in whatever direction - progessive or reactionary) or simply convenient, which basically lapses to pursuing policies which will keep you in power - much like Cinton's 'triangulation'.


If an 'end' is adopted because it keeps you in power, then it becomes a means, right? The 'end' is power itself. If something is 'convenient' then this means it is a handy way of getting something. So, anyway, am i agreeing with you or not??


Oh, by the way, what did you mean by 'even you'!!


Believe it or not - was a typo from re-editing the sentence. Quite a funny one, but rest assured, I don't think there's any Freudian slip going on!

And yes, we are in agreement. Which makes for a strange moment!!!

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