by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Poking a bit of fun at those Republican politicians and pundits who invoke Ronald Reagan’s name in support of almost any cause imaginable, the latest Commentary magazine cover story carries the headline “If Ronald Reagan Were Alive Today, He Would Be 103 Years Old.”
The core of Reagan’s thought lay not primarily in his love of freedom, as powerful as that was, but in something else, something captured in the epitaph on his grave, which quoted his own words:
I know in my heart that man is good. That what is right will always eventually triumph. And there’s purpose and worth to each and every life.
For Reagan, human dignity—not human freedom—came first. This idea permeated his political career.
As early as 1957, in a commencement address at Eureka College, his alma mater, he defined the Cold War as “a simple struggle between those of us who believe that man has the dignity and sacred right and the ability to choose and shape his own destiny and those who do not so believe.” For Reagan, human dignity was what enabled human freedom—that is, the ability of each individual to “shape his own destiny”—not the reverse.
A minor-seeming difference, but a crucial one. For Reagan, it meant that everyone’s choice, whether great or humble, was worthy of protection, and that common virtues were to be valued as much as, if not much more than, uncommon ones. A 1964 National Review essay makes that crystal-clear. Conservatives, he wrote, aim to “represent the forgotten American—that simple soul who goes to work, takes out his insurance, pays for his kids’ schooling, contributes to his church and charity and knows there just ‘ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.’” By virtue of his dignity, such a person, neither high nor low, ought to be allowed to live his life as he sees fit. …
… Tellingly, the same conviction lay behind Reagan’s disinclination to adopt the “fuel the entrepreneur” model of economic policy favored by some on the right today. From 1979 to 1981, in the midst of the most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression, he used the word entrepreneur only once in all his major speeches on taxes and the economy. In his first inaugural address as president, the figure of the entrepreneur appears alongside that of the factory worker, the farmer, and the shopkeeper. All are heroes, and all have “every right to dream heroic dreams.”
Tax cuts for Reagan were not an exercise in bringing the top rate down in order to free the lone entrepreneur; they were about giving everyone more wealth to use as he saw fit. Reagan also placed a heavy emphasis on deregulation. Except where absolutely necessary, government regulation, he said, infringed on human dignity because “government can’t control the economy without controlling people.”
Nor, more generally, did Reagan ever embrace the ideology of an unfettered free market that is so often ascribed to him. In his address at Eureka College, he advocated an “economic floor beneath all of us so that no one shall exist below a certain standard of living.” In 1964, he endorsed the idea of Social Security. That same year, and at a time when Medicare did not yet exist, he declared that “no one in this country should be denied medical care because of a lack of funds.”
Does this mean that Reagan supported in toto the programs created by the New Deal and Great Society? Quite the opposite. In his view, most of those programs either forced people into a one-size-fits-all mold unsuited to their particular needs or delivered benefits to those who neither needed nor benefited from them. Although he never laid out a comprehensive view of his ideal welfare state, its basic lineaments emerge from his own programs and major speeches.