After Reaganism


Enjoy this sweeping — and still-fresh — classic from John O’Sullivan, first published in the April 21, 1997, issue of National Review.

‘The commonest error in politics,” said the nineteenth-century British statesman Lord Salisbury, “is sticking to the carcasses of dead policies.” Conservatives have fallen headlong into this error. It is hardly possible to open an op-ed page or to listen to a conservative talk-show without hearing that we conservatives should return to the wisdom of Ronald Reagan. We should have, we are told, tax cuts on the Reagan model; at home we should go for growthmanship and shun the root-canal approach; abroad we need a Reaganite foreign policy; we should have his faith that America’s “shining city on a hill” can expand indefinitely to absorb and accommodate all the cultures of the world; and in all things we should exhibit the genial optimism that President Reagan exuded and that animated his successful campaign in, of all years, 1984.

Now, I count myself a Reaganite and greatly admire Mr. Reagan’s historic achievements and the solid political legacy he left to be squandered by his successor. But let us be clear: Reaganism was not an innovation in political thought. It was conservative common sense applied to the problems that had developed in the 1960s and 1970s. To the stagflation of the economy, it applied tax cuts and the monetary control of inflation; to the market-sharing cartel of OPEC, it applied price decontrol and the “magic of the marketplace”; and to the revived threat from the Soviet Union it applied a military build-up and economic competition.

These policies were what most conservatives would have recommended as answers to these problems at most times in this century. The only novel thing about them is that they were actually carried out. Previous Republican administrations had merely talked about them. If these ideas had failed when finally given their chance, conservatives would then have had some serious explaining to do. Fortunately, their success confirmed the validity of the conservative approach.

It can even be argued that in one respect President Reagan was extremely fortunate: the problems he faced, though they had baffled liberals, were problems which gave conservatives no great intellectual difficulty. Liberals were then wont to say, indeed, that conservatives were offering simple answers to complex problems. But the problems were complex to liberals only because they insisted on misunderstanding them at a very simple level. Just as the Ptolemaic theory that the sun goes around the earth can be made to yield accurate predictions only by qualifying it with a multitude of exceptions and special cases, so the liberal belief that inflation was caused by unions and corporations seeking higher prices led to a multitude of difficulties as each intervention to hold down prices created more problems which required more interventions which in turn created more problems and so ad infinitum. And what was true for inflation also held for most areas of policy. It was the complex solutions advocated by liberals that caused the complex problems — at least as much as the other way around. No wonder liberals suffered from malaise.

Their malaise deepened as conservatives won two great victories in the 1980s — the consequences of which continue to reverberate. The first was the victory of the West in the Cold War; the second the intellectual victory of free-market economics over economic planning. Taken together, these have combined to produce a marked shift to the Right in world politics, at least in economic policy, comparable to the world’s shift to liberalism after the defeat of the Axis powers and the discrediting of any kind of right-wing authoritarianism in 1945. Marxists from Harvard to the Chiapas region of Mexico now lament the worldwide dominance of “neo-liberalism.” The moderate Left in Europe now asks: “What’s the Big Idea?” — i.e. the big idea that can replace socialism. In this country, Mr. Clinton won in 1996 by endorsing a balanced budget, school uniforms, and white picket fences. Some genuine conservatives have therefore concluded that “We won.”

Unfortunately, as Margaret Thatcher remarked, there are no permanent victories in politics. (It was a prescient remark — made in her last party-conference speech as prime minister.) The game of politics continues indefinitely — but it continues on different ground and under shifting rules. And though the Left ought to be more confused than the Right by the ideological flux of the post–Cold War world, it is in fact moving more quickly to redefine the ground-rules of the new political game. It is doing so, moreover, not by conscious political calculation and argument, but by that curious blind but almost infallible instinct which seemingly enables liberals to see and promote their long-term aims collectively yet without any prior agreement — an instinct that led Tom Bethell and Joe Sobran to invent the term “The Hive.” That instinct comes in two parts: there is first the drive to support social trends that foster the disintegration of existing society; and, second, the impulse to build on the ruins a new social order in which traditional relations will be replaced by bureaucratic management. In other words, far from retreating at the end of the Cold War, the Left is seeking to advance: from planning merely the economy to planning society as a whole, from efficiency to equity.