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Friday, July 1, 2011

Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan’s extolling of individualism amid the problem that he saw as government itself resonated with the religious overtures of American divine providence as a city on a hill—a promised land akin to the New Jerusalem. Even as material self-interest taking advantage of unbridled markets under the guise of competition was not Reagan’s primary orientation, greed could easily trump the force of Reagan’s normative envelop, human nature such as it is.

According to Madrick (p. 116), “The transformation of a political and economic message to a moral one was Reagan’s strength.” Religious would have to be added to moral for one to get a sense of Reagan’s individualism beyond its economic and political aspects. In a speech in 1963, for example, Reagan said that the inalienable rights of individuals are “God-given,” and that this individualism “puts us in opposition to . . . a prevailing attitude of many who have turned to a modern-day secularism” (Madrick, p. 117). Freedom is God-given, whereas totalitarianism is inherently secular. Hence, Reagan referred to the U.S.S.R. as the “evil empire” on more than one occasion—even as far back as in his television work for G.E.

Reagan saw the American welfare-state in as being similar to the totalitarian regime of the Soviets. According to Robert Dallek, “To Reagan . . . there are striking similarities between a Communist Russia and a welfare-state America that [he sees] as abandoning its traditional spirit of rugged individualism” (Madrick, p. 116). Reagan claimed that American government had failed to protect those truly in need of sustenance, but I do not believe he thought that government should enable the survival of those individuals whom misfortune or illness would otherwise kill. Reagan’s mindset was formed in the twentieth century largely before the rise in divorce and the associated fragmentation of the American family.

In Reagan’s America, it was generally assumed that church, charity and family could be relied on—albeit perhaps idyllically—to sustain those who could not survive otherwise on their own. Whether Reagan’s concern for the working class would include support of government aid for the long-term unemployed as a last resort in another era (i.e., the other safety nets being compromised) would have to encounter his disdain for lazy people living off the work of others.  Reagan agreed with Paul’s dictum that those who do not work do not eat. In more abstract terms, Reagan’s value on individual self-reliance and his association of the welfare state with totalitarianism together trump a solidarity value based on the human right to life qua “right to survival.”

Similarly, Reagan associated government regulation with totalitarianism. Accordingly, he viewed deregulation as essential to individual freedom. In a speech in 1959, he said that the power of “the stultifying hand of government regulation and interference . . . under whatever name or ideology, is the very essence of totalitarianism” (Ibid.). His push for deregulation was therefore not primarily to enable corporations to become bigger and richer; freedom as divinely-endowed rather than mere materialism was Reagan’s sun.

In a speech in 1967, Reagan said, “The world’s truly great thinkers have not pointed us towards materialism; they have dealt with the great truths and with the high questions of right and wrong, of morality and of integrity. They have dealt with the question of man, not the acquisition of things” (Madrick, p. 124). The moral (and religious) basis of Reagan’s political and economic ideology discounts not only material gain, but also the underlying self-interest. Madrick (p. 124) observes that “Reagan mostly avoided making economic self-interest the centerpiece of his economic program. . . . It was the selflessness of hard work, self-reliance, and courage associated with an American Protestant ethic. Material success was its by-product, not its objective.” Selflessness is indeed a value in American conservatism, even if was relegated by the version oriented to economic self-interest following Reagan. Indeed, individualism itself need not be reduced to selfishness and greed, even in conservatism.

However, in advocating deregulation, Reagan’s religio-moral individualism allowed for the ensuing materialist-based, free-market economic conservatism that has been so susceptible to unfettered corporate empire-building and the related love of gain, or greed, as an end in itself. For example, Madrick (p. 116) points out that “Reagan agreed with Friedman that unfettered capitalism gave people the freedom to find their own way; this was its greatest benefit.” Even though Reagan’s orientation was on freedom, it allowed for the unfettered capitalism that enabled the unregulated sub-prime mortgage derivatives that in turn nearly toppled the financial system in 2008. Madrick (p. 124) concludes that Reagan “planted a visceral distaste for government in the American belly, justifying to many, and even making moral, runaway individualism and greed.” Whereas Reagan’s religio-moral orientation was not tucked within an economic paradigm of economizing self-interest, his anti-government plank enabled even a moral basis for such self-interest; such a moral basis is not that of Adam Smith’s moral sentiments that constrain competition.

Reagan’s legacy is not his religio-moral basis for individual rights; rather, he is known for having facilitated and consolidated a fundamental shift in the American psyche, which had begun in the context of the Vietnam conflict and Watergate. Reagan made it explicit that government was the problem rather than a solution; he made this into a cause. The financial crisis of 2008, including the failure of regulators to check the greed on Wall Street, can be related directly back to this paradigmatic shift. In fact, it is likely that economic self-interest unfettered by “evil” regulations came out on top as a result of the shift—even compromising Reagan’s God-given individual rights through the organizational power made possible by deregulated (and thus consolidated) corporate capitalism. Indeed, it could even be argued that the latter is more of totalitarianism than is government regulation, at least from the standpoint of the mere individuals who happen to be citizens.

The triumph of the legal persons doctrine with its associated rights is just one indication of the hypertrophy that has dwarfed Reagan’s highest virtue even as the reductionism has sprung from Reagan’s very own apparatus. Had the former president modified his anti-government plank such that government should be put in the positive service—government service being ideally selfless—of protecting and furthering fundamental individual (not corporate) rights against commercial as well as governmental totalitarianism, the materialist hypertrophy of economic empires may not have been able to gain so much power over individuals.


 Jeff Madrick, Age of Greed: The Triumph of Finance and the Decline of America, 1970 to the Present (New York: Alfred A. Knoff, 2011).