“I have an uncomfortable feeling that this prosperity isn’t something on which we can base our hopes for the future,” Ronald Reagan said in A Time for Choosing, one of his most famous speeches, 55 years ago this month.
Reagan was right to warn about the United States’ creeping complacency in an increasingly hostile world, especially from the nuclear-armed Soviet Union, but the prosperity to which he referred was positively tenacious compared to today’s. Reagan could at least rely on social cohesion and productivity. These days, the developed world is beset by debt, social fragmentation and ennui, which are on vivid display almost daily in environmental protests around the world.
The speech was delivered as support for 1964 Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater but, in effect, it launched Reagan’s own political career, which culminated in his historic presidency from 1981 to 1989.
Reagan admits that he had been associated with the Democrats all his life, but now he sees fit to “follow another course”.
His current successor, Donald Trump, made a similar transition, coming from outside the political machine and also being mostly previously associated with Democrats. Whether Trump becomes another Reagan remains to be seen.
Reagan’s America back in 1964 was in the throes of the Great Society and expanding government – “Federal welfare spending is today ten times greater than it was in the dark depths of the Depression,” he noted – and the rival ascendance of Cold War superpower the Soviet Union.
Looking back very few of us, at least millennials, can appreciate the critical stakes of living in a bipolar world of two encircling nuclear superpowers but we should at least be able to see today’s parallel: the battle between big-government and personal responsibility. The stakes are no different but the odds are shorter, given that the threat is not from the Soviet Union but within.
Today Reagan is often remembered for being too relaxed and even cavalier as President. This speech, outlining the solid foundation of his beliefs, proves otherwise. In it he cites Plutarch, the Founding Fathers and patriots of Concord Bridge (the 1775 ‘shot heard round the world’) in the same breath of US agricultural and housing policy, juvenile delinquency, weekly income data, decolonisation and US foreign assistance in East Africa. Citing Department of Labor statistics and an incapacity of the federal government to balance a budget, to the impractical real-world effects of Senate Bills and Supreme Court rulings, Reagan cuts a master class for a budding public figure – the marriage of high principle to practical politics.
His starting point is, as the title of his speech implies, a choice. “Either we accept the responsibility for our own destiny,” he notes, “or we abandon the American Revolution and confess that an intellectual belief in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.”
Although covering significant policy and philosophical terrain, there is one theme that ties these issues together – common sense – which he applies to swaggering government incompetence.
It was not a difficult target to hit. He asks why, for example, the US Defense Department runs 269 supermarkets that “do a gross business of $730 million a year, and lose $150 million.”
On agriculture, he notes that, over the previous decade, “we have seen a decline of five million in the farm population, but an increase in the number of Department of Agriculture employees.”
Reagan says the federal government spends “$4,700 a year for each young person we want to help” when “we can send them to Harvard for $2,700 a year.” Not that he was proposing it, though. “Don’t me wrong – I’m not suggesting Harvard has the answer to juvenile delinquency.”
Recording “the conspiracy of silence about the people enslaved by the Soviet Union in the satellite nations” he notes the ‘two steps forward one step back’ nature of American foreign assistance, foretelling the excesses of foreign aid. “We set out to help nineteen war-ravaged countries at the end of World War II,” he says. “We are now helping 107.”
And turning to subsidised housing, he tells the story of an East American businessman who “sold his property to Urban Renewal for several million dollars” but then “submitted his own plan for the rebuilding of this area and the government sold him back his own property for 22 per cent of what they paid.”
Today it seems very little has been learnt from these problems. Not only does government waste and incompetence continue to plague Western politics but it is now joined by a careful attempt to avoid hard choices. In a recent Spec piece, Douglas Murray noted “that on issue after issue we have to arrive at decisions that offend nobody and harm no one.” Reagan, too, observed, “any time we question the schemes of the do-gooders, we are denounced as being opposed to their humanitarian goal.” There will always be a need to apply matters of common sense, even to matters of seemingly “sacrosanct quality”.
Indeed, Reagan’s common sense appeal did not just stop with words but also carried a common touch. As President, he was known for a folksy charm and good humour. “Honey, I forgot to duck,” he told wife Nancy after being shot in March 1981. “I just hope you’re all Republicans,” he also joked to physicians just before entering emergency surgery.
Reagan also radiated a capacity not just to think about big ideas but possess that important element – courage – to put them into play. “When people say President Reagan brought back our spirit and our sense of optimism,” notes his speechwriter Peggy Noonan, “I think what they are saying in part is, the whole country caught his courage.”
For today’s Western leaders emulating Reagan’s approach, the results have been clear – a victory for an unelectable Donald Trump and, equally at home, a supposedly outdated and ill for purpose Scott Morrison and Liberal Party.
A former actor, and liberal Democrat, Reagan did not need the stress of going into public life, especially as a conservative, which put him on the wrong side of fashionable arguments, resulting in lost allies in influential quarters. But “his courage”, according to Noonan, “was composed in part of intellectual conviction and in part of sheer toughness.”
Progressives will always use inequality for political advantage, but Reagan had a homespun answer to this too. “Today there is an increasing number who can’t see a fat man standing beside a thin one without automatically coming to the conclusion the fat man got that way by taking advantage of the thin one,” he said. Reagan was resisting the feel-good urge to redistribute wealth even at a time of relative prosperity. It is an urge that must be resisted even more strenuously now. People don’t become rich from handouts, and nations don’t become strong from welfare.
Sean Jacobs writes at www.seanjacobs.com.au.
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