The Reagan fallacy

I turned 18 in 1984. That year, Ronald Reagan was re-elected President in one of the most lopsided victories in American history. My vote was part of that landslide, and as a newly enfranchised voter, I was both proud and delighted to be able to cast my vote for a man I saw as having set America back on the right track.

Having been born in the 1960s, having grown up in the 1970s, and having come of age in the 1980s, I well remember the atmosphere in this country prior to Reagan's election. I am old enough to remember the Watergate scandal, the end of the Apollo missions and the collapse of the space program, the evacuation of Americans from Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), and the Iran hostage crisis. We had come through a traumatic period, having lost the war in Vietnam rather decisively only to find that a few years later, our embassy in Tehran could be taken over, and our diplomats held hostage by, students . We were assaulted on all sides by the images of failure and the need to accept a variety of new restrictions on our prosperity and on our way of life. 55 mile-per-hour speed limit, anyone?

Then, in 1980, Ronald Reagan captured the GOP presidential nomination and told us that America was a shining city on a hill, and that there was nothing that Americans could not accomplish if only we put our minds to it and got the government out of the way. We responded enthusiastically, and it worked. The economy started to recover, jobs were created, and Ronald Reagan became the first president to serve two full terms since Dwight D. Eisenhower. Less than a year after he left office, the Berlin Wall opened, and within a relatively short time, the Soviet Union collapsed. Because of this, Ronald Reagan is widely regarded in this country as the man who won the Cold War.

Ironically, much of what Reagan was able to accomplish in office was not due to getting government out of the way, but was rather due to using the resources of government to achieve the goals he set. Lower tax rates gave the public more money to spend, but a 40% jump (in real terms) in defense spending from 1981-1985 pumped billions of dollars into the defense industry, creating thousands of jobs thereby. This massive increase was only partially paid for by cutting federal social programs and regulations; the rest was financed by deficit spending.

All of the foregoing explains why I find it hard to take today's conservative movement seriously when they loudly proclaim the virtues of small government and the free market, screaming epithets about socialism all the while. They listened to what Reagan said , but they paid scant attention to what he actually did. Ronald Reagan was opposed to both Communism and big government, but he slew only one of the dragons. The other one was alive and well the whole time, and helped him to slay the first. Indeed, the Great Communicator, the Gipper himself, actually expanded government. Shortly before leaving office, he signed into law the bill creating the Department of Veterans Affairs, described by Wikipedia as “a socialized government-run health-care system,” elevating the former Veterans Administration to cabinet level.

Today, with the conservative movement having been largely reduced to shouting about how the government can do nothing right and wanting it to have nothing to with anything, it is time to examine this fundamental component of the Reagan legacy. While it is true that the government cannot do everything right, it does not logically follow that the government cannot do anything right.

Consider, if you will, the Federal Aviation Administration. It oversees the air traffic control system, which routes thousands of flights every day, assigning landing priorities and keeping each aircraft a safe distance from each other. It performs this job so well that hundreds of thousands of people board aircraft each day, confident that they will arrive safely at their destination.

Or consider the Food and Drug Administration. It monitors the safety of the nation's food supply, allowing us to shop for food without worrying that it will poison us or make us ill. It also regulates the prescription drug industry, which millions rely upon to manage their illnesses and prolong their lives.

“Ah,” you say, “but those are non-controversial.” OK, fine. Let's consider the United States Postal Service. Everyone knows that the Post Office is inefficient and loses money, right?

Well, actually, no. Under federal law, the Postal Service is required to be self-supporting. That's why it asks Congress for rate increases every year or so. No tax dollars go to its operation. And even if they did, think about it for a minute. The USPS will pick up a letter in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and deliver it to Shugelak, Alaska for 44 cents. If you ask FedEx to do that, the cheapest rate as of this writing is $25.96, $15.00 of which is a “rural surcharge”.

We could go on. Let's look at the state level. Everybody knows that the DMV is horribly inefficient and full of government employees who don't work very hard, right? Well, there are undoubtedly a few of those, but I don't have to deal with them. Here in California (yes, California, the state that can't get its act together) I renew my license and registration on the internet and usually get my new driver's license or registration sticker in a couple of days. And oh, by the way, that's in a state with 32 million registered cars, all of which have to renew their registration every year. That's roughly 87,671 cars a day. I'd say that's reasonable efficiency.

And then there are the public universities, like the University of California system (my alma mater) and the State University of New York (where my nephew is studying), which provide a quality university education for far less than a comparable private university. Of course, you can always pay more and attend private universities like Stanford or Harvard if you think you'll get a better education (a matter of some debate), but for those who can't afford the private option, the public universities provide a solid college experience at a fraction of the cost.

What else can the government do well? For starters, it did a bang-up job assembling the team that built the first atomic bomb (no pun intended). In partnership with the aerospace industry, it put men on the moon. It built Hoover Dam. It provided the funding and the design standards for the interstate highway system. It provided funding and land grants for the first transcontinental railroad. It operates the national parks and wildlife refuges. Through the Tennessee Valley Authority, it brought electricity to much of the rural South. It even developed ARPAnet, the predecessor to the Internet. Closer to home, a whole range of government employees known as firefighters have done heroic work in putting out the fires in the Angeles National Forest.

This is not to say everything the government does is perfect. Clearly, that is not the case. But it puts the lie to the statement, so often heard on talk radio, that “the government screws everything up.” It does not. It often does things well.

There are even things for which the government is essential, national defense for one. It is difficult to conceive of a situation in which the private sector would provide better protection for our nation than the government does via the military. The free market won't defend against a military attack, or a fire for that matter—when your house is burning down, you don't have time for competitive bids, or to make sure that your fire insurance lists the local fire brigade as an “in-network provider.”

So the next time that you hear someone deride national health care as a boondoggle, or say that the government would screw it up “just like it screws everything up,” call them on it. Take a moment to consider the many things that the government does, and has done, right. It's a longer list than most people think.

And as for Ronald Reagan? I still think he was a great President, and I'm proud of the vote I cast for him in 19841. He left a legacy of many accomplishments, and we should be grateful that we no longer live under the shadow of nuclear annihilation. But he was first elected almost thirty years ago, and the policies of Ronald Reagan are no more suited to today's circumstances than the policies of Dwight D. Eisenhower were suited to the conditions of 1980. The world changes, and politics must change with it.

We can start by getting past the Reagan fallacy—the notion that the government is always the problem. It simply isn't true, and the longer that the conservative movement holds on to this demonstrably false idea, the longer it will be before we have a truly effective political opposition in this country. Americans in general, and Republicans in particular, need fewer Joe Wilsons in Congress, and more Orrin Hatches—principled men of integrity who know how to work with the opposing party to get things done. Our democracy depends on it.

  1. As of this writing (2016-10-16), I repudiate every part of this sentence. I deeply regret my vote for Ronald Reagan, and lament that he was ever permitted to hold office.