June 26, 2004


Inside Ronald Reagan: A Reason Interview (REASON, July 1975)

Those of us concerned about liberty have had good reason of late to be interested in Ronald Reagan. Increasingly, California’s former governor has been turning up in first place among Republican figures in political opinion polls, among Independents as well as Republicans. In addition, in recent months Reagan has taken to using the term "libertarian" (or "libertarian-conservative") to describe his political philosophy. All of which naturally made us interested in taking a closer look at the man and his ideas. Thanks to the efforts of the late Ned Hutchinson (a former Reagan aide), REASON was able to obtain time out of Reagan’s busy schedule for him to be interviewed by Editor Manuel S. Klausner.

Ronald Wilson Reagan was born in Illinois in 1911. After a varied career as a radio sports announcer, motion picture actor, and TV host, Reagan became active in conservative politics. After achieving national publicity for his televised speeches for Barry Goldwater in 1964, Reagan went on to win the California governorship in 1966 and was re-elected to a second four-year term in 1970. Throughout his eight years in office, Reagan stressed the idea of holding down the size and cost of government, nonetheless, the state budget increased from $5.7 billion to $10.8 billion during his time in office.

Reagan did institute property and inventory tax cuts, but during his tenure the sales tax was increased to six percent and withholding was introduced to the state income tax system. Under Reagan’s administration, state funding for public schools (grades K- 12) increased 105 percent (although enrollment went up only 5 percent), state support for junior colleges increased 323 percent, and grants and loans to college students increased 900 percent Reagan’s major proposal to hold down the cost of government was a constitutional amendment to limit state spending to a specified (slowly declining) percentage of the gross income of the state’s population. The measure was submitted to the voters as an initiative measure, Proposition One, but was defeated when liberal opponents pictured it as a measure that would force local tax increases.

Reagan instituted a major overhaul of the state welfare system that reduced the total welfare caseload (which had been rapidly increasing) while raising benefits by 30 percent and increasing administrative costs. He encouraged the formation of HMO-like prepaid health care plans for MediCal patients, a move that has drawn mixed reactions from the medical community. His Federally-funded Office of Criminal Justice Planning made large grants to police agencies for computers and other expensive equipment, and funded (among other projects) a large-scale research effort on how to prosecute pornographers more effectively. He several times vetoed legislation to reduce marijuana possession to a misdemeanor, and signed legislation sharply increasing penalties for drug dealers

Thus, Reagan’s record, while generally conservative, is not particularly libertarian. But one’s administrative decisions, constrained as they are by existing laws, institutions, and politics, do not necessarily mirror one’s underlying philosophy. We were therefore curious to find out more about the real Ronald Reagan. Looking relaxed and healthy despite his 64 years and a hectic schedule, Reagan welcomed us to his Los Angeles office on Wilshire Boulevard and talked political philosophy with us for over an hour. Here is what we learned. [...]

REASON: Governor, could you give us some examples of what you would consider to be proper functions of government?

REAGAN: Well, the first and most important thing is that government exists to protect us from each other. Government exists, of course, for the defense of the nation, and for the defense of the rights of the individual. Maybe we don’t all agree on some of the other accepted functions of government, such as fire departments and police departments–again the protection of the people.

REASON: Are you suggesting that fire departments would be a necessary and proper function of government?

REAGAN: Yes. I know that there was a time back in history in which fire departments were private and you insured your house and then had an emblem on the front of your house which identified which company was responsible for protecting it against fire. I believe today, because of the manner in which we live, that, you can make a pretty good case for our public fire departments–because there are very few ways that you can handle fire in one particular structure today without it representing a threat to others.

REASON: How would you distinguish "socialized" fire departments and "socialized" fire insurance companies? Or would you be in favor of socialized fire insurance also?

REAGAN: No. Nor am I in favor of socialized medicine. But, there’s bound to be a grey area, an area in there in which you ask is this government protecting us from ourselves or is this government protecting us from each other. [...]

REASON: Don’t you think the Food and Drug Administration basically serves the Big Brother role, the protectionist role, and that the free market could adequately deal with it in the absence of the regulations?

REAGAN: Well, if they would. And I’m sure the free market would today, but remember that the FDA was born at a time when people in this country were being killed. Back in the Spanish American War, for instance, we lost soldiers who were sent poisoned canned meat and this is when the scandal erupted that led to the pure food laws.

