A Reagan-Haunted America: a review of Ronald Reagan’s Enduring Principles by Donald Devine (Richard M. Reinsch II, Law & Liberty)

Devine quotes Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual (2014) to undergird the thesis that the “morally equal individual” became the centerpiece in Western culture and tradition because the God of the Bible placed the individual as “the deciding moral agent,” who could lean “toward freedom or toward tradition in concrete situations.” But this created both a profound conservatism and a revolutionary emphasis because the person “was free to reject the family and traditions” available to them or that had formed them. Christianity itself finds its power in metaphysical unity, but it’s a unity that combined the concrete diversity of Greek rationality and Jewish tradition, as found in the embodiment of the Divine Person who did not create a kingdom for this world, nor guarantee temporal perfection, but did provide the means and end for man to find peace, among other gifts.

Here, then, is the tension of the West, the quest for divine perfection within an imperfect world and the humbling news that even in our best efforts, we fail. Most humbling of all, even when we’re sure that we’re right in our pursuit of the good, we will still fail ourselves and others in incalculable ways. But the awareness of transcendence and of our weaknesses produces “the dynamism that gave the West its creative and dominating culture.” Such fusionism, Devine observes, pieces together disparate episodes: “from the caves of Lascaux,” to Athens and Jerusalem, Augustine and the Romans, Europe and Aquinas, and on to John Locke and the American Founders, “to its dislodgment by progressivism in the early twentieth century.” Of course, this dilemma, as Meyer also learned from Voegelin, frequently leads to the desire to surmount it through ideology, to purify our politics through an overarching scientific or religious ideology.

The recovery in American political thought from New Deal Progressivism began, Devine thinks, in Hayek’s 1944 classic The Road to Serfdom, a book read closely by Reagan and Meyer. In Hayek’s later work, Law, Legislation, and Liberty (1973) he announces that “the most widely held ideas” of the twentieth century—a planned economy, liberation from “repressive and conventional morals,” and “permissive education”—will come to be seen as “superstitions” based on a wrongful faith in science and what it can provide us. The view of tradition as senseless and meaningless, Hayek thinks, will be rejected because we will understand that tradition lays down “foundations on which our capacity for rational thought rests.” Devine notes that Hayek sought in tradition and morality the “foundations” of “a free society.” Law and custom together, working with free markets, could achieve a new voluntary society, one also decentralized, that could bring new life to the West.

Reagan understood these principles, Devine notes, and attempted to place them at the center of his efforts at American revival. One note worth recalling comes from the book Reagan In His Own Hand (2001) where he elegantly voices his belief in the equal moral stature of citizens and why they shouldn’t be ordered around by bureaucrats:

But you I wonder about the people in those cars, who they are, what they do, what they are thinking about as they head for the warmth of home & family. Come to think of it I’ve met them—oh—maybe not those particular individuals but still I I feel I know them. Some of our social planners refer to them as “the masses” which only proves they dont [sic] know them. I’ve been privileged to meet people all over this land in the special kind of way you meet them when you are campaigning. They are not “the masses,” They are individuals. or as the elitists would have it—”the common man.” They are very uncommon. individuals who make this system work. Individuals each with his or her own hopes & dreams, plans & problems and the kind of quiet courage that makes this whole country run better than just about any other place on earth.

These lines sound like an American populism that is worthy of admiration. Yet Reagan, unlike many of our contemporary populists on the Left and the Right, sought to join his belief in the folks with constitutional and free market revival, freedom, and prosperity by way of firm limits rooted in a constitutional framework.

The centrality of Man’s Fall to our culture insulated us from the utopian isms.