8 ways Ronald Reagan was a libertarian

Today is the 10th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s death and many will continue to discuss his legacy. A significant part of that legacy was Reagan’s embrace of many libertarian ideas, which he believed to be fundamentally conservative.

Here are eight instances where Ronald Reagan showed his libertarian colors.

1. He said libertarianism was the heart and soul of conservatism

Like a sir, he did.

“If you analyze it I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism … The basis of conservatism is a desire for less government interference or less centralized authority or more individual freedom and this is a pretty general description also of what libertarianism is.”

2. He told 60 Minutes the same thing

See for yourself:

3. He chose military restraint and diplomacy over costly decade long wars

A George Will column from seven years ago titled “The Real Heroism: Restraint” has an interesting nugget towards the end, a quote of a former Reagan campaign manager and current National Rifle Association President David Keene:

He resorted to military force far less often than many of those who came before him or who have since occupied the Oval Office … After the [1983] assault on the Marine barracks in Lebanon, it was questioning the wisdom of U.S. involvement that led Reagan to withdraw our troops rather than dig in. He found no good strategic reason to give our regional enemies inviting U.S. targets. Can one imagine one of today’s neoconservative absolutists backing away from any fight anywhere?

4. The neoconservatives accused him of being weak and an appeaser, but they were wrong

Norman Podhoretz
Norman Podhoretz in 1971.

W. James Antle III’s article, “When the Right Hated Reagan,” documented various attacks of Reagan’s foreign policy.

Consider this excerpt:

It’s often forgotten that many conservatives once thought Reagan was too soft on foreign policy while in office. Longtime Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz accused Reagan of “appeasement” for withdrawing from Lebanon and not taking a hard enough line against the imposition of martial law in Poland.

“In his first term,” Podhoretz wrote, “Mr. Reagan proved unwilling to take the political risks and expend the political energy that a real break with the underlying assumption of détente would have entailed… overwhelmed by the political present, and perhaps lured by seductive fantasies of what historians in the future might have to say about him as a peacemaker, Mr. Reagan seems ready to embrace the course of détente as wholeheartedly as his own.”

As early as 1982, Podhoretz published in the New York Times “The Neo-Conservative Anguish Over Reagan’s Foreign Policy.” Four years later, he would accuse Reagan of having “shamed himself and the country” with his “craven eagerness” to give away America’s nuclear advantage.

5. He thought the Republican war hawks of his time were crazy

William Buckley Jr., Ronald Reagan, Sam Ervin
William F. Buckley Jr., Ronald Reagan and Sam Ervin.

Reagan said about conservatives who were pushing for war in Nicaragua, including bombing Cuba:

The suggestion ‘scared the shit out of Ronald Reagan,’ according to White House aide Michael Deaver … Reagan never seriously considered sending U.S. troops south of the border, despite demands from conservative intellectuals like Norman Podhoretz and William F. Buckley. “Those sons of bitches won’t be happy until we have 25,000 troops in Managua,” Reagan told chief of staff Kenneth Duberstein near the end of his presidency, “and I’m not going to do it.”

Later on in life, Buckley would admit that some the things he said and thought of Reagan’s foreign policy were wrong.

From the American Conservative:

[A]fter a 40-year friendship, Buckley suddenly realized he had misjudged the man. At National Review’s 30th-anniversay gala in 1985, he toasted the then-president as the consummate cold warrior: “What I said in as many words, dressed up for the party, was that Reagan would, if he had to, pull the nuclear trigger,” writes Buckley. “Twenty years after saying that, in the most exalted circumstance, in the presence of the man I was talking about, I changed my mind.”

6. Unlike like George W. Bush who drastically grew the Department of Education, Reagan wanted to abolish it

Ron Paul criticized the Bush Administration in 2012 for continuing to funnel in more money into the Department of Education, adopting policies like No Child Left Behind. In fact, Paul specifically said that the Bush years had doubled spending in that agency, which Politifact found to be partially true.

APTOPIX Bush Library
Politifact’s verdict:

Paul’s comment to CBS News, reflecting on a shorter period than his 2007 claim, holds up by comparing spending in 2006 and 2001. However, in the last budget adopted when Republicans held full sway, the department’s appropriation was 60 percent higher than in 2001, 36 percent accounting for inflation.

That’s an increase, but not a doubling.

But compare this to Ronald Reagan, who campaigned for the presidency on a platform that abolished the Department of Education. “It used to be the policy of the Republican Party to get rid of the Department of Education. We finally get in charge and a chance to do something so we double the size of the Department of Education,” Paul said at a debate in Iowa back in 2007.

The size of the Education Department almost quadrupled, however, from 1994-2006, increasing from $27-billion to $100-billion.

7. He gave us one of the best and simplest libertarian mantras of all time

“As government expands, liberty contracts.” 

8. And then he gave us another one

“Government is not the solution to our problem, government IS the problem.”


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