There was a brief discussion in the previous post about Reagan and his true ideological credentials. This topic seems to come up from time to time. Whether it’s deficits, immigration, tax policy, etc., it’s become somewhat of a revisionist pastime to go through the historical records with a fine tooth comb and compare them side-by-side to our zoological political classifications, performing a tidy checklist one-by-one.
Now, blessed with this luxury of spurious hindsight, a lot of people have come to the conclusion that Reagan was not a conservative. He was apparently some sort of mutant. He was possibly really a Democrat that created a pretend, Hollywood version of Conservatism. Perhaps he was really just a war-monger, and what’s conservative about that?
Fortunately, we don’t have to speculate and debate the motives of the man like he was some sort of long lost, half-mythical figure. Others thought of this already when he was still around and did the legwork for us. In this 1975 Reason magazine interview, Ronald Reagan lays it all on the table about what he really thinks about conservatism, libertarianism, and the role of government in our lives.
This interview was from a time when Conservatism was enduring a low water mark. It was shortly after Watergate and during the discouraging Ford presidency. One of the few bright spots was Reagan and his exhortation for “raising a banner of no pale pastels, but bold colors which make it unmistakably clear where we stand on all of the issues troubling the people”.
In the Reason interview he states unequivocally right off the bat that
If you analyze it I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism.
He then goes on to say
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.
Government exists and has too, but the best government is the one that is kept to a minimum. His thoughts on the central libertarian concerns about coercion are important on this matter
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 the-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.
It’s clear from this article, that Reagan is stating that he is really a proponent of what we call now Minarchism.
More specifically Reagan was a Right-Minarchist
R-M reject the non-aggression principle with respect to national defense. They do so not because they favor aggression but because the principle, in its standard interpretation, is a non-action principle. It would not allow a preemptive attack on an antagonistic state that is armed, capable of striking us at any time, and known to be contemplating a strike. R-M, in other words, tend toward hawkishness when it comes to national defense.
Many of the card-carrying Anarcho-Libertarians have declared that, after Ferguson, Minarchism is dead because the Night Watchmen have grown into fleecers, swindlers, and oppressors. However, they’re misguided. What’s really happening there is not Minarchism but Statism.
Statism lives not in a big tent but in a colossal coliseum. It comprises a broad set of attitudes about government’s role, propounded by “types” ranging from redneck yahoos to campus radicals, each type proclaiming itself benign (for some, if not for others). But each type would — in thought and word, if not deed — set loose the dogs of the state upon its political opponents and the vast, hapless majority.
Minarchists advocate that
the ideal government is restricted to the protection of negative rights. Such rights, as opposed to positive rights, do not involve claims against others; instead, they involve the right to be left alone by others. Negative rights include the right to conduct one’s affairs without being killed, maimed, or forced or tricked into doing something against one’s will; the right to own property, as against the right of others to abscond with property or claim it as their own; the right to work for a wage and not as a slave to an “owner” who claims the product of one’s labor; and the right to move and transact business freely within government’s sphere of sovereignty (which can include overseas movements and transactions, given a government strong enough to protect them).
The right to be left alone includes being left alone from a morally bankrupt fine levying system unfairly absconding money and hard earned possessions.
We see the basis of Minarchism comes from the person Reagan called “the prophet of American conservatism,” Russell Kirk. There’s no single Conservative Manifesto or one conservative ideal, so Kirk set out to list six basic assumptions that generally reflect the values of Conservatives
“Belief that a divine intent rules society as well as conscience, forging an eternal chain of right and duty which links great and obscure, living and dead. Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems.
“Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of traditional life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and equalitarianism and utilitarian aims of most radical systems.
“Conviction that the only true equality is moral equality, that all attempts to extend equality to economics and politics, if enforced by positive legislation, lead to despair, and that civilized society requires order and classes.
“Persuasion that property and freedom are inseparably connected, and that economic leveling is not economic progress.
“Faith in what conservatives call ‘prescription’—the accumulation of ‘traditions and sound prejudice,’ i.e., common sense.
“Recognition that change and reform are not the same things, and that ‘innovation is a devouring conflagration more often than it is a torch of progress.’”
These canons are balancing and reconciling innovation with prudent permanence. We defer to these traditional values and methods that are the elemental building blocks of common sense because, in the swirling convolutions of our complex system, these customs have passed the test of time.
Surviving the proving grounds of generations takes precedence over the latest lobbyist driven state mandates. The same can probably be said for much of the layers and encumbrances of modern society piled on for many reasons long since forgotten or obsolete. This is why the minimum state is the best option, but only with its guard still up.
This is the real emphasis of Traditional Conservatives and their modern scions Minarchists. Reagan possessed this balance and used it to skillfully helm the ship of state through the rough seas of the 20th century.
This is why Ronald Reagan was a Conservative, and his legacy is Minarchism.