What Reagan got wrong.

Politics and policy.
June 6 2004 10:16 AM

What Reagan Got Wrong

Liberty is not the absence of government.

"There's a clear cause and effect here that is as neat and predictable as a law of physics: As government expands, liberty contracts."

That was the money quote in Ronald Reagan's farewell address nine days before he left the White House in January 1989. It crystallized his philosophy. I call it Reagan's Law.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

This is what Reagan did best: He clarified the clash of ideas. He forced people to take sides. If you agreed with him, you were conservative. If you didn't, you weren't.

Do you buy Reagan's Law? That depends on two related questions. First, do you define liberty as the right to do things, or the ability to take advantage of that right? If liberty is the right to make a decent living or attend a good school, then getting government out of the way will suffice. But if liberty is the ability to make a decent living or attend a good school, then getting government out of the way isn't enough. In fact, government expansion, in the form of student loans or job training, may be necessary.

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Second, do you view private institutions—businesses, churches, communities, families—more as guardians of liberty or as threats to it? To the extent these institutions serve the individual, getting government out of the workplace (through deregulation) and out of the community (say, by permitting collective school prayer) serves liberty. But to the extent these institutions threaten the individual, liberty may be better served by government expansion, in the form of workplace regulation or injunctions against school prayer.

Reagan saw freedom as a set of legal rights. In his farewell speech, he recalled the unwelcome trend that had drawn him into politics: "Through more and more rules and regulations and confiscatory taxes, the government was taking more of our money, more of our options, and more of our freedom."

Reagan also saw private institutions as guardians of freedom. "Between the government and the individual, there are a great number of natural, voluntary organizations which people form for themselves--like the family, the church, the neighborhood, and the workplace, where people learn, grow, help, and prosper," he opined in one speech. In another, he argued, "We must remove government's smothering hand ... to reinvigorate those social and economic institutions which serve as a buffer and a bridge between the individual and the state."

In the years since Reagan left office, I've become more hawkish and more libertarian. But I still can't accept his narrow understanding of freedom. For too many Americans, captivity is the inability to pay bills, save money, or go to college. For too many, the local tyrant is a company or religious majority. Government can impose worse captivity or become a greater tyrant, but not with the predictability of a law of physics. Liberty doesn't necessarily contract as government expands. Sometimes, you need more government to get more liberty.

So Reagan was wrong. In clarifying his own views, he clarified mine: I'm not a conservative. If he has done the same for you, this would be a good day to thank him.