America Still Needs Reaganism

0
1018

by Dan Mitchell

I’m skeptical of “common-good capitalism” in the same way I’m suspicious about “nationalist conservatism” and “reform conservatism” (and it should go without saying that I didn’t like the “kinder-and-gentler conservatism” and “compassionate conservatism” we got from the Bushes).

Here’s what I prefer.

Whether you call it libertarianism or small-government conservatism, this is the approach I wish Republicans would follow (or Democrats, if the spirit of Grover Cleveland still exists in that party).

But there are many self-styled conservatives who disagree. They think Reagan and his successful policies are passé.

Interestingly, the desire to move beyond Reaganism comes from pro-Trump and anti-Trump outlets.

David Brooks, a never-Trumper with a column in the New York Times, thinks Reagan’s anti-government approach is misguided.

If you came of age with conservative values and around Republican politics in the 1980s and 1990s, you lived within a certain Ronald Reagan-Margaret Thatcher paradigm. It was about limiting government, spreading democracy abroad, building dynamic free markets at home and cultivating people with vigorous virtues… For decades conservatives were happy to live in that paradigm. But as years went by many came to see its limits. It was so comprehensively anti-government that it had no way to use government to solve common problems. …Only a return to the robust American nationalism of Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay and Theodore Roosevelt would do: ambitious national projects, infrastructure, federal programs to increase social mobility. The closest National Greatness Conservatism came to influencing the party was John McCain’s 2000 presidential bid. He was defeated by a man, George W. Bush, who made his own leap, to Compassionate Conservatism. …The Reformicons tried to use government to build strong families and neighborhoods. …Most actual Republican politicians rejected all of this. They stuck, mostly through dumb inertia, to an anti-government zombie Reaganism long after Reagan was dead and even though the nation’s problems were utterly different from what they were when he was alive. …there is a posse of policy wonks and commentators supporting a new Working-Class Republicanism… But if there is one thing I’ve learned over the decades, it is never to underestimate the staying power of the dead Reagan paradigm.

Maybe I’m just an “anti-government zombie,” but my response is to ask why Brooks thinks the federal government should be in charge of state and local infrastructure.

Even more important, it would be nice if he could identify a government program that successfully promotes social mobility. There are several hundred of them, so the fact that he doesn’t offer any examples is quite revealing.

By contrast, the Reagan approach of of free markets and limited government works anywhere and everywhere it is tried. And he was right that big government is bad government.

But at least Brooks’ column reminds me to add “national greatness conservatism” to my list of failed philosophical fads.

Now let’s shift to an article from the Trump-friendly American Conservative. Rod Dreher also argues that Reaganism is no longer relevant.

Reagan nostalgia has long been a bane of contemporary conservatism, because it prevented conservatives from recognizing how much the world has changed since the 1980s and how conservatism needed to change with it to remain relevant. …by the time Trump came down that escalator, Reagan conservatism was about as relevant to the real world as FDR’s New Deal liberalism was in 1980. It is no insult to Reagan to say so. Until Trump arrived on the scene, it was difficult for right-wing dissenters from orthodox Reaganism—critics of free trade, immigration skeptics, antiwar conservatives, and others—to break free of the margins to which establishment conservatives had exiled them. …It is impossible to see the clear outlines of a post-Trump future for the Republicans, but…Reaganism—the ideology of globalized free markets, social and religious conservatism, and American military and diplomatic domination—is never coming back.

Sadly, I don’t think Dreher is correct about “New Deal liberalism” being irrelevant.

How else, after all, would someone categorize Obama’s policies? Or Biden’s platform? It’s “We shall tax and tax, and spend and spend, and elect and elect,” just as FDR advisor Harry Hopkins stated.

And Reagan’s policies are definitely still relevant, at least if the goal is to improve the well-being of the American people.

Yes, Dreher is right that “the world has changed since the 1980s,” but that doesn’t mean that good policy in 1980 is no longer good policy in 2020.

I think the problem may be that people think Reaganomics is nothing more than lower tax rates, perhaps combined with a bit of inflation fighting. And it’s definitely true that Reagan’s tax rate reductions and his restoration of sound money were wonderful achievements.*

But the Reagan economic agendawas also about spending restraint, deregulation, trade liberalization (he got the ball rolling on NAFTA and the WTO), and other pro-market reforms.

To be sure, Reagan’s policy record wasn’t perfect. But the policies he preferred were the right ones to restore American prosperity in the 1980s.

And while there are different problems today (the need for entitlement reform, for instance), the Reaganite approach of smaller government is still the only good answer.

*Let’s also remember to applaud Reagan for the policies that resulted in the unraveling of the Soviet Empire.

P.S. As explained in the Fourth Theorem of Government, pro-growth, Reagan-style policy can be smart politics.

by Dan Mitchell
Daniel J. Mitchell is a public policy economist in Washington. He’s been a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, a Senior Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, an economist for Senator Bob Packwood and the Senate Finance Committee, and a Director of Tax and Budget Policy at Citizens for a Sound Economy. His articles can be found in such publications as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Investor’s Business Daily, and Washington Times. Mitchell holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics from the University of Georgia and a Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University. Original article can be viewed here.