Sunday, February 6, 2011

A Historian’s Thoughts on the Reagan Centennial

     Today is the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of United States President Ronald Wilson Reagan. The Federal Holiday in February known as “Presidents’ Day” ought to honor him, as well as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, for he was one of the greatest American presidents.

     When he left office, Reagan was popular with the American people, but not with the media, economists, historians and liberal Democrats. Although they credited him at least with reducing nuclear weapons through the IMF Treaty in 1988, they reviled him for his policies and dismissed him as simple-minded and simplistic. However, Reagan appears even better now to the public and even to the academics because of perspective and the availability of more historical information.

     The subsequent collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and the breakup of the Soviet Union particularly vindicated his policies of rebuilding American defenses, placing missiles in Western Europe, supporting freedom fighters against Communist governments (the Reagan Doctrine) and Pope John Paul II and the Solidarity movement in Poland, liberating Grenada, and speaking frankly against the evil of Communism and in favor or human rights. The prosperity of the Reagan Boom of 1982-2008, with the continued low inflation and low interest rates we enjoy today can now be observed more clearly and be attributed to his tax cuts, reduced regulation and optimism and confidence in America. The later discovery of Reagan’s handwritten essays revealed him as an intellectual and original thinker. He was not only a spokesman, but a leader of the conservative movement. Reagan was skeptical of conventional wisdom and delighted in outsmarting the “experts.”

     The 40th President’s other most noteworthy accomplishments included firing federal employees for illegally striking (which sent a message to the Communists that Reagan meant what he said), appointing conservative judges (such as the one mentioned in my last post; a legacy that continues), supporting the right to life, beginning the fight against terrorism, tax reform, and the free trade agreement with Canada.

     There are two big myths about Reagan that are still widely believed, especially by liberals. One stems from a misunderstanding of his statement that it takes an actor to be president. Reagan did not mean that he was acting in performing the most important role of his life, but that actors were especially skillful at determining whether someone was telling them the truth or not. The other myth is that his tax cuts increased the budget deficit. Revenues to the federal government nearly doubled. Overspending, not tax cuts, were the reason for the deficits. They were held stable relative to the gross domestic product the first several years of his Administration and even declined the last few years.

     Some conservatives and others, however, have drawn a wrong lesson from Reagan’s fiscal policies. It is not the government that causes prosperity. Government can only make itself less burdensome (e.g. by lowering taxes, reducing regulation), which provides a better opportunity for the economy to grow. They should also follow Reagan’s example of being optimistic more than they often do, as well as sharing his concern for fellow human beings and belief in resisting evil in all its forms around the world, which some isolationists do not.

     I must note that Reagan’s fiscal policies deserve even more credit for winning the Cold War than they are given. It is not only that he bankrupted the Soviets because they were unable to compete in the arms race, it was the prosperity he unleashed that not only funded the American arms buildup, the Strategic Defense Initiative (missile defense) and the Reagan Doctrine, but provided a contrast between the free market and Socialism, a contrast that prior to the Reagan Administration was not nearly as sharp.

     Reagan was a heroic, inspirational figure to me personally. He validated my common sense and moral beliefs amid the liberal conventional wisdom that surrounded me. Thus, when he would go over the heads of the arrogant experts, he established a personal connection with the American people the elites could never understand.

     I never saw or met this great American, but was privileged to view Reagan’s casket lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda. When I signed his guestbook at the Capitol, I promised as a historian to record Ronald Reagan’s greatness. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to fulfill that promise. May God Bless America.

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