The Reagan Revolution and Its Discontents
His presidency was better than expected, but worse than desired.


While this is not revolutionary, it is controversial, as it challenges the basic premises of the modern, centralized administrative state. Liberals in 1981 could scarcely have imagined hearing such heresy from the presidential podium. Although many liberals had been shaken by the disasters of the preceding 15 years, from Vietnam and the Great Society through President Carter’s ineffectual rule, there was never a point at which the fundamental premises of modern liberalism were attacked from the pinnacle of American power. The moment seemed very far removed from the days when a liberal intellectual such as Robert Maynard Hutchins could declare: “The notion that the sole concern of a free society is the limitation of governmental authority and that that government is best which governs least is certainly archaic. Our object today should not be to weaken government in competition with other centers of power, but rather to strengthen it as the agency charged with the responsibility for the common good.”

Reagan was the first president since FDR who spoke frequently and substantively about the Founders and the Constitution. This is a remarkable and telling fact. Woodrow Wilson also spoke often on these subjects, but quite differently than FDR did. While Wilson was openly critical of the founding because of its emphasis on limited government, FDR’s invocations of it were mischievous — he appeared to be defending or proposing a restoration of the principles of the founding while in fact attempting a wholesale modification of our constitutional order. After FDR, our presidents practically ceased making reference to the founding or the Constitution — until Reagan arrived.

It is also significant that Reagan rejected the reformist assertion that the presidency, or our democracy in general, was inadequate to the times.

From time to time, we have been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. But if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?

Reagan had so fully internalized the thought of so many of his political forebears, such as Jefferson, Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, that it is not clear whether he knew he was paraphrasing them. Where he got his principles, though, is no mystery. In his First Inaugural Address, in 1801, Thomas Jefferson said: “Sometimes it is said that man can not be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.” Unlike Hutchins and other liberals, Reagan didn’t think Jefferson’s philosophy was “archaic.”

Did Reagan succeed in curbing the size and reach of the federal government? The answer appears to be no, at least if total federal spending or the size of the federal bureaucracy is used as the main metric. Although Reagan had some success in keeping the growth of government spending below what it would have been under a second term of Jimmy Carter (indeed, far below what Carter’s last five-year budget plan had projected), over the long run the Reagan years appear to have been a small speed bump on the road to serfdom. Between 1981 and 2006 (the last year for which I ran the numbers for my book), inflation-adjusted federal spending grew by 84 percent, while the population grew by only 30 percent. If per capita spending had grown only at the rate of inflation, federal outlays in 2006 would have been $800 billion lower than they actually were — under, remember, a Republican president and a Republican Congress.

On the other hand, in 1981 federal spending accounted for 22.2 percent of GDP; in 2006 it was 20.3 percent. So the growth in the economy over the last generation has allowed federal spending to soar way beyond the rate of population growth while falling slightly as a portion of GDP. William Voegeli commented on this in The Claremont Review of Books:

This measure hovered in a very narrow band for the whole era, never exceeding 23.5% or falling below 18.4%. Adding expenditures by states and localities confirms the picture of a rugby match between liberals and conservatives that is one interminable scrum in the middle of the field. Spending by all levels of government in America amounted to 31.6% of GDP in 1981, and 31.8% in 2006.

The difficulties Reagan had controlling spending and the growth of government were not lost on conservatives during and immediately after his presidency. The case for disappointment, verging at times on betrayal, was made often while Reagan was in office. For example, the Winter 1984 issue of Policy Review contained a symposium called “What Conservatives Think of Reagan.” Now recall that in early 1984 the Democrats were engaged in a spirited nomination battle to see who could best reestablish old-school liberalism and overthrow the Reagan usurpation. As late as December 1983 some polls found Reagan trailing the putative strongest Democratic challenger, Sen. John Glenn, and it was far from clear that the economic expansion that had shown signs of robustness in 1983 would continue.


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