Maybe what we should look at are those areas where government should be a "Big Brother" in ensuring that the private sector is doing the job. In other words, suppose the whole food industry would police itself. Then I think government would have a legitimate place in keeping a watchful eye on them to make sure that industry did not gradually, for profit, erode the standards. This I think could hold true with a great many other things. [...]

REASON: Let me ask you–still in the area of tax reform, Governor–how you feel about the Liberty Amendment, which would abolish the income tax. Is that something you’re in favor of?

REAGAN: Well, let me tell you where my doubts are there. I am very critical of the income tax–the progressive features and the complications of it–it’s the one instance in your whole fiscal experience in life in which you figure out what you owe and government reserves the right to come back and tell you your figures are wrong. If you’re going to have a tax the people should know what the tax is and the government should be able to tell them without the people having to go to the expense of figuring it out themselves.

On the other hand, I have always felt that taxing income is probably as fair a method of raising revenue for government as any. Let’s take a simple case. Suppose 100 of us were shipwrecked on an island and we knew there was little chance of release and we established a community to get along–to survive there. I n a sense we set up a government. What you’d probably do is ask each individual to dedicate a certain amount of his time to such things as standing guard or hunting and fishing to keep the people alive and providing fresh water and so forth, so you’d probably each one contribute a certain amount of service to the community. You’d basically be on your own except for X amount of time. Well, this in a sense is what you do with your income tax.

REASON: Of course, if you’re talking about starting from scratch–the shipwrecked people on the island– you’re really talking about a voluntary approach, aren’t you–as against taxation?

REAGAN: Well, we’re inclined to think that our government here is a voluntary approach and that we’ve set up a government to perform certain things, such as the national protection, etc.

REASON: Aren’t we deluding ourselves to talk in terms of consent, though? When we talk about taxation, aren’t we really dealing with force and coercion and nothing less than that?

REAGAN: Well, government’s only weapons are force and coercion and that’s why we shouldn’t let it get out of hand. And that’s what the founding fathers had in mind with the Constitution, that you don’t let it get out of hand.

But you say voluntary on the island. Let’s take a single thing. Let’s say that there was some force on the island, whether it’s hostiles or whether it was an animal, that represented a threat and required round he-clock guard duty for the safety of the community. Now I’m sure it would be voluntary but you get together and you say look, we’re all going to have to take turns guarding. Now what do you think would happen in that community if some individual said "Not me; I won’t stand guard." Well, I think the community would expel him and say "Well, we’re not going to guard you." So voluntarism does get into a kind of force and coercion where there is a legitimate need for it. [...]

REASON: Are there any particular books or authors or economists that have been influential in terms of your intellectual development?

REAGAN: Oh, it would be hard for me to pinpoint anything in that category. I’m an inveterate reader. Bastiat and von Mises, and Hayek and Hazlitt–I’m one for the classical economists....

REASON: What about Rand or Rothbard?

REAGAN: No. I haven’t read Ayn Rand since The Fountainhead. I haven’t read Atlas Shrugged. The last few years, I must say, have been a little rough on me for doing that kind of reading–for eight years I found that when I finished reading the memorandums and reports and so forth, then I found myself digging into nonfiction, economists and so forth, for help on the problems that were confronting me.

Not that it's difficult to do so, but it's certainly fun to watch Mr. Reagan manhandle libertarianism.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 26, 2004 10:01 AM

Certainly sounds like an economic illiterate, doesn't he?

Posted by: jsmith at June 26, 2004 12:42 PM

Perhaps I'm missing something only a "Reason" intellect can comprehend.
The article states: " state funding for public schools (grades K- 12) increased 105 percent (although enrollment went up only 5 percent)," .
It would seem a 5% increase in enrollment would quite logically cause a 5% increase in expenditures. Or, do they think an increase of 105% is really 205%?
I'm watching Dragon Ball GT on the Cartoon Network now, much more entertaining and informative than any news/opinion/commentary outside the blogosphe will ever be.

Posted by: Mike Daley at June 26, 2004 10:12 PM


Mathematics is beyond my ken.

Posted by: oj at June 26, 2004 11:55 PM