Reagan: No Revolution

Thursday, September 2, 2010
By Paul Martin

by Jacob H. Huebert

The popular perception is that Ronald Reagan ushered in a “revolution” in government – an essentially libertarian one, in which the federal government was no longer viewed as the solution to problems, but was viewed as itself a problem. This revolution was even seen as outlasting Reagan, reflected in Bill Clinton’s declaration that “the era of big government is over.” Only with the election of Barack Obama, pundits opined, did Americans cast off the anti-government ideology that had held sway since Reagan took office.

This popular perception is wrong. Reagan was no libertarian and did nothing to bolster libertarianism. Instead, he grew government and, if anything, stifled the libertarian movement by bringing libertarians and small-government conservatives into his coalition, getting their votes but giving them practically nothing in return.

First, there are the obvious ways in which Reagan was not a libertarian. His religious-right supporters favored much anti-libertarian moral policing, and Reagan paid them back for their support. Reagan drastically escalated the war on drugs, as the percentage of inmates in federal prison for drug offenses increased from 25 percent to 44 percent during his two terms. And he pursued an interventionist foreign policy by, among other things, putting troops in Lebanon, supporting Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and meddling in Nicaragua in the Iran-Contra matter.

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